Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction

Unearthing Wyatt Earp’s revolver

This gun was a gift to Wyatt Earp from the Citizens Committee of Nome, Alaska.

A gun that once belonged to Wyatt Earp sold for $35,000 at an auction held by the city of Harrisburg, Pa., in July. The label on the gun’s grip reads: “To Wyatt Earp, Welcome From the Citizens Committee of Nome.”

Wyatt moved to Nome, Alaska, in 1897 at the height of a gold rush. While there, he co-owned the very profitable Dexter Saloon, which some say housed a brothel upstairs. When he left Alaska for good in 1901, he had made $80,000, a staggering sum of money at the time.

The auction house had expected the gun to sell for around $1,600. I looked through the various history books on my shelf but could not find any mention of it, which made me wonder just how valuable it was to Wyatt.

Then I found a photo online of the note written when the gun changed hands in 1993, which raises some intriguing questions of its own. I interpreted the handwriting as best I could:

In 1964 I was in Anchorage as a bodyguard for a well-known New York-connected family. After the big earthquake that leveled Anchorage, I was cleaning up one of the hotel bars owned by my boss. In a back room where a wall had fallen in was an old steamer truck with a shipping label to San Francisco. This W. Earp Colt was inside. I spirited it away.

I am now selling it to Joe Wyman for a car and cash [with] the stipulation that he can’t dispose of it publicly until after my demise. I hope that is in the year 2070. Joe knows me well but for obvious reasons I am only signing my first name.

While they were living in Alaska, Wyatt and his wife Sadie typically spent the winters in San Francisco or Seattle. Did the trunk never make it on one of those trips, or was that an old shipping label and the trunk got left behind in 1901? And had it really sat unnoticed in a back room for 60-plus years?

Nome, Alaska, in 1900. The Dexter Saloon at left was owned by Wyatt Earp.
Nome, Alaska, in 1900. The Dexter Saloon at left was owned by Wyatt Earp.

Despite his interest in profitable ventures of all kinds, Wyatt was not a particularly materialistic man, and his disinterest in staying put for long means he likely left various possessions behind every time he took off for a new boomtown. I’m assuming he never went to great pains to get the trunk back, and maybe the gun was just for show anyway.

And in case you’re wondering, the guns used by the Earps and Doc Holliday in the O.K. Corral gunfight were never identified. Frank McLaury’s and Billy Clanton’s six-shooters, though identified by their serial numbers during a hearing after the gunfight, have since disappeared. As writer Casey Tefertiller said, “It did not seem like a big deal at the time. Nobody thought folks would be talking about it a century later.”


Harrisburg also auctioned off a sword cane that Doc Holliday left behind when he checked out of the Dodge House hotel in Dodge City, Kansas, in October 1878. The hotel sold it to Michael Sutton for $4 in January 1879. Sutton’s grandson sold it for $450 in 1955. And in July 2013, it went for $15,000.

The 1964 earthquake was the largest ever recorded in North America and the second largest in the world. According to Wikipedia, “the entire planet vibrated as a result of the quake, [and] minor effects were felt worldwide. Several fishing boats were sunk in Louisiana, and water sloshed in wells in Africa.” The aftershocks continued for a year.

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