What really happened at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral?

Movies and T.V. portray Wyatt Earp and his brothers as law-abiding heroes—but the real story of the most famous shoot out in the history of the Old West is more complicated than that.

By Fernando Martín
Published 30 Mar 2020, 17:21 BST
Much dramatised onscreen, the fateful gunfight in Tombstone in actuality lasted less than a minute.
Much dramatised onscreen, the fateful gunfight in Tombstone in actuality lasted less than a minute.

The afternoon of October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the frontier town of Tombstone. The fighting was over in less than a minute, and when the gun smoke cleared, three men lay dead. This short skirmish might have been a footnote in American history, but it grew and became a legend, perhaps the most famous in the Old West.

A feud had been building between two rival factions in Tombstone. One was led by Kansas lawman Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and their friend John “Doc” Holliday. The other was a loose band of outlaws called the “cowboys”: Among their members were brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. The rising tensions between the two groups revealed that the line between law enforcement and vendetta was very thin in the Arizona Territory.

Tombstone was founded a few years earlier by Ed Schieffelin, a former scout with the United States Army. Schieffelin headed to the Arizona Territory in the 1870s to strike it rich in mining. He found a promising spot in what is today southeastern Arizona, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. 

Schieffelin was warned by soldiers that, having chosen a spot in Apache territory, he was more likely to find his own tombstone than precious metals. When Schieffelin hit on a seam of silver there in 1877, he had the last laugh and called the claim Tombstone. The name was carried over as the name of the settlement founded near the site, fueled by a silver rush that attracted fortune hunters to the new town.

Wyatt Earp in a coloured, 19th-century photograph.
Photograph by Granger, Aurimages

Brothers against brothers

By 1881 Tombstone had a population of more than 7,000 and was the seat of the newly formed Cochise County. The area was thriving but had a notorious reputation for being rough and lawless. The Earps were drawn to Tombstone by the promise of fortune from the silver rush. Wyatt Earp had served as a police officer in Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas, before he moved to Tombstone in late 1879. With him came his brother, Virgil, a miner and soldier who would become Tombstone’s town marshal in 1880. 

Morgan, a younger brother of Wyatt and Virgil, joined his siblings in Tombstone that same year. Shortly after came a man who had befriended Wyatt Earp in Dodge City: Doc Holliday, a former dentist from Georgia turned gambler and gunfighter. All the brothers had other income that was unrelated to law enforcement, with stakes in mines and saloons and occasional work as bartenders and private security.

The Earp-Holliday faction had rivals in Tombstone: the cowboys. The Clanton and the McLaury brothers had a reputation as outlaws and were known to make their living thanks to cattle rustling. Beef shortages in the growing towns had given them a way of making easy money. They would rustle cattle on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Keen to meet demand, the butchers in Tombstone were not particularly fussy about the meat’s origins, particularly if it was from the other side of the frontier. The first source of tension between the cowboys and the Earps was over some stolen mules that the Earps tracked down to the McLaury ranch. The McLaurys, meanwhile, accused the Earps of acting for their own benefit instead of acting as law officers. (Will cowboy poetry survive the modern era?)

Politics and pistols

Wyatt Earp developed a professional rivalry with a fellow politician, Johnny Behan. Ten months before the shoot-out, Behan and Earp had both run for sheriff in Cochise County. Partway into the race, Behan had convinced Earp to pull out, promising him the job of under sheriff in return. After securing the office of county sheriff, Behan reneged on the deal and appointed another man to the position, leading to the two men’s mutual enmity.

Guns in tombstone

In October 1881 an ordinance was passed in Tombstone prohibiting the carrying of weapons in town. This riled the ‘cowboys’, who were used to carrying their weapons wherever they pleased. As town marshal, Virgil Earp was responsible for enforcing the law and wanted to disarm the offenders.

A heated argument took place between Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton at the Alhambra saloon on the night of October 25, 1881. The fight was broken up, but Clanton continued to drink into the morning. Making threats against Holliday and the Earps, Clanton was armed with several guns, accounts say.

The movies helped make a small-town shoot-out into a leg- end. John Ford directed and Henry Fonda starred as Wyatt Earp in the 1946 film My Darling Clementine, which was a heavily fictionalised version of the events leading up to the famous gunfight. Tombstone proved a popular subject for Hollywood, which has told and retold the story of the Earps at least 10 different times on the big screen.
Photograph by Album

Virgil Earp disarmed Clanton, took him before a judge, who imposed a fine before letting him go. Ike, infuriated, sought out a group of five cowboys, including his brother Billy and the McLaurys, and went with them to Fremont Street. They spread the word that they were armed and intended to remain so. Sheriff Behan met the cowboys and tried to talk them into surrendering their weapons but failed. Sources differ: Some say the cowboys either denied having guns on them or refused to surrender them. 

Behan then met with Virgil Earp, who had deputised his brothers and Doc Holliday. The sheriff tried to convince the Earps to back off, but they pressed on, finding the Clantons and the McLaurys in a lot near the Old Kindersley Corral.

Shots erupted, but no one knows who fired first. The fight was over as quickly as it began. Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury were dead. Ike Clanton and two other cowboys had escaped the same fate. On the Earps’ side, all survived, but only Wyatt remained unharmed.

Under Tombstone law, policemen were in the right if they shot armed opponents threatening to kill. After the shooting, Ike Clanton accused the marshal’s group of firing at five unarmed men, leading Sheriff Behan to arrest the Earp brothers and Holliday, accusing them of murder. During a preliminary hearing that lasted a month, it was proven that two of the cowboys had been armed. The judge threw out the trial, but lingering doubts about the Earps’ true intentions that day would remain.

The three men killed by the Earp brothers and Holliday were photographed in their caskets: (from left to right) Billy Clanton and the brothers Frank and Tom McLaury.
Photograph by Granger, Aurimages

The shooting brought terrible consequences for both the Earps and the cowboys. On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was ambushed and shot in the back on his way home. His injuries left him alive, but seriously injured. In March of the following year, Morgan Earp was killed. The assailants were never positively identified, but many believe the two Earps were gunned down as revenge for the events at the O.K. Corral.

Shortly after these events, Wyatt Earp became a deputy U.S. marshal. He deputised several men, including Doc Holliday, and set out on a vendetta against the men he believed responsible for the death of his brother. Four cowboys, including one of Sheriff Behan’s aides, were killed. Behan acquired an arrest warrant and pursued Earp and his men, without success. Wyatt Earp left Arizona Territory in April 1882, later settling in California with his partner, Josephine Marcus, Behan’s former girlfriend. (Saddle up with Hawaii's cowboys.)

In Boothill Graveyard in Tombstone, Arizona, headstones mark the resting places of the three men killed in the 1881 shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.
Photograph by Dennis Macdonald, AGE Fotostock

Men and myths

The story of the O.K. Corral soon became part the frontier myth. Wyatt Earp’s colourful life as a lawman, gambler, miner, pimp, and saloon owner made him a natural target for colorful anecdotes, but he was reluctant to discuss openly what happened during those fateful seconds in Tombstone.

In 1931, two years after Earp’s death, Stuart N. Lake, a former press aide to President Theodore Roosevelt, published Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, a biography that included a dramatic telling of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral and other events in Earp’s life. The book was extremely successful and elevated Earp to almost mythic status by simplifying the story. Lake made Wyatt the hero and the cowboys the villains. The truth, however—like the line dividing law and vengeance in those wilder times—is much blurrier.


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