Genealogy and the Victorian era are two of the drawing cards that pulled North Carolina writer Sherry Monahan deep into the history of the American West. She not only researches and writes about the region but also owns property in Tombstone, Arizona, and in June 2014 will take over as president of Western Writers of America. Among her favorite writing topics are frontier vice, gambling, libations and food. She reveals the Earp family women in her latest book, fittingly titled Mrs. Earp: The Wives and Lovers of the Earp Brothers (see review). The Mrs. Earp sisterhood, according to Monahan, includes Aurilla, Sarah, Celia Ann, Josephine, Magdalena, Rozilla, Alvira, Louisa, Bessie and Kate. Monahan’s interest in Tombstone prompted her 2008 book Taste of Tombstone: A Hearty Helping of History. Further no doubt enjoyable research led to her 2013 book California Vines, Wines and Pioneers, and she demonstrated how to deal faro in Cowboys & Outlaws, a Western docudrama that won a National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Wrangler Award in 2010. She recently spoke with Wild West about writing and the frontier.
What are common misconceptions about frontier life?
I think people imagine the frontier with cowboys eating chuck wagon grub and Indians scalping everyone. There was so much more to it. It was the Victorian era, and pioneers from the East headed west seeking their fortunes or escaping their past. Those Victorians wore suits and dresses, knew proper etiquette and ate all types of food. Classic French food was all the rage in the late 1800s, and that was the trend all over the West. It did vary just how fancy things were depending upon your location. Big cities like Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone and Denver had all these things, but on the remote plains living was much more basic.
Were folks in places like Tombstone living well or just getting by?
Many pioneers did live high on the hog, but like today there was a wealthy class, a middle class and a poor class. The investors and saloonkeepers did quite well, but the miners toiled underground for a mere $3 to $4 per day.
What were among the most popular frontier drinks?
Well, again, the bigger the town, the more options. Despite Hollywood’s image of whiskey shots being the norm, they were not. Men drank champagne flips, mint juleps, whiskey cocktails and other highballs. Beer like Guinness and Budweiser were popular, as was locally made brew. By the late 1800s California’s wine was gaining popularity and was shipped all over America.
What prompted the cultivation of vineyards in California?
Franciscan missionaries planted the first grapes in the 1700s, but their wine wasn’t that palatable. It’s known as Mission grape wine today and was sweet and musty. It wasn’t until the Gold Rush all that changed. Thousands of European immigrants in California with little or no money began farming. They planted grapes from cuttings they brought with them and made wine for themselves. They couldn’t palate the Mission wine, and neither could many new residents. Once the pioneers realized that Napa’s and Sonoma’s (and others’) growing areas were similar to Europe, the California wine business blossomed.
Who were among the pioneers of the California wine industry?
Well, there’s Agoston Haraszthy, who was from Hungary. In the 1850s he received plantings from Hungary, including Zinfandel. He also realized the vines could survive without irrigation. He disappeared in Nicaragua when crossing a stream infested with crocodiles. There was also the Pellier family, from France, which is now Mirassou Winery. They brought French vine clippings and stuck them in potatoes to preserve them during the ship journey to America.
What was the inspiration for Mrs. Earp?
A panel at a Western Writers of America convention. I sat in on a panel of how to write popular nonfiction. I listened to New York Times best-selling authors Hampton Sides and Chris Enss and James Donovan talking about how they chose their subjects. It was Hampton Sides who fired up my little gray cells. He said, “Pick a famous historical character and tell their story from a new angle.” As I sat there, my mind racing through ideas, the rest of the panel conversation faded. I thought about all the books I’d written and kept coming back to Tombstone. I knew so much about the town, but what about its most famous resident, Wyatt Earp? Nope, didn’t want to do that story—but wait, what about his wives? What about all the Earp wives? No one had done that story before, and I never looked back. I put my writing and professional genealogy skills to work and dug in, and as the French say, “Voila!”
Which of the Earp women intrigues you the most?
Allie [Alvira] Earp. Her life was one of the most tragic. She lost her mother and father at the age of 9, and she and her siblings were adopted by local families. They were all split up, and Allie bounced from one family to another because of her straight talk. She only ever met up with her oldest sister, whom she lived with when she was 16. From what I could learn, she never became a prostitute but worked as a waitress. Despite a tough childhood Allie always found ways to laugh and love. Besides, who doesn’t love a little old lady with a boot flask?
In what ways are the Earp women misunderstood?
I think most believe, mainly because of the movies, that all the women were prostitutes and unmannered. Some were soiled doves, but not all of them. They followed their men around from town to town, cooked their meals, sewed their clothes, cleaned their houses and did many other Victorian housewife things.
You wrote relatively little about the Earp men. Why?
That’s a tough field, and so many others have already written about them. I don’t think there’s anything significant I could add. I think the Mrs. Earp book helps shine a different light on them. They may have been the “famous” Earps, but they were also husbands.
Did the Earp brothers marry the women they pursued?
There’s only proof that three of the 11 “wives” were legally married to the brothers. Oddly enough, those three women are mysteries—Aurilla Sutherland, Wyatt’s first; Rozilla Dragoo, Virgil’s second; and Kate Sanford, Warren’s one and only.
Does writing about the Earps ever feel like a stroll through a minefield?
Oh yeah. So many people are experts, and every detail is scrutinized. That’s why I approached the research for this book as a genealogist.
How did genealogy change your approach?
In genealogy you verify facts using two different sources. If you can do that, then it’s safe to assume the info is accurate. I also tried to verify facts of what others said about the Earps. If I could verify it, then it must be correct. If not, well, then there is doubt. A reviewer dinged me for being so factual in the book, but if he only knew about this field, he would understand.
What’s your opinion on the state of Western literature?
I noticed bookstores don’t shelve books like mine in the Western section. I’ve found mine in the history section, which is fine, but that makes it seem like Western subject books are not popular. I think that’s because readers think all Westerns are cowboys and Indians, like Louis L’Amour. They’re not, and there are some really good authors out there.
Would you name a few whom readers should be following?
Chris Enss has some great “shorts,” as she calls them, about all sorts of Western history. James Donovan, Will Bagley, Robert Utley, Bill Groneman…and Candy Moulton!