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Old West Characters, Iowa Roots
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Old West Characters, Iowa Roots

When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Tombstone. Starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, the movie interprets the historical event that was the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s full of real-life lawmen, gamblers, and gunfighters, like Earp and his brothers-- Doc Holliday, and Frank and Tom McLaury, among others. I could quote every line, from every character, and I was particularly proud of my Doc Holliday impression.

Recently, while channel surfing on a lazy weekend afternoon, I caught a few minutes of Tombstone on AMC. I hadn’t seen it since the Clinton Administration, so I laughed at my ability to jump in and recite the dialogue along with the characters. It was still there, burned into my memory like the Pledge of Allegiance. My Doc Holliday impression had deteriorated, but maybe that’s for the best.

As fond of it as I am, I have to point out that Tombstone makes little mention of what is, inarguably, the most interesting fact about Wyatt Earp: He grew up in Iowa. Wyatt was born in Monmouth, Illinois, but he and his family lived in Pella from 1850 until 1864, when they left for California.

Devotees of Pella’s Tulip Time Festival likely know that not only is one of the Earp homes still standing today, it is open to visitors of Pella’s Historical Village. It’s a must-see for those who are interested in the history of Wyatt Earp and the Old West. To tour the Historical Village is to take a step back in time, and there’s plenty to see in addition to the Wyatt Earp House.

Here’s another tidbit of authentic character background that Tombstone doesn’t mention: Tom and Frank McLaury, killed by the Earps and Doc Holliday in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, also grew up in Iowa. The McLaury Brothers lived in Benton and Buchanan County for over 20 years before eventually settling down, permanently, in Tombstone’s Boothill Graveyard.

The McLaury Brothers aren’t the only “bad guys” with Iowa roots to be portrayed on screen. Ellis Albert “Al” Swearengen, born in Oskaloosa, is depicted as a villainous saloon owner in HBO’s Deadwood, and played—brilliantly—by Ian McShane. The character is so compelling that McShane won a Best Actor Golden Globe for the role. The real Al Swearengen died in Denver, but was brought back to Oskaloosa for his burial.

One last Old West character with an Iowa connection: William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, born in Le Claire in 1846. Cody held many occupations in his lifetime but was famous, in both the United States and Europe, as a Wild West showman. Another one of the “good guys,” Cody’s prominent place in the Old West Era is celebrated and documented at the Buffalo Bill Cody Homestead, in Princeton, and at the nearby Buffalo Bill Museum and River Pilots’ Pier in Le Claire. They are both interesting and inexpensive ways to get out and learn more about one of the Old West’s—and Iowa’s—most captivating figures.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to note that the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, in Winterset, is yet another nod toward Iowa’s links to Old West culture. While not a real-life lawman, outlaw, or cowboy himself, Wayne had memorable movie roles in more than 80 Westerns. Not too shabby.

For more information about Iowa's Old West characters, saddle up and ride on over to these grand museums. Happy trails!

Leave a Comment

  1. Travel Iowa Team
    Travel Iowa Team
    Fascinating stuff! Thanks for this terrific post, Jim. We hope to read more from you soon!
    Log in to reply.
    1. Jim Schneider
      Jim Schneider
      Log in to reply.


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