Make the McKenzie Connection!

Why legendary lawman Virgil Earp is buried in Portland

Continued From Last Week

Virgil settled down in Colton with Allie and tried to put down roots. He worked security for Wells Fargo & Co. — using a top-break revolver that he could reload one-handed — and opened a detective agency. Later he served as town constable and became famous for his even temper and his ability to de-escalate potentially deadly situations. His favorite less-than-lethal law enforcement technique, when force had to be used, was “buffaloing” — that is, pistol-whipping — unruly suspects.

After the “vendetta ride,” Wyatt joined Virgil, and the two of them started following mining strikes around California and Nevada, opening saloons and gambling houses, promoting boxing matches, and engaging in similar “sin industry” entrepreneurship. They went back to Prescott in the mid-1890s to work a silver mine, and Virgil was nearly killed in a mineshaft cave-in; the injuries he suffered would eventually team up with a bad case of pneumonia to kill him.

But before they did, the shock of his life — and quite possibly the luckiest break he ever caught — came his way in the mail, with the name “Mrs. Levi Law” written above the return address.

Mrs. Levi Law, it turned out, was none other than Nellie Jane Earp — the baby girl who had been born to Virgil’s first wife, Ellen, while he was away fighting the Civil War. She had grown up in Portland, reading all about the exploits of her famous long-lost father in newspapers, and had finally gathered up the courage to reach out.

The following year, encouraged by Allie, Virgil journeyed to Portland to reconnect with his family.

He had an extremely pleasant visit with his former childhood bride, got to know his lost daughter, and met several darling grandchildren.

He made an especially big impression on his grandson, George Law, whom legendary pop historian Ralph Friedman 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 (left) arm hung like a rag.”

Virgil was still fairly young in 1899 — still in his 50s. But he was worn out. He had lived a hard life; but as a law officer, he had taken on those risks intending to create the kind of country that his little family could thrive and be safe in. What he found in Portland had to have melted his crusty-old-gunfighter heart. He and Allie had never had children, whether by choice or by chance. Maybe he felt bad about that. But now it was as if a whole family had just materialized out of the clear blue sky to take him in, just as his clockwork was starting to wind down.

All too soon, the visit was over, and Virgil headed back east to the latest mining-country boomtown that he and Wyatt were working: Goldfield, Nevada (this was just a year or two before legendary Portland shanghaier and all-around high-society bad guy Larry Sullivan came to Goldfield, by the way; the two likely never met.)

When, in 1905, the old law dog finally succumbed to a stubborn case of pneumonia, grown-up Baby Nellie asked Allie if she could lay her almost-lost father to rest close by the family he always deserved but never knew he had. Allie, who seems to have been an absolute saint, readily agreed. So Virgil’s grandson-in-law, Alex Bertrand, promptly journeyed to Nevada and brought the body back to Portland, where he was laid to rest in River View Cemetery, in the family plot, close by the cold clay that once was the cream of old Oregon’s frontier elite.

And that 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 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 or “buffalo” anyone, close by the graves of his childhood wife and daughter, surrounded by family and friends.

So, next time you’re up in Portland with a little time to stroll through Riverview Cemetery, you might consider stopping by Virgil’s gravesite to whisper, “Welcome home, old man; we’re glad you made it.” You know, just in case his restless spirit is still abroad.

But I’m betting it’s not, and that it’s resting peacefully in the bosom of his once-lost family.

(Sources: Hidden History of Civil War Oregon, a book by Randol Fletcher published in 2011 by The History Press; Tracking Down Oregon, a book by Ralph Friedman published in 1990 by Caxton Press; “Virgil Earp: In a Brother’s Shadow,” an article by Lee A. Silva published in the March 2018 issue of Wild West magazine; “Virgil Earp,” an article by Kathy Alexander published in November 2022 on the Legends of America Website; “The True Hero Named Earp is a Permanent Portland Resident,” an article by Bill Gallagher published Oct. 2, 2019, in Southwest Connection)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His most recent book, Bad Ideas and Horrible People of Old Oregon, was published by Ouragan House early this year. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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