Vendetta Ride Myths Wyatt Earp True West Magazine
Sheriff Johnny Behan keeps his posse stocked with cowboys. But even with the help of expert tracker Jack Stilwell, the men are unsuccessful in finding the Earps.

1) Thanks to Hollywood, most people think that the so-called “Vendetta Posse” was assembled after the death of Morgan Earp in March 1882. Wyatt, however, actually gathered his men immediately after the shooting of Virgil Earp, late in December, 1881. The posse acted as bodyguards for the Earps and their families and all were located at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Tombstone. They were riding as federally deputized lawmen in January and February of 1882, well before the killing of Morgan Earp.     

2) Hollywood also claimed that Wyatt Earp only had three or four men with him on the ride. The evidence shows that the posse contained a total of eight men, including Wyatt and Doc.    

3) Wyatt was not the only Earp brother left to ride against the cowboys after Virgil was injured and Morgan was murdered. Youngest brother, Warren Earp was also a member of the posse. Other riders included John “Doc” Holliday, Sherman McMaster, John “Texas Jack” Vermillion, “Turkey Creek Jack” Johnson, Daniel Tipton and O.C. “Charlie” Smith.     

4) The movies would have us believe that Wyatt and his posse killed large numbers of cowboys during their ride, but the facts show that only two men—Frank Stilwell and Florentino Cruz —were probably murdered by the Earp posse. A third victim, “Curly Bill” Brocius, was claimed by Earp and his men, but his body was never found and formally identified. Earp ally Fred Dodge later claimed a fourth victim, Johnny Barnes, was shot with Brocius and died of his wounds. The jury is still out on that one, as Barnes was listed as a member of Cochise County Sheriff John Behan’s posse, which never actually caught up with Earp and his men. Behan’s posse totaled 25 men and included John Ringo and Phin Clanton.

5) Another misconception relates to the killing of Frank Stilwell at the Tucson railyard. Most movies show Wyatt acting alone and killing Stilwell face to face as he tries to grab Wyatt’s gun. Eyewitnesses saw other posse members on the train tracks at the time and recalled several gunshots on the night. The subsequent autopsy proved that Stilwell had been shot multiple times, by different weapons, indicating more than one shooter. Other members of the posse apparently pumped lead into Stilwell, possibly after Wyatt had unloaded his double barrel shotgun at close range.      

6) Earp biographer Stuart Lake claimed that Wyatt gave Florentino Cruz a chance to save his own life in a staged, face-to-face gunfight. The truth of the matter was that Cruz was gunned down as he tried to flee the posse at Pete “Spence” Spencer’s wood camp, where he worked. Several posse members were seen firing from horseback at him as he tried to run away. He died in a hail of bullets.

7) Some authors, including Wyatt, threw Ringo into the mix as another victim of the Vendetta Ride. The evidence, however, shows that Wyatt, Holliday and their friends were located safely in Colorado when Ringo bit the bullet in July 1882. Ringo may have been murdered, but not by the Earp posse.

8) Although never depicted in any movies related to the vendetta, newspapers reported that the Earp posse stopped a train at Dragoon Summit Station in late March 1882 and searched the carriages, probably looking for members of the cow-boy gang trying to flee the area.

9) The 1950s heroic myth of Wyatt and his men cleaning up the wild frontier was not popular in 1882. At the time, Earp and his men were not universally viewed as deputized lawman upholding the law, but rather as vigilantes carrying out personal vengeance. They were actively—albeit ineffectually—pursued by county authorities. It was an unusual scenario that saw the Earp band of federally deputized gunmen being chased around southeast Arizona by a county sheriff and his cow-boy friends—many of whom were would-be targets of the Earp posse.

10) Unlike its portrayal in some movies, the Vendetta Ride was not a quick or successful affair. It commenced with the killing of Stilwell on March 20, 1882, and did not officially finish until the Earp posse rode out of Arizona Territory and arrived in Silver City, New Mexico Territory, on April 15, 1882. The posse had been in the saddle for more than three weeks. Their hardships included a lack of food, water and funds, not to mention the threat of an all-out gun battle with a large cowboy posse. In reality, Earp and his men were happy to leave Arizona Territory and head for safer ground in Colorado.

Earp Exodus

In mid-April 1882, Jack Stilwell arrives in Tombstone and joins a 24-man posse made up of John Ringo, Ike Clanton, Pete Spencer and others to hunt the killers of his brother Frank.

As multiple posses dog their trail, Wyatt Earp and his handpicked avengers decide to make a run for safer climes and head out of Arizona Territory, following the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks into New Mexico Territory.

After an extended stay in Albuquerque, Holliday and Wyatt have a falling out (Doc allegedly called Wyatt a  “Jew Boy,” for having a Jewish girlfriend, Sadie Marcus). The fugitives travel by rail in two groups to Colorado, where Republican connections successfully shield the men from extradition efforts in Arizona Territory.

Peter Brand is a writer and researcher of the American West, who is based in Sydney, Australia. He has written books on the life of Texas Jack Vermillion and on conman Perry Mallon. See for more details.

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