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 boom town 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.
What is often overlooked is that the Earps had been in Tombstone for almost two 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 boom towns of the area.
Part 1: The Gunfight
The mining town of Tombstone is founded in the spring of 1879 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.
Doc Holliday, noted gunman and friend of Wyatt Earp, joins the Earps in Tombstone.
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.
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.
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.
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 intervene 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 whip 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 decides 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 sees the Cowboys, he immediately commands them 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.
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 will explore some of the events after the famous gun battle.
Part 2: The Aftermath
The Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Wild West’s most famous gun battle, lasts just 30 seconds with approximately 30 shots being fired. The gunfight occurs on October 26, 1881, killing Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday are wounded. Wyatt Earp is not injured in the shootout.
After the fight the bodies of the dead outlaws are displayed in a window at a local undertakers with the sign: “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.” Contrary to what has been depicted in movies about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Cowboys did have some popular support, and the Earps were not universally liked. Several hundred people join the funeral procession for the dead Cowboys, and as many as 2,000 people watch from the streets.
The gunfight may have been the climax of the conflict between the Cowboys and the Earps, but the events of this story lasted many more months. On the map below, click on the markers to view details on some of the key events from this story.
October 30, 1881
Despite many months of Cowboy threats, Ike Clanton was able to file murder charges against the Earps following the gun battle. Virgil and Morgan could not leave home due to the injuries they sustained in the gunfight, so Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are the only two to be arrested and they spent 16 days in jail during the hearing.
The hearing concluded on November 30th with Justice Spicer concluding that the Earps and Holliday had not broken the law in the events leading up to, or during, the fight.
Ike Clanton again files murder charges against the Earps, this time in nearby Contention City. Fearing an ambush, a large posse escorts the Earps to the court appearance. The charges are quickly dropped.
December 14, 1881
Justice Spicer receives anonymous death threats and is ordered to leave town. Tombstone mayor John Clum, who had been a supporter of the Earps, is the target of a murder attempt.
December 28, 1881
Virgil Earp is ambushed and hit in the left arm with a shotgun. The wound is serious, and Virgil must carry the arm in a sling for the rest of his life. The following day, Wyatt Earp is appointed as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County.
January 25, 1882
Wyatt leads a posse to Charleston to search for Virgil’s assailants. Upon returning to Tombstone, they find that several Cowboys had turned themselves in but for lesser charges, apparently in an attempt to escape the posse’s wrath. The charges against the outlaws are dropped due to lack of evidence.
Februrary 9, 1882
Ike Clanton once again files charges against the Earps in Contention City. The Earps travel to Contention City under heavy guard for fear of a Cowboy Ambush. The judge refuses to indict the Earps without new evidence.
Virgil Earp is no longer drawing a salary and for increased security the brothers and their wives had been living at the Cosmopolitan Hotel since the gunfight. Hard up for cash, Wyatt takes out a mortgage on his house and ultimately loses the house when he defaults on the loan.
March 18, 1882
While playing a late round of billiards, shots are fired through the billiard hall window, and Morgan Earp is struck in the spine by the gunfire. Morgan dies from his wounds less than an hour later.
Cowboy Pete Spence, who is suspected in Morgan’s murder, turns himself into Sheriff Behan presumably so he could be protected in Behan’s jail. Charges against Spence are dropped due to lack of evidence. Doc Holliday would later say that he considered Behan responsible for the assassination of Morgan Earp.
March 21, 1882
Wyatt received information that Frank Stilwell, Ike Clanton, and two other cowboys are watching the passenger trains in Tucson intending to kill Virgil Earp, who is leaving Tombstone for California. Wyatt forms a posse with Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMaster to accompany Virgil and Allie (Virgil’s wife) to the rail head in Benson. They board the train to Tucson along with Virgil and his wife, armed with pistols, rifles and shotguns.
Upon their arrival in Tucson, the Earp posse spot Stilwell and other Cowboys. “Almost the first men we met on the platform there were Stilwell and his friends, armed to the teeth”, Virgil later told the San Francisco Examiner “Upon seeing the posse, the Cowboys initially withdraw. Returning later to finish the job, the Cowboys are met with gunfire from the Earp posse, and Frank Stilwell is killed.”
The Tucson sheriff issues arrest warrants for Wyatt and Warren Earp, Holliday, McMaster, and Johnson for the death of Frank Stilwell.
Following the events in Tuscon, Wyatt concludes that they will get no justice from the courts, and that it was time to take the law into their own hands. It turns out that Wyatt will not be going it alone though, as some Federal assistance becomes available as attitudes start to sour about the lawlessness of the Tombsone area.
With funds available to hire more men, Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Johnson and McMaster are now joined by “Texas Jack” Vermillion, Dan Tipton, Charlie Smith, Fred Dodge, Johnny Green, and Louis Cooley to form a federal posse under Wyatt’s authority as the Deputy US Marshal.
March 22, 1882
County sheriff Behan forms his own posse consisting of many deputized cowboys, including Johnny Ringo, Phineas Clanton, Johnny Barnes and about 18 more men. The posse rides out to arrest Wyatt and his men for the murder of Frank Stilwell.
That morning, Earp’s posse locates and kills wanted cowboy “Indian Charlie” Cruz.
March 24, 1882
The Earp Posse unknowingly ride into a Cowboy camp at Iron Springs. The Earp posse had six men at this encounter, to the Cowboy’s nine. Both parties were surprised, and gunfire started almost immediately. Curly Bill shot at Wyatt but missed. Wyatt returned the fire and hit Bill in the chest with a shotgun blast, killing him instantly.
In the ensuing chaos, members of Earp’s posse were pinned down by Cowboy gunfire. Wyatt, still standing in the middle of the fight, without cover, shot Johnny Barnes in the chest and Milt Hicks in the arm. Wyatt was then able to get back on his horse and retreat. Incredibly, he was shot seven times through his clothes, but none of the shots injured him.
March 25, 1882
Sheriff Behan again rides out with a 25-man posse in pursuit of Earp’s posse. he pursues the Earps for 10 days, but never finds them.
The true story Wyatt Earp’s vendetta ride is much less spectacular than movies like Tombstone have portrayed. After killing “Indian Charlie” Cruz and Curly Bill Brocius, it seems that Wyatt considered his brother’s avenged, or maybe he was well aware of how lucky they had all been over the last few days.
Whatever the reason, the Earp Posse left Arizona and hid out in New Mexico for several weeks. Near the end of April, the posse split up, and Wyatt and Doc left the lawless territory behind permanently.