October 23, 2021 by Pamela Nowak
Little is known about Wyatt Earp’s first wife. Urilla (Aurilla) Sutherland was the daughter of William and Permelia Sutherland and grew up in Lamar, Missouri (the family moved there when she was ten). She was born in 1850 and was twenty at the time she married Wyatt, age twenty-two. Her parents operated the Exchange Hotel in Lamar. Wyatt’s father performed the wedding on January 10, 1870. It was Earp’s only recorded marriage (no vital records can be found for the later marriages). The couple bought a home in August 1870 on a lot just outside town, valued at $75.
Most of the information known about Urilla Sutherland Earp comes from the excellent research of Sherry Monahan in her book, Mrs. Earp. Monahan states her name was recorded variously in census records as Urilla, Aurilla, and Rilla. She was the second daughter in the Sutherland family and sixth child overall. Her father was known as “Uncle Billy” by locals. Lamar, Missouri was a small town and it’s likely Rilla and Wyatt met in the regular course of business. Wyatt’s father owned a bakery and sold oysters just three buildings down from the hotel owned by the Sutherlands and the families belonged to the same church. Wyatt and Rilla lived near his parents and his half-brother Newton.
Aurilla/Urilla/Rilla Sutherland Earp died suddenly in October or early November 1870, less than a year after marrying Wyatt, her unnamed infant son dying at the same time. No vital records exist with details of her death but there were cases of typhoid in the area around that time. It may also be possible that she died in childbirth. On November 7, Wyatt listed sold the house, listing himself as single.
Most biographical sources on Rilla indicate there was a street fight between the Earp brothers and Rilla’s brothers after her death with speculation that the family may have blamed Wyatt for the deaths. Some accounts speculate Wyatt may have seduced Rilla and gotten her pregnant but the timing doesn’t support that. They married in January and there was no child listed in the September 1870 census. While it is possible he may have seduced her prior to marriage, the two could not have known she was pregnant at the time of the marriage. It’s also possible there may have been tension related to Wyatt’s position as town constable.
In April of 1869, prior to the marriage of Wyatt and Aurilla Sutherland, her father Billy was arrested. The charges were dropped but he was later arrested on three counts of selling liquor (bootlegging). Additional charges were filed in April 1870. At that time, Nicholas Earp, Wyatt’s father, was serving as Justice of the Peace and Wyatt as Constable. Both Nicholas and Wyatt were paid part of the fines involved in the case in August 1870. It is unknown exactly what the fight was about but the story of the Earps and the Sutherlands having a street brawl persist. If Aurilla’s brother Fred, who was known for his temper, was involved in the fight, it must have occurred when he was in Lamar for her funeral since he lived in Kansas. The fight could have been related to legal matters and the fine or it could have been revenge for Aurilla dying in childbirth (if that was the case).
The mystery of Aurilla Sutherland Earp is also enhanced by the lack of mention of her death in the local newspaper and her burial. Historian Sherry Monahan noted that with the exception of Aurilla, the Sutherland family members are all buried in Lamar’s Lake Cemetery with nice headstones. Aurilla is buried in Milford with just a small flat marker. This has led to speculation that the family had considered her unworthy. While that is possible, it is also possible that Wyatt and his family insisted on burying her in a different location because they felt she was an Earp and that may have raised tensions between the families. With no documents or family recollections on the subject, there is no way to know. By late 1870, Wyatt became involved with the wrong side of the law. In Lamar, he was accused of mismanaging funds as town constable and replaced. He fled town before fraud and embezzlement charges could be brought and headed west, toward what was then known as Indian Territory (later Oklahoma). In 1871, along with Edward Kennedy and John Shown, he was arrested and charged with stealing two horses values at $100 each. Shown’s wife indicated the trio got her husband drunk and tricked him into driving the wagon to which the horses were hitched. When they were overtaken by the owner of the horses, Shown claimed hadn’t been involved in the theft and was just driving for Earp and Kennedy. Earp and Kennedy claimed Shown was the thief. The trio was arrested in Arkansas and ordered to pay a $500 bail. By some accounts, Nicholas Earp is said to have paid the bail and Wyatt skipped bail; other accounts say Shown and Earp escaped from the jail and fled. Kennedy stood trial and was acquitted. Deputy U.S. Marshalls pursued Earp and Shown but never caught them.