July 26

This Day in History

Old West

Jul 26, 1878:

Officer Wyatt Earp fatally wounds cowboy

Attempting to preserve the peace in Dodge City, Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp trades shots with a band of drunken cowboys, fatally wounding one of them.

Although he ended up on the wrong side of the law later in life, as a young man Wyatt Earp's most consistent occupation was as a lawman. The third of the five brothers in the notorious Earp clan, Wyatt was by far the most famous. He left the family home in California in 1864 and bounced around the west working odd jobs until he landed a position as town constable in Lamar, Missouri. In 1871, the tragic death of his wife and baby daughter in childbirth left him despondent, and he returned to roaming the West. At one point, he even became a horse thief.

After several rough years, Wyatt got his life back on track. In 1873, he began work as a lawman in the rowdy cow town of Wichita, Kansas. He wore out his welcome three years later, however, after losing his temper and beating up a prominent citizen for insulting one of Wyatt's friends. He promptly relocated to Dodge City, Kansas, an even rougher town than Wichita. The Dodge City leaders appreciated Wyatt's experience in makeshift frontier justice and quickly appointed him an assistant marshal.

During the three years Wyatt was a lawman in Dodge City, he generally dealt with troublemakers with his formidable fists or by clobbering them over the head with his pistol, and only resorted to firing his gun during one incident. In the early morning hours of this day in 1878, a small group of drunken cowboys began shooting their guns into the air. Wyatt and another officer came running and attempted to disarm the cowboys peacefully.

Had they been sober, the cowboys probably would have cooperated. The mixture of alcohol and ready guns was dangerous, though, and several of the cowboys drew their pistols and shot at the lawmen. Wyatt and his partner returned the fire, and Wyatt wounded a young Texan named George Hoy in the arm. When the cowboys tried to ride off, Hoy fell from his saddle. The wound became infected, and Hoy died a month later. He was the only man Wyatt killed during his entire time in Dodge City.

In the years to come, Wyatt continued to work sporadically in law enforcement around the West. Following the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, however, Wyatt's desire for revenge led him to commit several killings of highly questionable legality. After that, he never wore a badge again.

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