Thursday, December 10, 2009
From Barkerville: Wyatt Earp - a Cariboo miner’s avenger
When Tombstone’s Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and cohorts gunned down Frank Stilwell at the Tucson trail station in March 1882 they were avenging not only Wyatt’s brother Morgan but also Williams Creek, Cariboo miner Col. John Van Houten. Was Earp aware of his role? Who knows - but it seems likely.
Van Houten’s story and the Cariboo/Tombstone connection begins in Victoria, B.C., 1861. Our story of finding the Houten, Stilwell, Earp connection begins in Tombstone, October 2009.
Our story is relatively simple. Amy Newman and I operate the Theatre Royal, Barkerville in the gold fields of British Columbia. While combining some time in the sun with theatre research we were taken with the town of Tombstone, Arizona. Unless you are completely out of touch with western history you know that the often told and much repeated Gunfight at OK Corral occurred here. Well, not actually in the corral, but an alley really.
As historical theatre producers for the Theatre Royal, Barkerville, what intrigued us was the authenticity, and in some cases the histrionics, the theatrical aspect and the fact that visitors were learning while enjoying themselves here. The town offers everything from hard rock mining tours, stagecoach rides and the Bird Cage Theatre, through the gunfights and a shooting gallery to restaurants like the Nellie Cashman house (a Cassiar miner buried in Victoria) to western art galleries. It was an interesting blend of history and the entrepreneurial spirit.
“What we need,” I tossed off lightly, “is to find that the Earps and Doc Holliday traveled to Barkerville. That would make a good link for our American neighbours.” In general what I meant was that we needed to show connections between the gold and silver rushes that took place in North American between the California Rush of 1849, the Fraser and Cariboo from 1858-1862, and the rushes to Deadwood, Dakota and Arizona in the 1870s. It is clear that many of the men and women involved traveled from one to the other. The glint of gold in my research pan came when I returned home and spent several hours with newspapers and databases. There was a direct connection – a connection separated by only one man and three years.
The rush 1879 to Goose Flats began with Ed Schieffelin, an Army scout at nearby Fort Huachuca. In his spare time he prospected the surrounding hills. He was told that the only rock he would find would be his tombstone. Schieffelin had, like so many miners, been wandering the usual route from Nevada to California, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It is a long story but in 1879 he found a silver vein here in the heart of Apache country that led to the founding of several mines. Once again the rush was on – to Tombstone.
Fortune seekers and roughnecks poured in from mining camps and cities all over the west. The two Stilwell brothers, for instance, came from Iowa. Jack was an Army scout and young Frank was a labourer, with a pathological streak of violence. And from somewhere in British Columbia or the US, former Cariboo miner and Victoria, B.C. merchant Colonel John Van Houten also rushed to Goose Flats, and his death.
Van Houten enters our story in Victoria B.C. in 1861 with a notice of bankruptcy. John Van Houten ran a butcher shop at Government and Johnson Streets but clearly business, or his management, was poor and on March 21 a notice appeared in the British Colonist that Van Houten was dissolving his business.
By the following summer Van Houten was on the Cariboo’s Williams Creek and purchased his mining license #9524 on July 13, 1862. At this time the gold producing claims were focused at the headwaters, around Richfield. Billy Barker and John A. Cameron had not yet hit the lead and the famous Barkerville, downstream below a small canyon, was a year from its birth and two years from being named.
This mining license is the only record found. Barkerville curator Bill Quackenbush did some further checking and wrote: “The name Houten was checked … nothing directly associated [other than the mining license]. I tried Hooten and Hooton and found references to these names … but not the one you are looking for. The Hooten and Hooton names were all 20th century.”
Van Houten left the Cariboo and next surfaced in the U.S. in 1864 where his son Charles was born. John had married Mary, a Scot, about a year earlier but we have no place for neither the marriage nor birth, nor for his next three children – all born in the U.S.
In the mid 1870s the family moved to Nanaimo, B.C. though again the date is vague. We do know that in 1878 or 1879 he was caught up in the rush to Goose Flats where Schieffelin had struck silver, left his family in Nanaimo and headed for the desert. Once there he somehow became interested in the infamous Brunckow Mine.
Fredrick Brunckow, a graduate of the University of Westphalia, Germany, scholar and scientist, had opened this mine. Van Houten too was a German. Although it is also unclear where he came by his rank of Colonel it predates the civil war, so may have come from his native Germany and we could conjecture that they knew each other - except Brunckow had been killed in 1860 by his workers who ran him through with a drill steel and threw him down a well. Two other Anglos were also found dead in the now famously haunted Brunckow cabin. (It was this cabin that Schieffelin used as a base for his prospecting.)
The person to report these deaths was one William Williams. There were three men by that name in the Cariboo goldfields. One was a rough character that regularly beat women and spent some time in the B.C. penitentiary. Is there a connection? Who knows?
The Brunckow mine was beginning to gather a dark history of death. Reportedly 24 men have been killed there. Somehow Houten became involved in the mine when attempting to locate a claim. It was a rough time in the territory. Men were desperate for wealth. Claims were jumped, bodies found and the Apaches blamed. Violence stalked the land like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.
On November 9th , 1879 Col. John Van Houten had a run-in with some miners or claim jumpers. What precipitated the disagreement is lost, but Van Houten was brutally beaten in the face with a rock until he died. Two men were charged with the murder, James Cassidy and Frank Stilwell. They were acquitted, but the charge hung on them like a funeral shroud. (Somehow the Victoria, B.C. based British Colonist got word of the story, so it seems likely some other British Columbians were in Tombstone.)
Stilwell had come to the area with his brother “Commanche Jack” Stilwell in 1877. By some accounts Tom Horn accompanied them. Horn was later hung for murder while acting as a rancher’s enforcer. For a while Stilwell worked as a miner and teamster. As soon as he arrived he killed a Mexican cook named Jesus Bega, supposedly over a cup of coffee. He was acquitted.
In the meantime justice had ridden into Tombstone. The third group in our Greek tragedy arrived in Tombstone by wagon on Dec. 1st, 1879, just short weeks after the death of Houten. Accompanied by their wives and common-law wives, James, Virgil and Wyatt Earp entered stage right. Their older brother Morgan followed a few months later.
There can be little doubt that the Earps heard of the Van Houten. The brutal killing was just a month earlier and there had been a trial. Certainly they quickly found out who Frank Stilwell was, as he stalked the Earps like a murderous carrion raven.
However, Stilwell, with two murder charges, rumours of robbing stagecoaches and as a known cattle rustler with the Clanton gang, inexplicably seemed like the ideal candidate for a law officer. In 1881 Cochise Country Sheriff Johnny Behan (a cow-boy apologist and supporter) appointed him deputy sheriff. But the tragedy’s first episode was over. All the participants had made their entrance when in October 1880 Virgil Earp was appointed Tombstone city marshall. Wyatt had previously been a lawman in Dodge City and he and Morgan were recruited as “special deputy policemen.” Further, their friend Doc (James Henry) Holliday, the consumptive dentist, a gambler and a man handy with guns, rode in from the shimmering desert heat.
In a new scene Frank Stilwell, just after being fired as deputy sheriff, and Pete Spence, a Bisbee saloon owner, robbed the Tombstone-Bisbee stage of $3000, September 8, 1881. They were arrested by Virgil Earp, but once again acquitted.
The Earp/Holliday faction now had several run-ins with a group of cattle-rustling toughs locally referred to as cow-boys. They centered around two families, the Clantons and McLaurys, and were led by Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brochius. Frank Stilwell was one of this gang. Not an insignificant factor is that the Earp side was northerners and the cow-boys southerners. (Even today there is a small confederate flag on Ike Clanton’s Boothill grave.) The story has been told many times in films, books, magazines and even the web. Suffice it to say the animosity culminated in the gunfight at the OK Corral, on October 26th 1881 when the Earp/Holliday faction tried to disarm the Clanton/McLaury’s in compliance with a Judge Begbie-like gun ordinance. Billy Clanton, 19, Tom McLaury, 28, and Frank McLaury, 33, were killed. Virgil, Morgan and Doc, all in their 30s, were wounded.
Clanton supporter Sheriff Behan arrested the Earps for murder, but they were acquitted. The feud continued. Months later Virgil was wounded and crippled in an attempted assassination. Then Morgan Earp was shot in the back and killed while playing billiards with Wyatt, March 18th, 1881. He was 31-years-old. Eyewitnesses said Frank Stilwell had been seen running from the shooting.
"Oh make no mistake, it’s not revenge he’s after—It’s a reckoning"
Doc Holliday, referring to Wyatt, in the film Tombstone
The entire Earp clan, Doc Holliday and friends formed a posse to protect Virgil and his wife as they took Morgan’s body by train to their parents family home in California. There was no railroad to Tombstone, so they rode north to the Benson depot. Here they heard that Stilwell, Ike "Old Man" Clanton and two other cowboys were waiting for them just up the line in Tucson.
The whole Earp party took the train to Tucson. Wyatt later said he found Frank Stilwell and Ike Clanton lying on a flat car waiting in ambush. Wyatt hit him with a pointblank shotgun blast. Frank Stilwell was found in the morning with shotgun wounds and three bullet holes. At age 25 Frank Stilwell had paid the price. It had only taken two and a half years, and the Earp’s form of frontier justice. When Wyatt’s shotgun barked out a double load of buckshot in revenge for brother Morgan it also spoke for Mexican cook Jesus Baga and Cariboo miner Col. John van Houten.
So cold... so still...
There they lay side by side,
the killers that died,
in the Gunfight at O.K. Corral.
Theme from the film "Gunfight At The O.K. Corral" (1957)
(Ned Washington / Dimitri Tiomkin) Frankie Laine (Film Soundtrack) - 1957
In a coda to the story van Houten is one of the few stone grave markers in a sea of iron crosses and piles of desert stone in Boothill cemetery, Tombstone. His wife and family settled in Nanaimo, B.C. where the sons became druggists and where there is now a Van Houten building.
The Earps and Holliday left Arizona after their “Vendetta Ride” that saw a few more cow-boys killed, including Curly Bill Brocius. Doc died in 1887, in Colorado, of tuberculosis; Virgil settled in California and Wyatt became part of the Alaska goldrush before settling in California. He died in 1929.
Frank Stilwell killed Jesus Baga, Cariboo miner van Houten and Morgan Earp. All were avenged by the team of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. This time Stilwell was not acquitted.
There is second Cariboo miner who made Tombstone his home, until he shot a local constable and a lynch mob came looking for him. That, is another story.
When Amy and I visited Tombstone, Boothill was a “for sure” stop.
We visited the gift shop, talked to local historian Ben Traywick and walked through the 500 or so graves, many of which Traywick has found. Most were marked with a simple iron cross inscribed with only a name and the year of death. I took 30 photos, many duplicates, focusing on the OK Corral deaths and the few that were not iron crosses, and a couple of Chinese graves. As I was writing this article I looked in my photo files for the McLaury graves, and right next to it was a photo of a simple tombstone, white, with a triangular top. It reads: Van Houten 1879.
At the time I had no idea who he was. I had no idea I had taken the photo.
Too bad his marker is not more complete.