Wyatt Earp’s Cow-boy Campaign: The Bloody Restoration of Law and Order Along the Mexican Border, 1882, by Chuck Hornung, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 2016, $39.95
In 2001 author Chuck Hornung was leafing through a copy of Miguel Antonio Otero Jr.’s My Nine Years as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1897–1906 that he’d purchased at an Albuquerque flea market when he discovered an undated and unsigned carbon copy of a letter. The “Otero Letter,” which contains information about the time Wyatt Earp’s “vendetta posse” spent in Albuquerque after leaving Arizona Territory in the spring of 1882, has been the subject of debate about its authenticity and historical value ever since. Part 3 of Hornung’s latest book analyzes every line in the letter, which makes for fascinating reading no matter what one thinks of Earp and all that killing business in and around Tombstone. “I believe,” writes Hornung, “the Otero Letter has provided the tools to perceive the master design behind Wyatt Earp’s Cow-boy Campaign, often misnamed as Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride.…Deputy United States Marshal Wyatt Earp and his federal strike force enjoyed massive and powerful backing to seek out and destroy the Cow-boy menace that caused mayhem along the United States–Mexico border in the late 1870s and early 1880s.”
Parts 1 and 2 of Hornung’s book—”Frontier Paladins and Some Jokers” and “The Lion of Tombstone”—go over well-covered ground about the myths and legends surrounding Earp and the Cochise County war with the Cowboys (think Clantons, McLaurys, Curly Bill Brocius and John Ringo). It wasn’t Hornung’s intention to do an in-depth review of the Tombstone saga, which would have made the book three times as long. But his informative time line (which includes weather reports and personal comments labeled “Author’s Perspective”) sets the stage for the lesser-known story of the Earp posse’s stint in New Mexico Territory and Hornung’s careful scrutiny of the letter.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp’s campaign against the Cowboys, following the crippling of his brother Virgil and murder of his brother Morgan, has been called “extralegal” at best. In a half-dozen firefights (notably Wyatt’s “one-man” stand at Iron Springs) Earp and posse killed many (exact number unknown) Cowboys and delivered what Hornung calls “an enormous psychological blow.” The author argues Wyatt had the support of political (Republican Party) and financial (Wells Fargo and railroad) figures, who either spoke up for him publicly or else worked quietly behind the scenes to protect the men who had conducted the deadly but crucial mission. Among those supporters was Otero, and one of the lines in the letter (addressed to “Dear Old Friend”) he supposedly wrote states, “Father sent me to see to the comfort of the Earp posse, because his railroad supported the boys.” The letter goes on to say that Wells Fargo “arranged safety in Colorado,” and the Santa Fe Railway “gave them passage to Trinidad [Colo.].”
Other authors have noted that before moving on to Colorado, Wyatt and friend Doc Holliday had a rift in Albuquerque, and the Otero Letter gives a reason for their falling out: “They were eating when Holliday said something about Earp being a Jew boy. Something like [italics added] Wyatt are you becoming a damn Jew boy? Earp became angry and left. Charlie [identity uncertain] said that Holliday knew he had said it wrong, he never saw them together again.” The Otero Letter also shares a reported revelation about Josie Marcus not mentioned by Stuart N. Lake in his Earp biography nine years earlier—”Earp’s woman was a Jewess.”
Hornung has much to say about religion and about why it was hardly strange no one has found a marriage certificate for Wyatt and Josie. What’s more, he argues that Earp and a new, well-supported posse returned to Arizona Territory from Colorado and assassinated John Ringo (which others say was a suicide). The debate on that point continues, as it does with so many other Tombstone saga matters. No doubt the Otero Letter, though it does seem to clarify a few points and is a wonderful find (if it is indeed the real thing), will only add a few pieces to the fascinating puzzle.