The Potash Wars – Wyatt Earp

Trona Potash (Story by S. Wallace Austin dated January 26, 1929)

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

The recent death of Wyatt Earp (Wyatt died January 13, 1929) recalls to mind the part he played in the claim jumping expedition to Searles Lake in October 1910.  At the time I was Acting Receiver for the California Trona Company and was in charge of a group of placer mining claims covering some 40,000 acres.  The party had been organized at Los Angeles by Henry E. Lee, an Oakland attorney and probably was the best equipped gang of claim jumpers ever assembled in the west.  It consisted of three complete crews of surveyors, the necessary helpers and laborers and about 20 armed guards or gunmen under the command of Wyatt Berry Stapp.

The party of 44 in number, arrived at Searles Lake in seven touring cars and established a camp at the abandoned town of “Slate Range City” about eight miles southeast of the company’s headquarters.  On the morning following their arrival we saw some of the surveyors across the lake and our foreman road over and ordered them off the property but they paid no attention to his protest an proceeded to do a very thorough job or surveying and staking.

As I considered it necessary to make some show of force in protecting our claims, I visited the enemy’s camp at sunrise the next day with our whole force of five men who were armed with all the weapons they could collect.  It was a very critical moment when we jumped from our wagon and walked up in front of the mess house where the raiders were assembled for breakfast.  I stood in the center with my boys on either side of me.  There was a shout and men came running from all directions and fearing there might be trouble.  

I started right off to explain to the surveyors present that I had only come over to give notice that I was officially and legally in possession of the claims and that they were trespassers.

Before I got very far a tall man with iron grey hair and a mustache pushed his way to the front and in a loud voice demanded why I had come into their camp with armed men.  At the same time he grabbed hold of my shotgun held by the boy on my left and attempted to take it away from him.  At this attack upon us I drew an automatic and ordered him to let go.  He did so and then ran to a building nearby saying “I’ll fix you.”  Before he could secure a rifle, however, the cooler headed members of the party surrounded him and calmed him down.  Also, you may be sure every effort was made to prevent a fight, as, in spite of our bold being, we were pretty badly scared.

Just as things seemed to have quieted down,  one of the excited jumpers accidentally discharged a gun.  No one was hurt but, it was a very tense moment for all of us.  Having failed to dislodge the enemy the following day I called for a US Marshall and when he arrive the claim jumpers were all arrested and sent home including “Wyatt Berry Stapp”, none other than the famous Marshall Wyatt Stapp Earp.

San Francisco Call, Volume 108, Number 151, 29 October 1910

SODA CLAIMS SEIZED BY BAND 0F ARMED MEN

United States Marshal, Elliott received a telegram yesterday from Deputy Marshal Fred Burling, in Los Angeles, stating that 24 armed-men had seized the properties of the California Trona Company near Johannesberg. A receiver has been placed in charge of the 40,000 acres of soda claims pending the decision of a suit by the Foreign Mines development company against the Trona Company for $200,000.

Deputy Marshal Burling was sent lout to serve papers on certain persons alleged to be interfering with the receiver.

Los Angeles Herald, Volume 33, Number 28, 29 October 1910

GUN MEN PROTECT BORAX LAKE PROPERTY

Methods Used in Oil Fields Are Applied to Country Held by Borax Outfit

SEARLES, Cal., Oct. 28. — Borax Lake, located in the northwest corner of San Bernardino County, is again the scene of a claim jumping struggle. A party of armed men, thirty-five in number, with automobiles, led by a man named Splat, of Los Angeles, have entered the property of California Trona company and are surveying and locating over the locations of the Trona company which has just finished assessment work costing $25000.

This is the same property on which Charles Davidson of Oakland perished last June while leading a claim jumping expedition for the same property. The property is now in charge of a receiver of the United States court who notified the jumpers to desist. They replied by show of arms and refused. The United States marshal is now on his way to the scene of trouble.

The automobiles are in charge of Chauffeur M, C. Vorney and are numbered 24145, 32783, 36991, 37404 and 29487.

Names of locators are: H. C. Fursman, W. Hull, R. Wagmire, P. Perkins, H. A. Baker, E. Thompson, D. Smith, T. W. Pack. Witness, E. A. Rasor.

The Foreign Mines and Development company has a mortgage of $250,000 on this property. A sale is pending in |the east, said to be on a $1,000,000 basis.

The last two articles are from  the California Digital Newspaper Collection

Note: This event took place on the east side of the lake near Slate Range City which is now a ghost town located on Navy base property.

The ebook Searles Potash Lands written in 1915 gives a great history of the companies that were involved in the struggle to develop potash production in Searles Valley.

Google Books – Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life

Comments

  • For your information, I found a surprising reference related to Trona in a biography of Wyatt Earp, WYATT EARP, A VIGILANTE LIFE, published by Hill & Wang, A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 18 West 18th Street, New York 10011, Copyright 2013 by Andrew C. Isenberg. I checked the book out of the Austin Public Library. The following paragraph quoted is from page 201 of the book:

    “ Wyatt had forsworn neither the green cloth nor the revolver however. To make ends meet, he continued to sign on as hired muscle despite his advancing years. In 1910, when he was sixty-two years old, he was one of two dozen men hired by the American Trona Company to protect some of its borax mining claims near Death Valley from a competing company that claimed the same site. Wyatt’s group traveled to the region by automobile, pitched tents on the site, and set to work surveying the claim. When men hired by the competition confronted them, Wyatt fired a round at the feet of their leader, causing the men to scatter. When U.S. marshals arrested Wyatt’s group for trespassing, Wyatt, hoping to avoid media attention, gave his name as ‘W. Stapp’. “

    Despite the Hollywood and television hype, Earp led a life of impulsive lawbreaking and shifting identities. When he wasn’t wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, a brothel bouncer, a gambler, and confidence man. Not the sterling, upright citizen we’ve been led to believe.

    You all may know of this, but it was news to me.

    Paul MacLeanAugust 6, 2013

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