The Eastern Earps

The man who famously helped tame the West has a couple of descendants in Maryland.

May 10, 2005|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,SUN STAFF

To lovers of Wild West folklore, he's Wyatt Earp - lawman, saloonkeeper, gambler, quick-triggered centerpiece of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral.

To Charles Earp Jr. of Catonsville and Pamela Earp Young of Ellicott City, he's cousin Wyatt.

That the man who almost single-handedly defines the Wild West would have a couple of relatives in Maryland - and that those relatives would meet by coincidence - is perhaps not as far afield as it might seem.

As it turns out, the Earp clan got its start in the United States when Thomas Earp Jr. of Ireland came to the Baltimore area in the 17th century as an indentured servant.

Young, director of marketing at Erickson Health, met Earp several weeks ago when he was recovering from a medical condition at the rehabilitation center at Charlestown Retirement Community, where he has lived for four years and which is owned by Erickson.

"The best part for me is that I've located an Earp cousin who is such an interesting octogenarian," said Young of her relative, who is 88. "He's done so much research on the Earp family, and he connected me to a history that my brother and I have talked about all our lives."

Their meeting has given Earp, the last living member of his family line, an opportunity to share history with a nearby relative.

The man who earned a history degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1938 has been tracking Wyatt Earp's background for more than 50 years, which has given him a sense of familiarity: Charles Earp refers to his distant cousin on a first-name basis and tells Wyatt's story the way older relatives pass down family history to the younger generation.

"Wyatt was born in Monmouth, Ill., and the family migrated to Iowa during the Civil War period," he said. "He tried to enlist, but he was only 13 years old and it happened that his father was the recruiting officer, so as soon as he saw Wyatt show up, he took him by the scruff of his neck and took him home. So he stayed on the family farm during the war."

While tracing Earp genealogy, he discovered that the family's American history dates to July 6, 1674, when indentured servant Thomas Earp Jr. came to Anne Arundel County from Ireland. He is buried in St. Anne's Parish in Annapolis.

And although Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois in 1848 and spent most of his life west of the Mississippi River, his great grandfather Philip was born in 1755 in Frederick County.

A shared history

Charles Earp shared his genealogical information with Young, who had grown up hearing stories about her family's connection to Wyatt Earp.

Her sole proof had been her family's genealogy handwritten in a Bible that had been passed down for generations.

Earp helped Young trace the names in the Bible all the way down to her father - former Washington-area radio announcer and off-Broadway actor Shelton Earp Jr.

"Growing up, my father always told us that we were related to Wyatt Earp and that his grandfather said he was first cousins to Wyatt Earp," Young said. "I didn't have any confirmation until now."

Imagine naming among your kinfolk an historical icon, someone whose fame has grown to mythical proportions and who helped spawn the country's fascination with cowboys, frontiersmen and gun-blazing confrontations in saloons of two-horse towns.

Young and Earp are grateful that the stories they heard as youngsters turned out to be true - particularly at a time when there is renewed interest in Wyatt Earp.

Charles Earp can remember when his cousin's legend had all but disappeared from the American landscape, only to be revived repeatedly by Hollywood: first with the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which starred Hugh O'Brian and debuted Sept. 6, 1955 (making it the first TV Western geared to adults, beating Gunsmoke by four days), and more recently with the 1993 movie Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Earp, and the 1994 film Wyatt Earp, which starred Kevin Costner.

"My name used to be hard to catch or to spell," said Earp, "but since Wyatt's name came to fame again due to the movies, the minute I say my name's Earp ... the standard question is, `Are you related to Wyatt?' and they're surprised when I say, `Yes.'"

Charles Earp is among several family members who have traced the family history. His research helped two Earp descendents - Irmalee Earp Williams of Bumpass, Va., and Sharron Spencer of Grapevine, Texas - during their 10 years of tracing family history.

Their efforts led to the 2000 book The Earp Family in America.

Williams said their findings were confirmed by archivists. "We gotten a lot of our family lines," she said, "but it's almost impossible to get all of them."

Still, she and Spencer culled enough background on their famous cousin to dedicate a chapter to him.

Our Cousin: Wyatt Earp tells of a free spirit whose father taught him and his siblings to be disciplined and tough.

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