The Gunfight at the OK Corral

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is certainly the most famous shootout of the Old West. This event has been the subject of numerous books and movies, some of them becoming Western classics like the movie “Tombstone”.

However, most movies about the gunfight fail to capture the true scope of this event, both in the length of the feud between the Earps and the Cowboys, and the dramatic events happening in and around the silver boomtown of Tombstone, events which ultimately fueled the conflict.

Note: the Gunfight at the OK Corral did not actually take place at the OK Corral, but rather at a spot nearby in Tombstone. The location of the gun battle was incorrectly identified as the OK Corral in early books and films, and the shootout became known by that name.

Tombstone, Arizona ca 1881
Tombstone, Arizona ca 1881

What is often overlooked is that the Earps had been in Tombstone for almost 2 years when the Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred. During this time, Tombstone grew from a tent city of a few hundred people, to the largest city in the territory with over 7,000 residents. The mines of Tombstone were rich, and satellite towns were developed to provide ore processing centers for the mines,  and as supply and transportation hubs.

Prior to the discovery of silver, the outlaws in the area held power over their territory, and for the most part conducted their criminal activities with impunity. The influx of thousands of miners and related capital interests resulted in the arrival of federal lawmen to the area.

At the time local lawmen were often in league with the outlaw gangs, so arrival of federal marshals introduced conflict with both the outlaws and the local sheriffs.

The story of Tombstone and the Gunfight at the Corral is a long and complicated one. This article lays out some of the key events and provides some context as to where the events unfolded relative to the mines and boomtowns of the area.

March, 1879

The mining boomtown of Tombstone is founded after silver discoveries near the town. The mines of Tombstone are rich and fortune seekers flock to an area that had previously been sparsely populated frontier that was dominated by Apache Indians and outlaw gangs.

On the map below, click the markers to view details on some of the key events from this story.

December 1, 1879

James, Virgil, and Wyatt Earp arrive in Tombstone. Virgil had been hired as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County, and in June 1881 he is also appointed as Tombstone’s town marshal. Tombstone is still a new mining camp with a population of just a few hundred, and most residents are still living in canvas tents.

September 1880

Doc Holliday, noted gunman and friend of Wyatt Earp, joins the Earps in Tombstone.

Wyatt Earp (left) and Doc Holliday
Wyatt Earp (left) and Doc Holliday

1881

By 1881 Tombstone has over 7,000 residents, and is the largest settlement in the territory.

Horse rustlers and bandits from the countryside often come to town, and shootings are frequent. During this time, illegal smuggling and theft of cattle, alcohol, and tobacco across the Mexico–United States border, about 30 miles from Tombstone, are common.

The Earps quickly come into conflict with Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy and Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, and William “Curly Bill” Brocius, among others. They are part of a large, loose association of cattle smugglers and horse thieves known as the Cowboys, outlaws who had been implicated in various crimes. Ike Clanton was prone to drinking heavily and threatened the Earp brothers numerous times.

The Cowboys are believed to be based out of the Clanton’s ranch, south of Charleston.

Charleston, Arizona 1880s
Charleston, Arizona 1880s

March 15, 1881

A stagecoach loaded with silver bullion is robbed by Cowboys outside of Contention City. In the ensuing gunfight, two passengers of the stage are killed, and one Cowboy is injured. Despite losing two of the three men on board, the stagecoach escapes the ambush.

Wells Fargo offers a $3,600 reward for capture of the robbers, dead or alive. One of the robbers, Luther King, is captured but promptly escapes the jail. The Earps form a posse with another famous lawman Bat Masterson and two others. The posse pursues the stage robbers for weeks, over hundreds of miles, but no additional arrests are made.

August 1881

The Cowboys ambush and kill 15 Mexicans traveling through Guadalupe Canyon (later called Skeleton Canyon) on their way to purchase supplies in the Tombstone district. The ambush increases tensions between the Earps and the outlaws.

September 8, 1881

A passenger stagecoach bound for Bisbee is robbed by the Cowboys. Wyatt and Virgil Earp ride with a sheriff’s posse to track the Bisbee stage robbers. Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence are arrested in Bisbee for their role in the robbery.

Following these arrests, Frank McLaury of the Cowboys confront Morgan Earp and insinuate that the Earps would be killed if they attempted to make additional arrests.

Bisbee, Arizona 1890
Bisbee, Arizona 1890

October 26, 1881

The infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral” takes place, a 30 second shootout between members of the Cowboys on one side, and the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday on the other.

The night before the gunfight, Ike Clanton gets into a heated argument with Doc Holliday. After the Earps interven in the argument, Ike threatens them saying “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning.” Ike then sits down to an all-night card game with Virgil Earp, County Sheriff Johnny Behan, and Tom McLaury.

It is interesting to note that despite the hostilities between the outlaws and the lawmen, they would all sit together for a night of drinking and cards.

The card game broke up at dawn. Ike had been up all night drinking, and had nowhere to go. He continued to wander town making threats against the Earps, and was armed in violation of a Tombstone ordinance that stated all firearms must be checked into a livery or saloon upon entering town.

At around 1:00 pm, Morgan and Virgil Earp pistol whipped Ike from behind, and subsequently disarmed him. Ike was taken to the courthouse to appear before a judge for violating the firearms ordinance.

Outside the courthouse, Wyatt runs into Tom McLaury and demands to know if he was armed. McLaury said he was not, but Wyatt could see a gun tucked into his pants so he pistol whips him twice and leaves him bleeding in the street.

A short time later, Ike’s 19-year-old younger brother Billy Clanton and Tom’s older brother Frank McLaury arrive in town to back up Ike and Tom. A witness later told the The Tombstone Epitaph:

“I was in the O.K. Corral at 2:30 p.m. when I saw the two Clantons and the two McLaurys in an earnest conversation across the street at Dunbar’s corral. I went up the street and notified Sheriff Behan and told them it was my opinion that they meant trouble, and it was his duty, as sheriff, to go and disarm them. I told him they had gone to the West End Corral. I then went and saw Marshal Virgil Earp and notified him to the same effect.”

Virgil decides to disarm the Cowboy’s and enlists the help of his brothers Morgan and Wyatt, and Doc Holliday. Virgil gives Holliday a double-barreled shotgun he had retrieved from the Wells Fargo office.

On their way to confront the outlaws, County Sheriff Behan (know to be frindly with the Cowboys) attempts to dissuade the Earps from confronting the men, stating that he had already disarmed them. Virgil decided to talk to the Cowboys anyway, and the stage is set for the fight.

Because of the lie Behan told them about disarming the outlaws, the Earps were not expecting a fight. Rather than entering the confrontation with weapons ready, they had put their weapons away, putting them at an initial disadvantage.

When the Earps approached the lot, the four law men were initially facing six Cowboys: Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Wes Fuller and Billy Claiborne.

When Virgil saw the Cowboys, he immediately commanded the Cowboys to “Throw up your hands, I want your guns!” Ike Clanton, Wes Fuller, and Billy Claiborne, who were likely unarmed, ran from the fight. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton draw and cock their six-shooters. The battle begins, and Wyatt would later testify:

“Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury.”

“The first two shots were fired by Billy Clanton and myself, he shooting at me, and I shooting at Frank McLaury.”

Clanton missed, but Earp shot Frank McLaury in the stomach. Doc Holliday then raises his shotgun from under his long coat, steps around Tom McLaury’s horse, and shoots Tom in the chest at close range. Tom dies moments later. 

This photograph of Cowboy gang member Ike Clanton was taken in 1881
This photograph of Cowboy gang member Ike Clanton was taken in 1881

Billy Clanton begins shooting and is shot in the wrist by Morgan. Although injured, Billy and Frank keep shooting. Frank grazes Hollidays hip, only slightly injuring him, and Holliday goes after him saying “That son of a bitch has shot me and I am going to kill him.”

The fight becomes chaotic at this point, and It has never been established exactly who fired the shots that killed or injured the gun fighters. Either Billy or Frank gets a shot off that hits Morgan in the back. Either Morgan or Holliday fire the shot that hits Frank McLaury in the head, killing him. Billy is shot in the chest and abdomen, killing him. Either Frank or Billy shoots Virgil Earp in the calf.

The gunfight lasts just 30 seconds with approximately 30 shots being fired. Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton are killed.  Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday are wounded. Wyatt Earp is not injured in the shootout.

While the Gunfight at the OK Corral was climax of the conflict between the Earps and The Cowboys, the events in this saga were not concluded for another six months. Part II of this article, Aftermath of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, will explore some of the events after the famous gun battle.