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What We Should Know About the Shoot-Out at the O.K. Corral

1800s | September 13, 2018

Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 photographed by C. S. Fly.

When you ask someone to think about the Old West and some of the key events that occurred during the days of cowboys, outlaws, and small-town sheriffs, one event is mentioned more than any other…the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Even though that have been numerous movies and books about this infamous Wild West, cops versus robbers, shoot-out Hollywood has often glamorized the event and, depending on which book you read, you may find yourself rooting for the outlaws or the lawmen. So let’s take a brief look at the event to separate fact from fiction about the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. 

The Town of Tombstone was the Setting for the Epic Shoot-Out

Tombstone, Arizona, located near the Mexican border, was a relatively new town. It was founded in March of 1879 right after silver was found in the area. Tombstone was the epitome of an old west boom town. In 1879, only about 100 people lived in the area, but two years later, the population grew to more than 7,000. Many of the town’s residents were drawn to the area’s silver mines and brought their wives and children along. Still, the town was a mix of a lawless frontier town and a civilized, modern community. There were several churches, fine restaurants, an opera house, ice cream shop and a school, but there were also more than one hundred saloons, more than a dozen gambling houses and nearly as many brothels. 

The Proximity to the Mexican Border Made Tombstone a Gateway to Smuggling Operations

Alcohol and tobacco were often illegally smuggled across the Arizona-Mexico border, as were stolen animals. Horse thieving and cattle rustling were rampant in the Old West and it was easy for bandits to sneak stolen or illegal goods across the international border. Many outlaws traveled through Tombstone on their way to and from the border and the fledgling town was no stranger to gunfights in the streets. 

Wyatt Earp

Enter Wyatt Earp and His Brothers

Wyatt Earp, fresh from his job as sheriff of Dodge City, Kansas, arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879, along with his brothers, Virgil and James. Virgil Earp had been hired as the Deputy U.S. Marshal for the county and he was to set up his headquarters in Tombstone. Brothers Morgan and Warren Earp followed their brothers to Arizona. By June of 1881, he was also serving as the town’s chief of police and he hired his brother, Wyatt, to assist him. Right from the start, the Earp brothers were disliked by some of the cowboys that ran around Tombstone. Included in that group were the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, the Clanton brothers, Billy and Ike, and their friends, Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius. Cowboys by trade, these men were also heavy drinkers, quick-tempered brawlers, brothel patrons, cattle smugglers and horse thieves. 

Doc Holliday

The Shoot-Out Only Lasted 30-Seconds

On October 26, 1881, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the ongoing feud between the Earp brothers and the McLaury and Clanton brothers and their outlaw friends, finally came to a head. The outlaws had made repeated death threats against the Earp brothers, as well as fellow lawman, Doc Holliday. The Earps were disrupting the illegal operations of the outlaw bandits and they wanted revenge. The shoot-out pitted three of the Earp brothers…Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil… and Doc Holliday against five of the outlaws. Only Virgil Earp had any experience in a gunfight. There are conflicting reports over which side fired the first shots, but when the shooting stopped and the dust had settled behind the O.K. Corral, both McLaury boys were dead, as was Billy Clanton. Ike Clanton had fled the conflict. Doc Holliday, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, but Wyatt Earp was unscathed. 

Were the Lawmen Justified? Or Guilty of Murder?

In the days after the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, the people of Tombstone were divided. Some believed that the lawmen were acting in the best interest of the town by ridding the community of criminals. Others, more sympathetic to the plight of the cowboys, claimed that the lawmen set up the confrontation to murder the cowboys. Even newspaper reports of the time illustrate the conflicting side. In the end, a hearing showed that the lawman acted within the law and in self-defense. 

The Shoot-Out at the O.K. Corral Highlighted the Lawless West

The shoot-out at the O.K. Corral came to symbolize the wild west and the criminal activity that threatened to overtake frontier towns. In pop culture, the depictions still show that the event raises debates. Were the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday abusing their positions as lawmen to get revenge on their enemies? Or were they simply doing what they were hired to do…clean up the town? 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.