Anyone who loves westerns or has an interest of the history of the so called Wild West, will undoubtedly have heard of “the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”. The infamous event that took place in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26,1881.
If you believe the Hollywood versions of the event, you’d think that the gunfight lasted for hours. In fact it only lasted for 30 seconds.
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.It is unclear who shot first, but by the end Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead, and Ike had fled. The feud continued through 1882, killing Morgan and several others, until Wyatt and Virgil left Arizona.
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. James, Virgil, and Wyatt Earp arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879, when the town was mostly composed of tents as living quarters, a few saloons and other buildings, and the mines.
Virgil had been hired as Deputy U.S. Marshal for eastern Pima County, with his offices in Tombstone, only days before his arrival. In June 1881 he was also appointed as Tombstone’s town marshal.
Though not universally liked by the townspeople, the Earp brothers tended to protect the interests of the town’s business owners and residents; even so, Wyatt helped protect outlaw “Curly Bill” Brocius from being lynched after he accidentally killed Tombstone town marshal Fred White. In contrast, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan was generally sympathetic to the interests of the rural ranchers and members of the loosely organized outlaw group called the Cochise County Cowboys, or simply the Cowboys, to which Brocius belonged.
Earlier in 1881 an ordinance was passed in Tombstone prohibiting the carrying of weapons in town. Known as Ordinance No.9:
“To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons” (effective April 19, 1881).
Section 1. “It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person to carry deadly weapons, concealed or otherwise [except the same be carried openly in sight, and in the hand] within the limits of the City of Tombstone.
Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.
Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.”
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.
After a number of confrontations between the two feuding groups , it came to a head on October 26, 1881, when Virgil arrested Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury for carrying firearms in the city limits. After the pair were released, they joined up with Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury, who had just arrived in town. Gathered near the OK Corral on Fremont Street, Virgil then decided to disarm Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury, as well. Marshal Virgil Earp recruited his brothers Wyatt and Morgan to help him in this dangerous task. Doc Holliday also insisted upon joining them. When the four men approached the “Cowboys,” demanding their guns, all hell broke loose.
In what has since forever been known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton made the mistake of cocking their pistols when approached by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. It is not really known who fired the first shot, but Doc’s bullet was the first to hit home, tearing through Frank McLaury’s belly and sending McLaury’s own shot wild through Wyatt’s coat-tail. The 30-second shootout left Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury dead. Virgil Earp took a shot to the leg and Morgan suffered a shoulder wound. Sheriff John Behan arrested Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, as well as Doc Holliday for the murder of Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury. However, Judge Wells Spicer, who was related to the Earps, decided that the defendants had been justified in their actions.
Despite its name, the gunfight did not take place within or next to the O.K. Corral, which fronted Allen Street and had a rear entrance lined with horse stalls on Fremont Street. The shootout actually took place in a narrow lot on the side of C. S. Fly’s photography studio on Fremont Street, six doors west of the O.K. Corral’s rear entrance.