The myths of the gunfight at the OK Corral

Denis Begin clears up the myths surrounding Wyatt Earp and his cronies.


Tombstone, Arizona is a historical treat. Where else can you stroll the streets of the most famous city of the American Wild West and watch the re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Tombstone became a frontier mining town when silver was discovered in 1877 by Ed Schieffelin. His friends had warned him he would “only find his tombstone” by prospecting in the San Pedro Hills. Within two years, the city of Tombstone grew to include the usual hotels, newspapers, merchants,  saloons (110), gambling halls (14) and numerous brothels.

The town was badly divided along political lines. The miners, some merchants and the general public were largely from the north and Republicans. The ranchers and some businessmen were Democrats, with many still waving the flag of the Confederacy. There were also the cowboys, a loosely organized band of cattle rustlers, thieves and murderers. Into this mix add the law and the Earp brothers (Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt), who had moved into Tombstone beginning in 1879.

Three movies have helped create the legend of this town: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1956; Tombstone, 1993; and Wyatt Earp, 1994. These movies and countless books have created a number of myths about what really happened during that fatal gunfight.

True or false?

1.  The gunfight on Wednesday October 26, 1881, at 2:47 pm was an isolated event.

False. Trouble had been brewing for months between the cowboys and the Earps. The Earps had been investigating stolen Army mules and Mexican cattle, Wyatt Earp’s stolen horse and the Benson stagecoach robbery/murders. The likely candidates were Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and their cowboy friends. The crisis escalated with verbal threats and the pistol whipping of Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury by Virgil and Wyatt Earp. The Clantons and McLaurys wanted to “clean out the Earps . . . and make a fight.”

2. The gunfight took place at the O.K. Corral.

False. The gunfight really took place on vacant City Lot 2, Block 17, between Fly’s Boarding House/Photography Shop and the William Harwood House. The O.K. Corral is 90 feet east and only provided a backdrop to the event.  The main street of Tombstone today is Allen Street and the entrance to the museum and re-enactment stage. Allen Street in 1881 was a secondary street and the gunfight took place on Fremont Street, the highway through Tombstone.

3. The Earps were looking for a fight.

False. The Clantons and McLaurys were carrying firearms within city limits and Marshal Virgil Earp had a duty to disarm them.  Ike Clanton on the morning of the October 26th, had already been fined [$27.50] for carrying a gun.  Wyatt Earp had other motives, seeing this as a oppourtunity to deal firmly with the Cowboys.  Wyatt’s goal was to be Sheriff, a lucrative position as the Sheriff was also the chief  federal tax collector.  Wyatt Earp admitted this under oath during the preliminary hearing.

4. The Earps were better gunfighters.

False. Neither side had much experience in gunfights, despite their bravado. The Earps won because they fired first and hit their targets. The Earps also used a double barrel shotgun and four single action revolvers, while Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury had two pistols between them. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were unarmed. There is no mystery about what happened in this 30-second gunfight. Billy and Frank fired 10 shots, with three shots wounding Doc Holliday, Morgan Earp and Virgil Earp. The Earps and Doc Holliday fired 20 shots from only six to 10 feet away, killing Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury.  Based on where individuals were standing and the resulting bullet wounds, it is not difficult to fit together the sequence of shots. It is ironic that Marshal Virgil Earp, who was determined to disarm the Clantons and McLaurys, fired his gun but never hit anyone. Billy Clanton, who never wanted to fight, was the last to die. His older brother Ike Clanton, who caused most of the problems, was shot in 1887 while cattle rustling near Globe, Arizona.

5.  The Earps were treated like heroes. 

False. Many people disliked the Earps, feeling they were too ambitious and controlling and had actually orchestrated the final gunfight. The Earps lost a great deal of credibility and were called murderers, since Ike and Tom were unarmed. The Earps and Doc Holliday were arrested and jailed. In a 30-day preliminary hearing, Judge Wells Spicer ruled there was not enough evidence to go to trial and the Earps had “acted within the law . . . in the discharge of an official duty.”

6. The gunfight changed history.

Despite politicians calling for peace and order, little changed. Wyatt organized his own posse and conducted the Earp Vendetta Ride, killing four or more cowboys. Virgil Earp was ambushed on December 28, 1881, and Morgan Earp was killed on March 18, 1882.  Many of the major cowboys—Frank Stillwell, Billy Clairborn, William Curley Brocius and Ike Clanton—all met violent deaths. The gunfight really changed little.

Tips for visitors

For RVers, Tombstone has four RV parks with good facilities. When visiting Tombstone, try shopping on Allen Street in the morning, lunch at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon (she was Doc Holliday’s girlfriend) and take in the re-enactment of the gunfight and the museum in the afternoon. On the way out of town, stop at Boot Hill Cemetery to visit the graves of the Clantons and McLaurys. Remember, Tombstone is a step back into the Wild West, but history is not always as it appears.

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