Aftermath of the Gunfight at the OK Corral

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.

McLaury and Billy Clanton in the window of the undertakers
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton in the window of the undertakers

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 graves Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury in Boot Hill Cemetery, Tombstone, Arizona
The graves Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury in Boot Hill Cemetery, Tombstone, Arizona

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.

December 1881

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.

Hotel at Contention City, Arizona 1880s
Hotel at Contention City, Arizona 1880s (enhanced photo)

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.

Birgil Earp
Virgil Earp

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.”

Statues of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday commemorate the shootout at the Tucson train depot where Frank Stilwell was killed by the Earp posse. Photo courtesy of Marine 69-71 at English Wikipedia

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 being 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.

Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan
Cochise County sheriff Johnny Behan

That morning, Earps 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 chaos that ensued, Wyatts posse were pinned down by the 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 not one shot injured Earp.

March 25, 1882

Sheriff Behan again rides out with a 25-man posse in pursuit of Earp’s posse. Remarkably, Behan’s posse pursued the Earps for 10 days, but never finds them.

Epilogue

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.