Letter from Wild West – October 2010

Brothers of All Sorts Made Frontier Marks
The Earps, Youngers and Daltons are among the fraternal favorites

Did brotherhood count for anything in the Wild West? Oh, brother, did it ever. In any who’s who of famous Westerners, brother acts stand out like Siamese twins—from outlaws Frank and Jesse James to lawmen Mike and John Meagher, soldiers George and Tom Custer and scouts Frank and Luther North. The list remains impressive when pared down to fraternal frontier ties of three or more. Consider fur traders Bents (Charles, William, George and Robert) and Sublettes (William, Milton, Andrew, Pinckney, Solomon); fighting Earps (Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, Warren); lawmen Mastersons (Ed, Bat, Jim); outlaws Youngers (Cole, Jim, John, Bob) and Daltons (Grat, Bill, Bob, Emmett); cattlemen Chisums (John, Pitzer, James, Jeff); and rancher-showmen Millers (Joe, George Jr. and Zach).

The Western “Band of Brothers” theme has proved popular in fiction (Louis L’Amour’s Sackett brothers), film (Ride the High Country’s lowlife Hammond brothers) and TV (the Ponderosa’s Cartwright brothers, The Big Valley’s Barkley brothers and the Maverick brothers). In the memorable 1959 Maverick episode “A Fellow’s Brother,” Bret (James Garner) seemingly violates the part of the Code of the West that states, “A fellow’s got to kill the fellow who kills a fellow’s brother.” Bret Maverick is certainly no Wyatt Earp, though Garner has played Wyatt in two Hollywood movies. In both film and real life, Wyatt Earp took that brotherly stuff seriously. First, he fought alongside Virgil and Morgan in the October 1881 gunfight near the O.K. Corral. And then, after the enemy Cowboys, shooting from ambush, wounded Virgil that December and killed Morgan in March 1882, Wyatt went on a vendetta, with some support from brother Warren.

A year ago on these pages, Wyatt Earp biographer Lee Silva wrote about how that favored Earp son overshadowed Virgil. In this issue, Silva showcases the clear No. 3 Earp, Morgan. Mostly a brotherly follower, Morgan did have a stint of his own as a Montana lawman. He also served as a Wells Fargo shotgun messenger in Arizona and as a policeman in Tombstone on his way to becoming a gunfight survivor and then a Cowboy victim. Being the “third Earp” in terms of name recognition isn’t so bad. Morgan is far better known than the youngest of six brothers, Warren, who died in his own shootout in Willcox, Arizona Territory, in 1900, or the non-fighting Earps—half brother Newton, the eldest, and James, a saloon keeper and gambler. The 1881 Tombstone fight was an all-around brotherly affair, what with Morgan, Virgil and Wyatt (had to list Morgan first at least once) getting the better of Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury. Only Doc Holliday showed up at the vacant lot that fateful fall day sans supportive sibling.

If the McLaury brothers had a bad day in Tombstone (both were killed), what would you call the Dalton brothers’ day in Coffeyville 11 years later? In a failed double bank robbery attempt, Bob and Grat Dalton died in a hail of bullets while teenager Emmett Dalton survived by a doctor’s thread. A fourth brother, Bill, wasn’t at Coffeyville on October 5, 1892, but he also turned to outlawry and was shot down by peace officers less than two years later. Ironically, eldest brother Frank had served as an upstanding deputy U.S. marshal, killed in the line of duty back in 1887.

Fraternal failure was equally evident at Northfield in September 1876 when two James brothers and three Younger brothers (Pinkertons had killed John earlier) were part of a failed eight-man bank raid. In the aftermath, Frank and Jesse cut out to temporary safety, but the shot-up Younger trio went to prison. Bob died there, and Jim killed himself after his release in the 20th century. Cole Younger and Frank James later teamed up for a showbiz act, but it didn’t last long. There is no truth to the rumor that it died due to lack of brotherly support.

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