The true hero named Earp is a permanent Portland resident
Virgil Earp, the older, braver brother of gunman Wyatt Earp is buried in Southwest Portland. His tombstone, which is about the size of one of those rolled-up bedrolls cowboys slept on, is far and away the most–visited plot at Riverview Cemetery. Members of the Earp family are expected to visit the gravesite on October 19, the day Virgil died in 1905 in Nevada.
I'm not sure which fact is more interesting: That a man with no apparent connection to Portland ended up here. Or that his final resting place is such an attraction. Does anyone under 50 even know about Virgil's more infamous brother, Wyatt Earp ? A lot of people over 50 grew up thinking Wyatt was this brave lawman who took on some bad cowboys at the OK Corral in Tombstone in the Arizona Territory in 1881.
Turns out Virgil was the hero of that shoot out and one version of the legend suggests his ahead-of-the-time gun control measures were the cause of the carnage.
"Nobody's saying you can't own a gun. I wasn't even saying you can't carry a gun. All we're saying is you can't carry a gun in town," were Virgil's words to a rowdy crowd of firearms enthusiasts in the movie "Tombstone." "If we're gonna have a future in this town, it's gotta have some law and order." For his crackdown on a bunch of guys who actually called themselves The Cowboys, Virgil suffered gunshot wounds that would have killed most men. He was permanently maimed in a revenge attack two months after the OK Corral.
I kind of doubt that a screenwriter's version of Virgil as early advocate of common sense gun safety measures is why so many people visit his grave at Riverview on Southwest Macadam Avenue at the west end of the Sellwood Bridge.
The bigger question of how he ended up on a rise above the Willamette River is one that has a fairly reliable answer.
"We heard through the family grapevine that when his daughter found out he was dying she went to Nevada, or wherever, and when he passed away she had his body sent here," said Julie Hendrix, who's greeted hundreds of visitors over the last 20 years who have come to Riverview to see Virgil's grave.
Here's some meat on those bones. Based on the work of Oregon historian Ralph Friedman and a more extensive internet search than most people have time for, I've put together a few details.
The daughter who had him buried at Riverview was Nellie Jane Bohn of Northeast Portland. Her mom was Virgil's first wife, Ellen Rysdam whom Virgil married against her parent's wishes. He was 19. She was 17. They wanted her to marry a Dutch man, which Virgil wasn't. He went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War and was seriously wounded. Her parents told Ellen he'd been killed in action and moved with her and little Nellie to Walla Walla.
Let's surf the waves of assumption that break on reefs of speculation and suggest that Virgil's entire life was changed because he wasn't Dutch.
It wasn't until well after the OK Corral, in 1898, that Nellie, by then Mrs. Levi Law, wrote a letter to her long-lost father, by then a celebrity in the Old West. Virgil visited her in Portland and fell in love with the place and his granddaughter. But he went back to the gold fields of Nevada because his brother Wyatt had the latest of many get-rich-quick schemes going. It's there that Virgil, who had survived the Civil War and OK Corral, passed away on October 19, 1905.
One account of his final trip to Portland suggests that his common-law wife Allie in Nevada contacted his daughter and told her, "You want his body, come and get it." So Nellie sent a son-in-law named Alex Bertrand – she had married a few times – who brought the body to the Bertrand plot at Riverview. His devoted daughter Nellie is buried nearby as is his teen bride Ellen, who died in Cornelius.
"People from all over the United States come to see his grave," said Hendrix from the front desk at Riverview. "History buffs mostly, those who follow the Tombstone and OK Corral stuff. They ask for the packet, visit the grave then come back to the office and say they can't believe that he's here in Portland."
She tells them all there's one visitor to Virgil's grave she's been waiting years to see.
"I'm waiting to see Sam Elliott come and visit his grave because he played Virgil in the movie "Tombstone." If he's coming it better be soon because I'm retiring in three months," Hendrix said. (Elliott was raised in Portland and still has ties here. So who knows?)
Historians question some of the content of that movie but concede that of the many movies and television shows about the OK Corral, this one got it right by having Virgil lead the assault instead of Wyatt, the way Hollywood played it.
Hendrix has looked into the true story and has no doubt Virgil was the real hero in the Earp family. "What did Wyatt Earp ever do, for goodness sake?" she asked. Wyatt's buried in Colma, California, a city with more dead citizens than live ones.
She said the second-most-visited grave after Virgil's is that of Lyle Alzado, who once played for and typified the Oakland Raiders. "And it's a distant second."
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