By Mark Gutglueck
Among the legion of noteworthy and colorful personages in the rich history of San Bernardino County, three of those who occupied positions of prominence during the first century of the county’s existence, Nicholas Earp, Byron Waters and John C. Ralphs, can all be said to hold their own when it comes panache and character.
Each was an alpha male who left an indelible impression on the communities around him, and the greater San Bernardino area was in more ways than one shaped by their temperaments and the forcefulness of their individual wills.
As fate would have it, the three came together on the streets of San Bernardino in the late fall of 1881. Perhaps predictably, this resulted in something of a personality clash. All three survived, though one came out of it something the worse for wear, two sustained a blot on their legal records, and the resultant tiff is something still being talked about in San Bernardino nearly two score and a hundred years later.
On the basis of simply being the father of legendary lawmen Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, Nicholas Porter Earp earned his way into American history. But he was remarkable in his own right in a multiplicity of roles throughout his life, including serving as a lawman himself in the roles of a constable and justice of the peace, as well as a farmer, cooper, teacher, bootlegger and wagon-master.
Born in Lincoln County, North Carolina in 1813, he moved with his family soon thereafter to Hartford, Kentucky, where he was raised. Nicholas as a young man served in the Black Hawk War of 1831 and later was a sergeant in the Mexican-American War.
In 1836 he married Abigail Storm in Hartford and she bore him two children, Newton Jasper Earp and Mariah Ann Earp. Abigail and Mariah both died in 1839. On July 30, 1840, while yet in Hartford he remarried to Virginia Ann Cooksey, with whom he had eight children: James Cooksey Earp, Virgil Walter Earp, Martha Elizabeth Earp, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, Morgan Seth Earp, Baxter Warren Earp, Virginia Ann Earp and Adelia Douglas Earp.
Prior to his involvement in the Mexican-American War, by 1845 he and Virginia had relocated their family to Monmouth, Illinois, from which at one point in the 1850s they intended to stage a move to California, which was aborted after the death of their daughter Martha. There he farmed and utilized his skill working iron and wood, cutting and shaping timber and heating or steaming it to form fit it into wooden casks, barrels, vats, buckets, tubs, troughs and other staved containers. Fastening wooden handles to some of the items he had created, he fashioned implements and tools such as rakes, hoes and shovels.
After the war, Nicholas’ success as both a farmer and cooper proved uneven as he and his family changed residence from Monmouth to Pella, Iowa and back to Monmouth again, where he successfully ran for the position of Monmouth town constable, serving in that post for roughly three years. Thereafter, however, he found himself on the other side of the law, and in 1859 he was tried for and convicted of bootlegging. He was not sentenced to incarceration but was stiffly fined. Unable to satisfy the fines, he suffered the ignominy of having liens recorded against his property, such that his property was sold at auction in November 1859. Nicholas and Virginia and their brood thereupon left Monmouth for Pella once more.
The advent of the Civil War was for Nicholas a somewhat fortuitous event. He had spent much of 1860 sojourning from Iowa back to Monmouth where he was constantly in court contesting lawsuits pertaining to his unpaid debts and tax evasion. After the war between the states began in 1861, Nicholas Earp found himself back in the military element and ethos of his earlier manhood, which also supplied him with an income. He found himself gainfully employed, recruiting and training local volunteers and inductees, who then became part of the Union’s standing army. His sons Newton, James and Virgil joined the Union Army. Newton and Virgil fought with distinction at several battles in the North’s eastern campaigns. James was severely wounded in Fredericktown, Missouri, but survived, returning home in the summer of 1863.
In May 1864 Earp wangled a set-up as a wagonmaster, to lead a party that consisted of what turned into ten families plus his own, to California. Earp used the opportunity this presented to transplant the remainder of his family then living with him and Virginia at the time, including their children Wyatt, Jim, Morgan, Warren, and Adelia, to the Golden State. They embarked on May 12, with three families from Pella, the Rousseaus, the Hamiltons, and the Curtises, arriving intact in San Bernardino on December 17. At several junctures relatively early along the seven-month, 1,700 mile sojourn, seven more wagons, mostly from Utah, joined the party.
Diaries kept by Sarah Jane Rousseau and some of the members of the party picked up in Utah offer a glimpse of Earp’s overbearing personality. Rousseau depicted him as a single-minded leader who became unhinged at the first hint of disobedience or any expression that contradicted his direction. She wrote that when anyone questioned his authority or instructions, “It made him awful mad and he was for killing. He used very profane language and he could hardly be appeased.” In a November 24 entry, she related, “This evening Mr. Earp had another rippet with his son Warren [about] fighting Jimmy Hatten. And then Mr. Earp raged about all the children, using very profane language and swearing that if the children’s parents did not whip them as he did or correct their children, he would whip every last one of them himself. He shows every day what kind of man he really is. He is such an uncouth and foul-mouthed person I think we made a terrible mistake engaging him and furnishing him horses and provisions to lead this wagon train west.”
Whatever the feelings of those he led, Earp managed to get them safely through some brutally treacherous territory to their destination. In short order, Nicholas leased farm property adjacent to the Santa Ana River near present-day Redlands and moved his family there.
Byron Waters was some 36 years younger than Nicholas Earp, having been born at Canton, Cherokee County, Georgia, in 1849, the youngest son of Henry H. Waters, a self-taught practitioner of the law who became the executive secretary to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown before the outbreak of the Civil War and remained not only in the capacity of the executive secretary to the governor in a Confederate state but held the rank of colonel in the Confederate Army, and directed in large measure the military affairs of Georgia, successfully mustering thirty regiments for the rebel cause. Byron Waters was reared to the age of sixteen years in his native state and was afforded the advantages of its best private schools, in which he continued his attendance until the close of the war. With the serious financial reverses the Waters family experienced at the end of the Civil War, Byron took his father’s advice and brought a large store of cotton from the Waters plantation to market and utilized the proceeds to get the hell out of Georgia, leaving the troubles and difficulties of Reconstruction behind him. He headed west to California, where Henry’s brother and Byron’s uncle, James W. Waters, was prospering, arriving in 1867. James Waters was both a Second District and Third District supervisor in the early days of San Bernardino County. James Waters hired his 18-year-old nephew Byron as a cowboy on his ranch in Yucaipa.
Punching cows was not what young Waters wanted to spend his life doing, and in April 1869, he began the study of law in the office of Judge Horace C. Rolfe of San Bernardino. Later he continued his training in the law under the direction of Judge Henry M. Willis, also of San Bernardino. Byron Waters was admitted to the bar in January 1871, and for the next fifty some years he was active in the practice of law in the various courts of the State of California but most predominantly in San Bernardino, retaining high prestige and distinction as one of the ablest members of the California bar as well as one of the most successful.
On December 31, 1872, he married Miss Louisa Brown, a native daughter of San Bernardino and one of the daughters of John Brown, Sr. and Louisa Sandoval Brown. John Brown was the noted hunter and trapper from the Rocky Mountains who later established a toll road at the Cajon Pass.
Byron Waters made his home and had his professional headquarters in San Bernardino. In 1881 he created and organized the Farmers Exchange Bank of San Bernardino, one of the leading financial institutions in the state. He was its first president, and held that office for several years.
An unwavering Democrat, Byron Waters remained loyal to the party even while California and San Bernardino County were dominated by a Republican majority. In San Bernardino County, at the age 28, he was elected in 1877 to the state legislature. At the ensuing session he became a recognized leader of his party in the Assembly, and before the close of the session he stood at the head of the lower house as a member of that body. In 1878 he was elected as a delegate at large to the State Constitutional Convention. In 1886, Waters was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the office of justice of the Supreme Court of the State of California. He was unable to overcome the far greater strength of the Republican party and was defeated by a small majority. Together with his uncle James Waters, Byron Waters was one of the early major developers in San Bernardino. They built both homes and business structures in and around the city, including a brick building on Third Street once used as a courthouse, an Opera House on D Street, two structures for his law offices and three residences, first a cottage on West Fifth Street early in life, later a large brick residence on Fourth Street opposite what was the Elks Club, and later a residence on Bunker Hill, where with his family he was residing in the 1920s.
By the time of his retirement after 51 years of practicing law, Byron Waters’ list of cases presented before the Supreme Court of the state was one of the largest claimed by any member of the bar then active.
John C. Ralphs was 39 years younger than Nicholas Earp and three years younger than Byron Waters, the son of immigrants from England, Richard Ralphs, a potter and also a bricklayer by trade, and Mary Newal Ralphs, who upon landing on the Eastern Seaboard continued moving west. John Ralphs was born in Utah in 1852, while his parents were on their way to California in a wagon being pulled by a team of oxen. Richard Ralphs was able to do well for himself and his family in California by virtue of his skill, with which he built the original Los Angeles Jail. John Ralphs had six surviving siblings, which did not include his older sister who died during the journey to California. Richard Ralphs eventually was able to purchase 239 acres in what was then referred to as “the American District” in San Bernardino that he used primarily for general farming and stock raising, as well as several lots.
John C. Ralphs, after receiving a limited education, went to work in earnest as a farmhand on his father’s estate at the age of ten. He was yet quite young when he first purchased a claim on land next to the Santa Ana River, where he remained for fifteen years before losing the claim. He then purchased twelve acres in the American District, and augmented that property with another 100 acres. He built what was described by historians as a “fine residence” on Mill Street and Mount Vernon Avenue. In 1882, at the age of 29, he married Miss Eunice Roberts, and they had seven children, Mary Angeline, Martha, Richard, George, Ida Belle, Charles B. and John.
Ralphs’ brother, George, made his own mark on San Bernardino County and Southern California as the founder of Ralph’s Markets.
In 1902, John C. Ralphs was elected sheriff of San Bernardino County, and was reelected twice, serving until 1915, at which point he was the longest serving sheriff in San Bernardino County history up to that date. He was something of a traditionalist and a pragmatist. Though the automobile was then coming into its own, there were still very few paved roads in 20,105-square mile San Bernardino County, with many of the existing dirt roads essentially impassible for the cars of the day. Ralphs therefore chose to have his men continue to use horses for patrol in the county’s more wide open environs, and had them rely upon a horse-and-buggy within the more urbanized areas. It would fall to his successor as sheriff, J. L. McMinn, to transform the department from one that was mounted on horses to a motorized vehicle-oriented police force.
Ralphs would garner historic notoriety for two of the last mounted-posse manhunts in the Southwest which occurred after the turn of the 20th Century. In 1906 he and Undersheriff Samuel W. McNabb ventured out into the Mojave Desert and arrested Death Valley Scotty for instigating the Battle of Wingate Pass. In 1909 Ralphs was a central participant in the protracted three-posse effort to run “Willie Boy” to ground.
Twenty-eight years earlier, well across the state line in Tombstone within the Territory of Arizona, another iconic Old West exhibition involving famed lawmen took place, the October 26, 1881 shootout at the O.K Corral. That event, in which three of Nicholas Earp’s sons – Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan – joined by Doc Holiday, found themselves in a deadly face-off with five cowboys – Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton, Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller, was precipitated in some measure by what had occurred the previous day, October 26, when Ike Clanton was pistol whipped by Virgil Earp, the town marshal, and Frank McLaury was pistol whipped by Wyatt Earp, one of the town’s deputy marshals, both for not complying with a town law that was put in place by Virgil Earp which prohibited anyone other than lawmen from carrying guns.
When the dust and gun smoke had cleared on October 26, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton were dead.
Reprisals from the cowboys living in and around Tombstone would follow. Late on the evening of December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp would be ambushed by three assailants as he was walking from the Oriental Saloon to his room at the Continental Hotel in Tombstone. He was shot in the arm, neck and hip, and was hit with buckshot in his side. He survived the shooting but lost his left arm, which had to be amputated. On March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp was ambushed as he was playing pool at the Campbell & Hatch Billiard Parlor in Tombstone. The single bullet tore through his spinal column, gall bladder and left kidney and penetratied through his loin. He died less than an hour after being shot.
Just a tad more than a month after the shootout at the OK Corral, while all of his sons were yet alive and fully intact, Nicholas Earp was in San Bernardino.
On November 27, 1881, Nicholas Earp, who at that point was living in Colton, had gone to the Farmers’ Exchange Bank in downtown San Bernardino. What had started as a discussion between Earp and John Ralphs soon turned into a difference of opinion, whereupon the irascible Earp was heard by anyone within even distant earshot bellowing at his conversant. The heated exchange caught the attention of Byron Waters, a principal in the bank and then a relatively young attorney who was establishing his reputation in the town. Waters came out onto the street and endeavored to intervene, at one point interjecting himself between the two men who appeared as if they might escalate the confrontation into fisticuffs.
Earp thereupon relinquished his war of words with Ralphs and, according to that day’s edition of the San Bernardino Daily Index, let loose a “torrent of abuse” as he trained his invective toward Waters, using a term that referenced the initial element of procreation in telling the lawyer he should hush himself and devote his mental faculties to his own affairs that had been condemned by the Almighty to hell. According to the Daily Index, the then-32-year old Waters responded not in word but deed, rendering the 68-year-old Earp “damaged about the eye and badly lamed.”
The event brought the civil authorities in San Beranrdino into the picture and thereafter both Earp and Waters ended up at the San Bernardino Courthouse, where they were given the opportunity to explain their action. Earp was assessed a $5 fine. Waters had to pay $10.
Nicholas Earp carried on in this life until 1907, dying at the age of 93.
Ralphs made it to the age of 79, having run his course by 1931.
Waters died in 1932 at the age of 83.
Nicholas Earp’s 1881Run-In With Byron Waters & John Ralphs
By Mark Gutglueck