Why legendary Old West lawman Virgil Earp is buried in Oregon
Retired marshal of Tombstone, Ariz., had only visited Portland once. But his connection to his daughter, Nellie Jane Bertrand, proved to be a strong one.
By Finn J.D. John — September 27, 2010
Portland’s Riverview Cemetery is the state’s oldest nonprofit cemetery, dating back to 1882. It’s full of stones with names on them that will be familiar to any local resident: Corbett, Weinhard, Ladd. Legendary suffragist Abigail Scott Dunaway and her brother, Harvey Scott, the fiercely anti-suffrage editor of the Portland Oregonian, are also buried here.
Oh, and then there’s Virgil Earp.
Earp, of course, is the brother of Wyatt Earp, the other of the two marshals who famously cleaned up Tombstone, Ariz., in the battle at the O.K. Corral.
What is Virgil Earp doing buried in Portland, a city he’d been in (so far as we know) only once in his life?
That’s what Oregon pop historian Ralph Friedman wanted to know after he learned of the lawman’s presence there. Here’s what he learned from his research:
Virgil's early life: Married, and then not
Virgil, born in 1843, got married to a woman named Ellen when he was very young. Still, the couple had time to produce just one child — a girl, Nellie Jane — before the Civil War broke out and Earp went off to fight in the Union army.
During the war, Earp was shot and wounded. A report came back to Ellen that he was dead. Considering herself a widow, she remarried and moved to Oregon in 1864.
When Earp was discharged from the Army the following year, he found the burden of his domestic obligations had been lifted. So he went west and became, with his brother, a legend of frontier peacekeeping.
Life as a frontier lawman
In this clip, Ike Clanton of The Haunted Saloon Internet TV show
interviews Tim Fattig, author of Wyatt Earp: The Biography, about
the shooting of Virgil Earp.
Exciting and rewarding as it was, the position of Wild West frontier cop was not a job a fellow can expect to retire in. Earp himself made it about 15 years before he was forced into retirement by gunfire.
In his role as Tombstone’s town marshal, Earp caught a bullet in his leg in 1881 at the O.K. Corral and the following year was ambushed by outlaws as he walked past a lighted window. This last incident ended his career in law enforcement, as two loads of buckshot tore into him, one ripping a hole in his side and another permanently ruining one of his arms.
Virgil's daughter catches up with him
Earp went to convalesce in California. He later moved back to Arizona, and it was there, in Prescott, that his daughter, Nellie Jane, found him. They started writing to each other frequently. He’d remarried — to a woman named Allie Stevenson, whom he had apparently met in California — but she doesn’t much come into the Portland story.
Virgil's only visit to Oregon (before his death)
Then, in 1899, one of Nellie Jane’s daughters came down with pneumonia, and Earp came out to be at his granddaughter’s bedside. He was there for two weeks — making a big impression on his grandson, George Law, whom historian Friedman actually tracked down and interviewed in 1976 when he was 90 years old. “A powerful big man,” Law told Friedman. “He wasn’t fat; he was broad-shouldered. His right arm hung like a rag.”
Telegram: Come get Virgil's body
Six years after that visit, Earp died at the age of 62 while pursuing a gold-mining opportunity with Wyatt in Goldfield, Nevada. Allie, Virgil’s widow, sent a telegram to Nellie Jane: If she, Virgil’s only child, wanted his body, she’d have to come and get it, because his brother Wyatt was claiming it.
Nellie Jane’s son-in-law, Alex Bertrand, immediately went to Nevada and retrieved the casket.
Buried in the in-laws' family plot
Which is why you will find Virgil Earp buried in the Bertrand family plot at Riverview Cemetery, in a city he’d never lived in and only visited once. But the Oregon roots of his daughter and grandchildren were strong and deep. And the places Earp had lived, except maybe California, hadn’t been particularly kind; he’d been shot at least three times, had been through the most unrelentingly awful war in American history and had died at a fairly young age.
After such a wild and restless life, it’s a real poetic justice that his bones are resting in a place where he’s never had to shoot at anyone, surrounded by family and friends. After all, it’s that kind of peace that a good lawman like Virgil Earp fights to bring about.
(Sources: Friedman, Ralph. Tracking Down Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1990; www.riverviewcemetery.org. Randol Fletcher's book, Hidden History of Civil War Oregon (History Press, 2011), published after this article was written, also deals extensively with Virgil Earp's legacy in Oregon.)