Wyatt Earp was a businessman, a gold miner, a lawman, and a gambler. Most of all, Wyatt Earp was an American frontiersman. His adventurous lifestyle brought to him wherever money flowed. He is best known for partaking in the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and for his saloon in Nome, Alaska, named The Dexter.
Earp’s time in Alaska left a permanent mark on the 49th state. If you ever visit Nome, his name is one you’re sure to hear.
Klondike Gold Rush
As we’ve written in our blog post, Teaching the Klondike Gold Rush, George Carmack, an Alaskan prospector, first began mining for Yukon territory gold in 1896. His four claims of land ran along present-day Bonanza Creek, and by the end of August, the whole area was teeming with local miners.
The season wore on, and prospectors feverishly mined the gold beds and gathered a small glimmering fortune. However, winter quickly rolled in and froze the rivers, halting transportation to Seattle or San Francisco. The 1987 spring thaw eroded the ice. Soon after, the gold was sent down to the port cities and a stampede of gold-hungry prospectors traveled north to the Yukon to get their share.
Wyatt Earp was among them.
After his Wild West lifestyle in Tombstone, Arizona, Wyatt traveled through San Francisco and Seattle to navigate to Alaska. He hoped to strike his claim in the newly publicized Klondike Gold Rush. However, he didn’t intend to strike it rich solely as a gold miner. His aspirations were also to profit off the miners’ good fortunes, a goal he coined as “mining the miners.”
On September 21, 1897, Wyatt boarded the steamship, Rosalie. He touched shore in the Yukon later that month. Unfortunately, his initial plans ran afoul. In 1898, winter rolled in by the time he reached Rampart, a settlement near the Yukon River, which he needed to traverse to reach the gold panning hotspots. When spring came around and surfaced warmer temperatures, Wyatt left for St. Michael, which at the time was a major gateway to the Alaskan interior via the Yukon River. From there, he could navigate to the gold-filled creeks.
After Wyatt arrived in St. Michael in the spring of 1899, he ended up managing a small store, where he sold beer and cigars for the Alaska Commercial Company. Wyatt’s tenure in St. Michael was short-lived. His friend, Tex Richard, sent Wyatt multiple letters to goad the American frontiersman to relocate to Nome where he could earn more significant riches.
When Wyatt Earp arrived in Nome, the town was a shell of the bustling mining community it would become in a few year’s time when “gold fever” fully struck the Pacific Northwest. Nome was a mere two blocks wide and roughly five miles long. Wyatt and his wife Sadie lived in a small wooden shack a few minutes from the main part of town.
Nome’s sanitation left a lot to be desired, too. The nearby river was an open sewer. Consequently, typhoid, dysentery and pneumonia were common ailments prospectors and townspeople faced.
However, what Nome lacked in pleasant accommodations and sanitary living conditions, the town made up for in entertainment — largely thanks to Wyatt Earp.
Earp partnered with Charlie Hoxsie to build the Dexter Saloon, Nome’s first two-story wooden building and most luxurious saloon. The saloon quickly became branded as “second class” establishment, where miners, travelers and townsfolk would congregate about politics, gamble, and transact business.
The saloon’s success was driven by Earp’s notoriety, and soon became the most popular destination in town. During his time overseeing the Dexter, Earp met with writers Jack London and Rex Beach, playwright Wilson Mizner and boxing promoter Tex Rickard.
As the town grew, Wyatt competed for business against more than 60 other saloons, which served a roughly 20,000 residents. Throughout it all, Wyatt’s establishment remained the most popular haunt in town.
Although the Dexter Saloon no longer exists, you can still see its impact on Alaskan history if you visit Nome. The Nome City Hall resides where the saloon once stood, along with a monument to Wyatt.
Wyatt eventually departed Nome, selling his shares of the Dexter back to Charlie Hoxsie. He also transferred the mining land claims to the brother of his common-law wife, Josephine. Earp sailed away from Alaska with $80,000 (more than $2 million after inflation). He and Josephine invested in the money among family, gold mines and other ventures before they ultimately settled in Los Angeles.