Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: A Brief History

In a Fateful 30 Seconds ...

On the cold afternoon of October 26, 1881, four men in long black coats strode purposefully down the dusty Fremont Street. Around the corner, in a narrow vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral, waited six cowboys. In a fateful thirty seconds, nearly thirty shots were fired at close range. The gunbattle between the Earps – lead by Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and their friend, Doc Holliday – and the Clanton-McLaury gang left Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers dead and Virgil, Morgan, and Doc wounded.

Today we frame this event as a legendary example of Western vigilante justice, where lawmen preserving the peace faced down cattle rustlers suspected of robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach. But the historical backdrop for this deadly tension is far more complex. After the Civil War, rapid growth in the American industrial economy spurred an interest in Westward expansion. Boomtowns like Tombstone provided fertile ground for the continuation of the war's sectional strife in the Western territories. Wealthy Northern mine owners and businessmen jockeyed with Southern cowboys from Texas for control and power. Each faction brought its economic, political, and social conflicts to the Arizona Territory – and to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The story began in 1877, when Ed Schieffelin's discovery of significant veins of silver ore in southeastern Arizona's Cochise County held out alluring promises of wealth and opportunity for enterprising people from all walks of life. Between 1879 and 1880, Tombstone's population exploded from a handful of prospectors to nearly 6,000 residents. With this rapid influx of newcomers, Tombstone's fledgling social and political infrastructure began to take shape. Profits from the mines created a business-friendly town center with a pronounced need for law enforcement officers to maintain justice and order. To provide protection and reduce crime and violence, Tombstone's town leaders sought out men like Wyatt Earp, who had built his reputation as a gunfighter and lawman in Dodge City.

Tombstone soon became the center of a feud which pitted a group of prominent ranchers headed by the Clanton and McLaury families against a coalition of Tombstone businessmen represented by the Earps. The ranchers, who sold meat to the town and nearby Fort Huachuca, often "supplemented" their income by rustling cattle. These "Cowboys" were Democrats with strong ties to Texas and were supported by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan. The Earp faction – Wyatt, his brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Warren, and their friend Doc Holliday – had the backing of Tombstone's Republican business elite, including Mayor John Clum (editor of The Tombstone Epitaph newspaper), mining magnate E.B. Gage, and Episcopalian minister Rev. Endicott Peabody.

Tensions between the two camps erupted in violence on October 26, 1881, in a narrow vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral. After a long night of poker that ended in an exchange of harsh words and a series of small scuffles, a confrontation appeared to be inevitable. According to historian Paula Marks, County Sheriff Behan insisted, "There is to be trouble between the Clanton and the Earp boys today."

Throughout the morning, various members of the vigilante businessmen's Citizens Safety Committee volunteered to intervene in the conflict, but Marshal Virgil Earp, seeking to avoid the involvement of armed citizens, respectfully declined their offers. Instead he sought Sheriff Behan's aid in disarming the Cowboys, who had now moved to the vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral next to photographer C.S. Fly's Boarding House (where Doc Holliday lived). Behan, however, was unable to convince the Cowboys to give up their weapons – and unable to prevent the Earps and Doc Holliday from heading to the O.K. Corral to disarm the Cowboys.

A Brief Overview of the Shootout

The stage was set. As the Earps turned the corner and entered the narrow passageway between the Harwood House and Fly's Boarding House, they met their rivals face-to-face. Each lawmen carried a six-shooter. In addition, "Doc" Holliday carried a shotgun hidden under his long coat. Less than six feet away from the Cowboys, Virgil called out, "Boys, throw up your hands, I've come to disarm you." Billy Clanton is said to have responded, "Don't shoot! I don't want to fight!" To which Wyatt Earp allegedly said, "You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight and now you have it." And bullets flew. Within thirty seconds, nearly thirty shots were fired.

During the gunbattle, Billy Clanton shot Morgan Earp through the leg and Virgil Earp through the shoulders. A bullet just grazed Doc Holliday's hip. Cowboys Ike Clanton and Billy Claibourne were unarmed, and both ran away when the fighting began. The remaining three cowboys (Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton) were all killed. Tom McClaury, who also may have been unarmed, was shot and killed by a blast from Doc's shotgun. His brother, Frank McLaury, was shot in the stomach by Doc, then killed by a shot to the head by Doc or Morgan Earp. Nineteen year old Billy Clanton was shot in the chest and the right arm which forced him to continue shooting left-handed. He died of his wounds 30 minutes after the fight. Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday were carried home, treated by Dr. Goodfellow. Only Wyatt remained unharmed. As reported in the Tombstone Nugget newspaper on October 27, 1881, the gunfight reflected "one of the crimson days in the annals of Tombstone, a day when blood flowed as water ... a day always to be remembered as witnessing the bloodiest and deadliest streetfight that has ever occurred in this place, or probably in the Territory."

For a detailed account of the gunfight and the subsequent Earp-Holliday murder inquest buy a reprint of the 1881 Tombstone Epitaph at the OK Corral or Epitaph offices.

The Aftermath

The coroner opened a formal inquest on October 27th, which led to a month-long preliminary hearing before Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer. Ike Clanton's testimony obviously differed on key points from the recollections of the Earps and Doc Holliday. The townspeople were split in their allegiances, some believing the Earps used necessary force to quash a threat to Tombstone's civil order, others believing the lawmen were oppressors of individual rights. At the trial's end, Justice Spicer censured Virgil Earp but found insufficient cause for the defendants to be tried for murder: "I cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides." The wave of reprisals left Morgan Earp dead, Virgil Earp permanently disabled, and the Cowboys significantly weakened. Under indictment for murder in the revenge shootings of his brothers' killers, Wyatt Earp left Tombstone with Doc Holliday in April 1882.

There are those who say Wyatt Earp was the Lion of Tombstone, the man who saw his unpleasant duty and brought peace to a troubled town. There are others who just as strongly proclaim that the Earps were no better than the men with whom they fought, and the killings were the outgrowth of outlaw activities in which all were involved. Still others say Wyatt Earp was really just a hired gun, doing what he was told to do, a man no better and no worse than a horde of like contemporaries throughout the unstable West. Today, evaluation is difficult, for we judge by present standards the men who lived in a different world, at a hard to imagine time, and under a flexible set of rules.

For over 125 years, the dramatic events of October 26, 1881, have captured the imagination of historians and storytellers. The Earps and the Cowboys have become iconic symbols of the untamed Western frontier. But of all the Old West gunbattles, why do these thirty seconds live on in history? In boomtowns like Tombstone, economic and political concerns dominated the community's culture, reinforced by social allegiances. Turbulent events like the Gunfight remain significant today not because of their the "good" defeated the "bad," but rather because they reflect the complex realities of the Western frontier.

Drawn to Tombstone by the alluring prospect of striking it rich in the town's silver boom, James, Virgil, and Wyatt Earp arrived with their common law wives in 1879, and were soon joined by their close friend Doc Holliday, followed in 1880 by Morgan and Warren. They operated gambling concessions, ran saloons, and invested in real estate and mining claims. However, it was the Earps tough, unyielding skill as lawmen able to bring order to rowdy frontier communities that brought them to the attention of Tombstone's Republican businessmen ... and cast the brothers as central figures in the West's political and economic struggle for control and power.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp

Born: March 19, 1848 (Monmouth, Illinois)
Died: January 13, 1929 (Los Angeles, California)

Celebrated by many as a man who brought law and order to America's boomtowns – while denounced by others as a revenge-seeker and murderer who took the law into his own hands – Wyatt Earp remains one of the Old West's most enigmatic figures. The subject of scores of movies, television dramas, and novels, Earp stands out as an iconic legend. Yet his actual life story reflects the thin line between respectability and notoriety that permeated America's frontier communities.

The middle brother of five, Wyatt was born in 1848 to Nicholas and Virginia Earp. A tall, quiet loner, he moved frequently with his family, settling in Illinois, Iowa, and California before returning east in 1869 to become constable in Lamar, Missouri. Married in 1870, his young pregnant bride died suddenly from typhoid. Devastated, Wyatt drifted, spending his twenties one step ahead of the law. Ever seeking his fortune in the next boomtown, he moved to Kansas to work in his brother James' brothel. When the summer cattle drives ended, he turned to police work in Wichita and Dodge City, making sure to keep the Texas cowboys out of trouble – businesses suffered when cowboys with money in their pockets were jailed. At age 31, Wyatt turned his sights to Tombstone. A gambler, faro dealer, and shotgun messenger for Wells Fargo, he was deputized by his brother, Chief of Police Virgil Earp, to keep the peace in the Oriental Saloon. The Earp brothers, as representatives for Tombstone's businessmen, were soon feuding with the Clantons and McLaurys, ranchers who lived outside of town.

In April 1881, with passage of Tombstone's ordinance preventing citizens from carrying guns in town, tensions between the Earps and the Cowboys mounted. Stagecoach robberies, cattle rustling, and Wyatt's loss of the lucrative county sheriff position to Johnny Behan, a friend of the Clantons and McLaurys, compounded the conflict. Political and personal disputes erupted on October 21, 1881.

Armament: Wyatt probably carried the Colt .45 single-action Peacemaker, with a 7½" blued steel barrel and wood handle, presented to him by Epitaph editor John Clum. The gun was tucked in Wyatt's waistband and reached through a pocket opening in Earp's long coat.

During the Gunfight: Wyatt is reported to have shouted, "You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight, and now you can have it." In the first chaotic moments, Wyatt briefly grappled with Ike Clanton as the unarmed cowboy fled the scene. Wyatt was one of the first to fire, shooting Frank McLaury in the stomach. When the smoke cleared, only Wyatt walked away unharmed.

After the Gunfight: Arrested and tried for the murder of the Cowboys, the Earps and Doc Holliday were acquitted in November 1881 by Judge Spicer. With tensions running high, Virgil was shot and crippled in December and five months later, in May 1882, Morgan was assassinated. Wyatt, now a Deputy US Marshal, sought revenge. His vendetta ride (March 20-April 15, 1882) resulted in the deaths of Cowboys Frank Stillwill and Curly Bill Brocious. Indicted for murder, Wyatt and Doc Holliday left Tombstone for Colorado, vowing vengeance on Ike Clanton and other Cowboys targeting the Earp family. He reconnected with his Tombstone lover, Josephine Marcus, and the couple moved to San Francisco, where Wyatt gambled on horses, invested in real estate, and refereed boxing matches. In 1897, they followed the next boom to Alaska, opening a saloon in Nome at the height of the Gold Rush. Returning to Los Angeles in 1901 nearly $80,000 richer, they staked claims for gold in the Mohave Desert, and Wyatt served as an advisor for Hollywood's new silent Western films. But Tombstone continued to haunt their lives. Aided by John Flood, Wyatt and Josie began crafting his memoirs. He died of cancer on January 13, 1929, and was buried in Josie's family plot in Colma, California. Five years later, Stuart Lake's film biography, Frontier Marshal, was released – and the legend of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took hold as a symbolic icon of the untamed frontier.

Virgil Earp

Virgil Walter Earp

Born: July 18, 1843 (Hartford, Kentucky)
Died: October 19, 1905 (Goldfield, Nevada)

Born in 1843 to Nicholas and Virginia Earp, Virgil Earp was the true lawman of the Earp family. The second of five Earp sons, he joined the Union Army in 1862, mustering out in 1865. Working primarily as a lawman and a gambler, he traveled with his parents to California then back east to Missouri and Iowa before joining his brother Wyatt on the Wichita police force in the mid-1870s. Moving to Prescott, AZ, he was appointed US Deputy Marshal in 1879 - and one month later moved with his family to Tombsone. In October 1880, following the shooting death of Tombstone's Marshal Fred White, Virgil was appointed as White's successor. He served for a month before losing the 1880 election for US Marshal. Months later, he was again appointed Tombstone Chief of Police on June 28, 1881. 38-year-old Virgil represented the law in Tombstone. In fact, much of what Wyatt has been credited with was actually Virgil's doing. Numerous accounts show that Virgil tried to diffuse the gunflight participants on that fateful October 26th - all the way up to the streetfight.

Armament: Virgil held Doc Holliday's cane in his right hand. A .45 Colt Peacemaker with a 4¾" barrel and wood handle was hidden in his belt.

During the Gunfight: As Chief of Police enforcing Tombstone's gun ordinance, Virgil shouted for the Cowboys to "Throw up your hands...I want your guns!" He was shot by Billy Clanton or Frank McLaury through the calf of his right leg. Raising Doc's cane, Virgil fired back at Billy Clanton.

After the Gunfight: Exactly eight weeks after the gunfight, on December 28, 1881, Virgil was ambushed as he walked across Fifth Street near Allen Street. Shot in the back by three rounds, his left arm was shattered. The doctor removed 4" of arm bone, leaving Virgil permanently disabled. Speculation has it that Frank and Tom McLaury's older brother Will was involved in the assassination attempt, either directly or monetarily. However, there were no convictions due to insufficient evidence. On March 20, 1882, following his brother Morgan's assassination, Virgil and his wife left Tombstone under heavy guard, accompanying Morgan's body to the Earp family home in California for burial. After two years of rehabilitation, Virgil joined Southern Pacific Railroad as a special agent. For the next two decades, he wandered around mining camps in Nevada and California, prospecting and serving as a frontier lawman. At age 62, Virgil died of pneumonia on October 19, 1905, in Goldfield, Nevada. He was buried in Portland, Oregon, at the request of his daughter Nellie Jane Bohn.

Morgan Earp

Morgan Seth Earp

Born: April 24, 1851 (Pella, Iowa)
Died: March 18, 1882 (Tombstone, Arizona)

Morgan Earp worked primarily as a stagecoach guard. The younger brother of the "Fighting Earps". Morgan has been characterized as quick to laugh and quick to anger. One account (Mrs. M.J. King) during the trial revealed Morgan, saying "Let them have it" to which Doc Holliday replied, "All right." Thirty year old Morgan Earp, had been deputized by Virgil as a special policeman about a month before the gunfight.

Armament: In one hand a Peacemaker, 4 3/4" barrel, wood handle, metal. sixshooter. In belt for crossdraw.

During the Gunfight: One of the first to fire, he shot Billy Clanton in the chest, and was himself shot in the right shoulder probably by the wounded Billy Clanton. The bullet went sideways though his body just missing the backbone, and exited out the left shoulder.

After the Gunfight: On March 18, 1882, five months after the gunfight, Morgan Earp was shot in the back by assassins while playing billiards at Campbell and Hatch's Saloon. Another bullet barely missed Wyatt. Although Will McLaury had long since left Tombstone for his home in Fort Worth, he was still suspected of being involved. Morgan died at the age of 30 within the hour.

Doc Holliday

John Henry "Doc" Holliday

Born: August 14, 1851 (Griffin, Georgia)
Died: November 8, 1887 (Glenwood Springs, Colorado)

Dr. John "Doc" Holliday was a private citizen -- dentist, gambler, drunkard, and gunfighter. With tuberculosis and a deathwish, Holliday came to Tombstone with a trunk full of reputations. He had made dozens of enemies by the time he got there and one friend; Wyatt Earp, whose life he had once saved. He was asked by Virgil to help disarm the Clantons. But as the Cowboy side of the streetfight story has it that Holliday and Morgan were first to draw. If Tom really had been unarmed at the fight, it can be said that Doc Holliday was the only murderer of the day.

Armament: He was hiding a shotgun under his coat and carried a Colt .45 nickel-plated pistol in his hand.

During the Gunfight: Probably the first to fire, Doc shot Frank McLaury in stomach with his pistol, then he hit Tom McClaury with a load of buckshot from his shotgun. A bullet grazed his hip.

After the Gunfight: At age 36, Doc Holliday died bedridden and delirous of miliary tuberculosis on November 8, 1887 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Through the early months of 1881, the Clantons continued to rustle cattle from Mexico, a crime that the Earp lawmen could do nothing about. Their hands were tied since cattle rustling was officially a county matter and John Behan was the county. The gap between the law and the outlaw faction grew wider and the town divided into two camps. While most of Tombstone's citizens supported the Earps, the politically strong outlaw element, with Behan in control, supported the Clantons.

Ike Clanton

Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton

Born: Ca. 1847 (Callaway County, Missouri)
Died: June 1, 1887 (Springerville, Arizona)

Craven coward or rough-and-tumble roustabout? 34 year old rancher Ike Clanton has been portrayed as both over the decades. Certainly, he was the final catalyst in the events that led to the shootout. The Clanton family moved to the Tombstone area in 1868. Ike's ranch was on the San Pedro River about 14 miles SW from Tombstone.

Armament: Unarmed. His Winchester carbine and Colt. 45 had been taken away earlier that day by Virgil.

During the Gunfight: The unarmed Ike Clanton briefly grappled with Wyatt as he ran away from the fight into the front door of Fly's Boardinghouse, he continued running through Fly's back door all the way to a dance hall on Allen Street. He lived on a rnach built by his father "Old Man" Clanton who had arrivedin the aarea in 1868 or 69on the San Pedro River about 5 miles shouth of Charleston, and about 14 miles SW from Tombstone.

After the Gunfight: Ike managed to dodge Earp bullets during the gunfight and Wyatt's ride of revenge afterwards. But he wasn't able to dodge a bullet given to him by deputy marshall Jonas V. Brighton on June 1, 1887, six years later. Ike Clanton died at the age of 39.

Terry "Ike" Clanton, a Clanton descendent and leader of the Clanton Gang website, believes he has found the grave of Ike Clanton. He is currently on a drive to have the body exhumed and placed next to his father and brother in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.

Billy Clanton

William Harrison "Billy" Clanton

Born: Ca. 1862 (Hamilton County, Texas)
Died: October 26, 1881 (Tombstone, Arizona)

The youngest of the Clanton boys. It's noted that, as a rancher, Billy first met and befriended Frank and Tom at the Jones ranch - formerly owned by Old Man Clanton - along the Gila River near Camp Thomas. Billy has been known as a hard worker and a big, loutish figure . He wasn't innocent young man by any stretch of the word; he was caught by Wyatt Earp in posession of of Wyatt's stolen horse. By most accounts, Billy was trying to get his brother out of Tombstone the day of the shootout.

Armament: Colt 1873 44-40 single-action army revolver with 7½” blue barrel, Winchester rifle on scabbard on his horse.

During the Gunfight: When the shooting started, Billy did not back down from the renoun gunfighters and lawmen. Billy shouted, "Don't shoot me... I don't want to fight!". But after being shot in the chest by Morgan Earp, Billy was the only cowboy to inflict any real damage on the Earps. He shot Virgil in the leg and Morgan in the shoulder, despite being badly wounded in the chest and having his right arm broken with by a shot to his wrist forcing him to continue shooting left handed. Even after the fight had ended, he continued to plead for more bullets from C.S. Fly for more bullets even after the fight finished. In great pain, he was carried, as was Tom McLaury, to a building on the corner of Fremont and Third streets. Despite receiving two full syringes of Morphine, he continued to writhe in pain, and died in agony about 1/2 hour after the gunbattle. Billy lies in Boothill with Frank and Tom one side and his father on the other.

After the Gunfight: Billy Clanton died at age 19 in the gunfight and was buried in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.

Frank McLaury

Robert Findley "Frank" McLaury

Born: March 3, 1849 (Kortright / Merideth, New York)
Died: October 26, 1881 (Tombstone, Arizona)

Frank McLaury (or "Rob", as the family called him) was the number eight child and number five son. Robert was only 11 days older than Wyatt Earp. Like Wyatt, he was of the generation of boys that just missed the "glory" of the Civil War. Unlike Wyatt, Rob remained at his father's home well into his twenties. In the mid 1870's, sixty-something Robert Houston took a second wife who was two years younger than Rob. With Robert Houston's new family on the farm, Robert Findley and Tom decdided it was time to leave and head west for Fort Worth, TX, where their brother, Will was moving to. Apparently, about this time and for possibly said reasons, Robert stopped using his given name and began using a more modern variation of his middle name, "Frank".

When the McLaurys arrived in the Tombstone in 1878 they lived on a ranch near Soldier's Hole in the Sulphur Springs Valley near the Mexican border along what was called "rustler's trail". This trail started near the Clanton Ranch, and was used to move stolen cattle to and from Mexico. In a short time, Frank got a reputation for being fast with a gun in the Arizona Territory (AT). Wyatt mentioned this in testimony as the reason for shooting at Frank first. Another account speaks of piles of cartridges used in target practice found on the McLaury ranch. Although gutshot, Frank was able to regroup enough to hit Morgan and clip Holliday. Some attribute him to hitting Virgil as well. Frank was killed almost instantly from the head-shot by Morgan Earp or Doc Holliday.

Armament: Frontier Colt 1873 44-40 single-action army revolver with 7½” blue barrel, Winchester rifle on scabbard on his horse. Frank was reputed to be the best gunman of the cowboy group. His Winchester rifle was in a scabbard on his horse. From H.M. Matthews testimony, it was recorded that Frank's sixshooter had two loads remaining. If Frank's pistol hammer was lying on an empty chamber, as most people carried their sidearms back then, then he only fired three shots.

During the Gunfight: Frank was shot in the stomach by Doc Hollidy early in the fight, he staggered wounded onto Freemont street leading his horse by the reins. He then managed to superficially wound Doc in the hip, but was shot in the head by Morgan or Doc. He died on the sidewalk across Freemont Street.

After the Gunfight: Frank McLaury died at age 33 in the gunfight and was buried in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.

Tom McLaury

Thomas "Tom" McLaury

Born: June 30, 1853 (Kortright / Merideth, New York)
Died: October 26, 1881 (Tombstone, Arizona)

Thomas Clark McLaury has been more elusive to profile by historians than Frank. He has been portayed as mild mannered, a hard worker, trying to diffuse high tensions on many occasions. He's also been cast as a "cowboy banker", a quick draw and the brains behind the McLaury Ranch enterprises. Tom was noted for being well-liked in Town. It seemed it was his death, above all, that generated the growing animosity towards the Earps during the inquest.

Armament: Although a skilled gunfighter, one of the big debates still on-going is whether Tom was armed during the shootout. He appeared likely to be unarmed having left his Winchester carbine at the West End Corral, and his six-shooter at a saloon as it was against the law to carry guns in Tombstone. He did try to grab the Winchester from Billy Clantons' startled horse.

During the Gunfight: When the fighting commenced, Tom ducked behind Billy Clanton's horse. Tom may have shouted "I'm not armed" but nonetheless when the horse bolted Tom was shot at point-blank range with a load of buckshot from Doc Holiday early int he fight. The fatal shotgun blast left 12 buckshot wounds in a 4" circle in his right side. At the inquest, the defense claimed Tom was going for the rifle in the saddle scabbard. nevertheless Tom staggered out onto Fremont Street stumbling down toward Third, then collapsed. A few minutes after the fight he and Billy Clanton were moved to a building on the corner of Fremont and Third.

After the Gunfight: It was said Tom lived just long enough to be carried indoors, but never said a word. He died without speaking minutes after the gunfight at age 28 and was buried in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.

Billy Claiborne

William Floyd "Billy" Claiborne

Born: October 21, 1860 (Yazoo County, Mississippi)
Died: November 14, 1882 (Tombstone, Arizona)

Billy Claiborne was an American outlaw cowboy, drover, miner, and gunfighter in the American Old West.

Armament: Billy Claibourne was unarmed, having left his guns at Kellogg's Saloon the day before. Remember, it was against the law to carry guns in Tombstone.

During the Gunfight: Fled into C.S. Fly's boarding house.

After the Gunfight: Billy Claibourne died on November 14, 1882 at the age of 22. Claiborne insulted "Buckskin" Frank Leslie (who was tending bar at the Oriental Saloon) and refused to leave. After two men told Leslie that Claiborne was waiting for him outside, Leslie stepped out and saw "a foot of rifle barrel protruding from the end of the fruit stand." He told Claiborne "Don't shoot, I don't want you to kill me, nor do I want to have to shoot you." Claiborne, still drunk, raised his rifle and fired the weapon, missing Leslie. Leslie returned fire and hit Claiborne in the chest. Claiborne was buried in Tombstone's Boothill Cemetery.