Some say the gunfight at the OK Corral was just an arrest gone wrong. Others say it was all about two feuding factions fighting over control of Tombstone and the county as a whole, that it was just two gangs fighting for territory.
To me, I really believe that the shootout was about that and the boiling over of a feud that resulted from backroom deals gone wrong, city and county political ambitions, a hatred for those interfering with their criminal activities, and of course an animosity for what was the law - by both sides.
The Earps came into conflict with Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy and Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, and others in the Cowboy gang almost as soon as they arrived.
The Cowboys were a loosely associated group of outlaw cowboys in Pima and Cochise County, Arizona Territory in the late 19th century.
They were cattle rustlers, smugglers, horse-thieves, robbers, and yes, murdering outlaws who had been implicated in various crimes. At first they rode across the border into Mexico and rounded up cattle that they then sold in the United States.
When the Mexican government boosted law enforcement from their side of the river, it made cross-border rustling and smuggling a lot more dangerous and a lot less attractive. The cowboy gang turned to stealing livestock and horses from neighboring ranches.
But they didn't stop there as they also held up stagecoaches, robbing the strongboxes and strong-arming passengers for their valuables. In some instances they killed drivers and passengers.
Tombstone resident George Parson wrote in his diary, "A Cowboy is a rustler at times, and a rustler is a synonym for desperado—bandit, outlaw, and horse thief."
Yup, they gave honest hard working cowboys a bad name. So much so that the San Francisco Examiner wrote in an editorial, "Cowboys [are] the most reckless class of outlaws in that wild country...infinitely worse than the ordinary robber."
At that time during the 1880s, in Cochise County for certain, it became pretty much an insult to call a legitimate cattleman a "Cowboy."
Honest cowmen were generally called herders or cowhands. Ranchers were then as they are today, cowmen who owned the ranches.
Most cowboys aspired to own their own spread, but in reality that only happened to a small number who stuck with it and built ranches out of nothing.
Contrary to Hollywood's depiction of the Cowboys as an organized gang, they were not. They may have been in the hundreds as some have proclaimed, but to say they were organized would be an exaggeration.
In May 1882, Virgil Earp estimated that the Cowboys numbered nearly 200, and that during his time in Cochise Territory about 50 had been killed.
Some say that the group started no different than a lot of other groups did in the Old West. That is, as simply neighbors, friends, and families, joining together for a sort of mutual support and defense from the lawlessness of the territory.
Remember, many of the families that were later identified as being part of the Cowboy gang had arrived there before there was any semblance of organized law.
That wasn't probably the way they started out, but what the cowboys became later was in fact a band of friends and acquaintances who teamed up for various crimes including rustling and murder.
As Deputy U.S. Marshal, Virgil Earp once said that the primary occupation of the Cowboy gang was raiding haciendas in Sonora, Mexico. They then sold the cattle in Pima and Cochise County to cooperative butchers. When they couldn't find cattle to steal, they robbed stages and engaged "in similar enterprises".
He said that as soon as they had money to spend, they roared into Tombstone to spend it freely in the saloons, dance houses, and faro tables.
Were they good for businesses there trying to make it big? Sure they were. Their generous spending habits earned them friends among the business men, who welcomed them with open arms.
Of course when the Cowboys broke the law, those same businesses were reluctant to speak out against them and remained quiet - mostly because they didn't want tot lose their business, but also out of fear of reprisal.
When Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879, the town had already exploded in less than 18 months from about 100 miners living in tents and shacks to more than 7000 people from everywhere by at the end of 1879.
Virgil had been appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for Eastern Pima County in Prescott, Arizona. Some think Virgil went to Tombstone because of Wyatt, but the fact is that U.S. Marshal C.P. Dake directed him to relocate to Tombstone so that Virgil could focus his efforts on the Cowboys' illegal activities.
Virgil arrived in Tombstone with his brothers James and Wyatt. Morgan arrived two months later. John H. "Doc" Holliday came to Arizona with the Earps but stayed in Prescott for several months. Doc arrived in Tombstone in September of 1880.
Immediately upon their arrival, the James and Wyatt Earp began filing mining claims in the area.
On December 6, 1879, the Earps and Robert J. Winders filed a location notice for the First North Extension of the Mountain Maid Mine. From that beginning, the Earps would file several more mining claims and buy and sell lots of land within the town.
But as most know, boom towns have a way of rising and falling. While Virgil was a lawman and Morgan worked for him as one as well, James and Wyatt Earp would eventually fall back upon their more familiar careers as saloon keepers, bartenders, gamblers, and faro dealers.
Prospecting is sort of ify, a catch when catch can proposition. In that case, it's like what they say about pursuing a career as an Actor, it's always smart and good to keep your day job.
When Wyatt first arrived in Tombstone in December of 1879, he planned to establish a stage line but soon discovered there were already two in the town. So instead he partnered with the owner of the Oriental Saloon to run a gaming business for a quarter percentages of the proceeds.
Upon arriving in Tombstone, the Earps filed mining claims, Wyatt did take a job as a shotgun rider on the stage lines for Wells Fargo shipments, guarding their bullion shipments, and as a payroll guard.
But all in all, Wyatt didn't give up on the lucrative aspects of law enforcement. As a police officer in Dodge City, he found out just how much money can be made from collecting taxes and fines.
Since the County Sheriff was promised 10% of all taxes he collected, got part of the fines collected, and might even be able to pick up some "protection" money if he decided to, County Sheriff was a very attractive job.
The first real confrontation with Cowboy gang was on July 25, 1880, when U.S. Army Captain Joseph H. Hurst asked Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp to assist him in tracking Cowboys who had stolen six U.S. Army mules from Camp Rucker.
Virgil requested the assistance of his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, along with Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and they found the mules at the McLaurys' ranch. McLaury was a Cowboy, which in that time and region was generally regarded as an outlaw.
They found the branding iron used to change the "U.S." brand to "D.8." Stealing the mules was a federal offense because the animals were U.S. property.
Cowboy Frank Patterson "made some kind of a compromise" with Captain Hurst, who persuaded the posse to withdraw, with the understanding that the mules would be returned.
The Cowboys showed up two days later without the mules and laughed at Captain Hurst and the Earps.
In response, Capt. Hurst printed a handbill describing the theft, and specifically charged Frank McLaury with assisting with hiding the mules. He also reproduced the flyer in The Tombstone Epitaph, on July 30, 1880.
Frank McLaury angrily printed a response in the Cowboy-friendly Nuggett, calling Hurst "unmanly," "a coward, a vagabond, a rascal, and a malicious liar," and accused Hurst of stealing the mules himself.
Capt. Hurst later cautioned the Earps that the cowboys had threatened their lives.
Virgil reported that Frank accosted him and warned him "If you ever again follow us as close as you did, then you will have to fight anyway."
A month later Earp ran into Frank and Tom McLaury in Charleston, and they told him if he ever followed them as he had done before, they would kill him.
On July 28, Wyatt was appointed deputy sheriff for the eastern part of Pima County, which included Tombstone.
The deputy sheriff's position was worth more than US$40,000 a year (about $963,310 today) because he was also county assessor and tax collector, and the board of supervisors allowed him to keep ten percent of the amounts paid. Wyatt, however, only served for about three months.
On October 28, 1880, popular Tombstone town marshal Fred White attempted to break up a group of late night, drunken revelers shooting at the moon on Allen Street in Tombstone.
Wyatt Earp was nearby, though unarmed. He borrowed a pistol from Fred Dodge and went to assist White.
When White grabbed Curly Bill Brocius' pistol, the gun discharged, striking White in the groin. Wyatt pistol-whipped Brocius, knocking him to the ground. Then he grabbed Brocius by the collar and told him to get up. Brocius protested, asking, "What have I done?
Fred Dodge arrived on the scene. In a letter to Stewart Lake many years later, he recalled what he saw.
"Wyatt's coolness and nerve never showed to better advantage than they did that night. When Morg and I reached him, Wyatt was squatted on his heels beside Curly Bill and Fred White. Curly Bill's friends were pot-shooting at him in the dark. The shooting was lively and slugs were hitting the chimney and cabin... in all of that racket, Wyatt's voice was even and quiet as usual."
Wyatt told his biographer many years later that he thought Brocious was still armed at the time and didn't see Brocius' pistol on the ground in the dark until afterward. The pistol contained one expended cartridge and five live rounds.
Brocius waived a preliminary hearing so he and his case could be transferred to Tucson District Court. Virgil and Wyatt escorted Brocius to Tucson to stand trial, possibly saving him from a lynching. White, age 31, died of his wound two days after his shooting.
On December 27, 1880, Wyatt testified that White's shooting was accidental. Brocius expressed regret, saying he had not intended to shoot White. It was also shown that Brocius' single action revolver could be fired when half-cocked.
A statement from White before he died was introduced stating that the shooting was accidental. The judge ruled that the shooting was accidental and released Brocius. Brocius remained intensely angry about how Wyatt pistol whipped him and became an enemy to the Earps.
Some point to Wyatt's activities while pursuing the position of County Sheriff as the point in which the feud began between the Earps and the Clantons and Behan.
The Cowboys supported incumbent Sheriff Charles Shibell while the Earps supported his opponent Bob Paul in the November 1880 election.
Wyatt was initially appointed deputy sheriff by Democrat County Sheriff Charlie Shibell on July 28, 1880. Wyatt passed his Wells Fargo job as shotgun messenger to Morgan.
Wyatt did his job well, and from August through November his name was mentioned nearly every week by the Epitaph or the Nugget newspapers.
Some folks have tried to say that problems between the Earps and the McLaurys had to do with the Earps being Yankees from Illinois while the McLaurys being Southerners from Arizona.
The problem with that argument is that it can't be right sinply because the McLaury's were also Yankees - but originated from Iowa. In fact, Frank McLaury fought for the Union Army and is said to have been decorated during service.
In November, just three months later, Shibell ran for re-election against Republican challenger Bob Paul.
Wyatt, a Republican, favored Paul, and when Shibell won the election, Wyatt resigned on November 9, 1880, only twelve days after the White shooting.
Shibell immediately appointed Behan as the new Pima deputy sheriff for eastern Pima County.
However, Paul filed charges alleging that Cowboy supporters Iike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, and Frank McLaury had cooperated in ballot stuffing.
Paul was eventually declared the winner of the Pima County sheriff election in April 1881. But by that time Paul could not replace Behan with Earp because on January 1, 1881, Cochise County was created out of the eastern portion of Pima County.
Both Earp and Behan applied to fill the new position of Cochise County sheriff. Earp thought he had a good chance to win the position because he was the former under-sheriff in the region and a Republican, like Arizona Territorial Governor John C. Fremont. However, Behan had political influence in Prescott.
Earp testified during the Spicer hearing after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral that he and Behan had made a deal.
If Earp withdrew his application to the legislature, Behan agreed to appoint Earp as undersheriff.
Behan received the appointment in February 1881, but did not keep his end of the bargain and instead chose Harry Woods, a prominent Democrat.
Behan testified at first that he had not made any deal with Earp, although he later admitted he had lied. Behan said he broke his promise to appoint Earp because of an incident that occurred shortly before his appointment.
This incident came abouts after Earp learned that one of his prize horses, stolen more than a year before, was in the possession of Ike Clanton and his brother Billy.
Earp and Holliday rode to the Clanton ranch near Charleston to recover the horse. On the way, they overtook Behan, who was riding in a wagon. Behan was also heading to the ranch to serve an election-hearing subpoena on Ike Clanton.
Accounts differ as to what happened next. Earp later testified that when he arrived at the Clanton ranch, Billy Clanton gave up the horse even before being presented with ownership papers. According to Behan's testimony, however, Earp had told the Clantons that Behan was on his way to arrest them for horse theft.
After the incident, which embarrassed both the Clantons and Behan, Behan testified that he did not want to work with Earp and chose Woods instead
In November 1879, shortly after arriving in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp had a horse stolen. More than a year later, probably sometime in December 1880, Wyatt was told the horse was being used near Charleston, and Wyatt and Holliday were forced to ride to the Clanton's ranch near Charleston to await ownership papers in order to legally recover it.
According to Wyatt's testimony later, 18 year-old Billy Clanton asked him insolently if he had any more horses to "lose," but he gave the horse up without first being shown the ownership papers, demonstrating to Wyatt that Billy knew to whom the horse belonged.
Sheriff Johnny Behan later testified that the incident had angered Ike Clanton. It also angered Wyatt Earp.
Others say the bad-blood actually started when Virgil did his job as Deputy U.S. Marshal and arrested members of the Cowboy gang.
On the evening of March 15, 1881, three Cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying $26,000 in silver bullion (about $626,152 in 2010 dollars) en route from Tombstone to Benson, Arizona, the nearest freight terminal.
A popular and well-known stage coach driver named Eli 'Budd' Philpot was shot and killed as well as a passenger named Peter Roerig riding in the rear dickey seat. The horses bolted, leaving the robbers with nothing.
Robert H. Paul, who later became Sheriff, said he thought the first shot killing Philpot in the shotgun messenger seat had been meant for him as he would normally have been seated there.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp and his temporary deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp, along with Bat Masterson, Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and County Sheriff Johnny Behan all set out to find the bandits.
They tracked down Luther King, who confessed to holding the reins of the robbers' horses, and he identified the robbers as Bill Leonard, Harry "The Kid" Head and Jim Crane.
Cowboy allies Behan and Milt Joyce attempted to implicate Doc Holliday in the robbery. After Doc Holliday and his on-again, off-again mistress Big Nose Kate had a particularly nasty, drunken argument, Holliday kicked her out.
Behan and Joyce plied Big Nose Kate with more booze and suggested to her a way to get even with Holliday. At their urging, she signed an affidavit implicating Holliday in the attempted stagecoach robbery and murders.
Holliday was a good friend of Leonard, a former watchmaker from New York, and one of the three men King named as the robbers.
Judge Wells Spicer issued an arrest warrant for Holliday. The Earps found witnesses who could attest to Holliday's location at the time of the murders and Kate sobered up, revealing that Behan and Joyce had influenced her to sign a document she didn't understand.
With the Cowboy plot revealed, Spicer freed Holliday. The district attorney threw out the charges, labeling them "ridiculous." Doc gave Kate some money and put her on a stage out of town.
After he was passed over by Johnny Behan for the position of undersheriff, Wyatt thought he might beat him in the next Cochise County election. He thought catching the robbers would help him win the sheriff's office.
Wyatt later said that on June 2, 1881 he offered the Wells, Fargo & Co. reward money and more to Ike Clanton if he would provide information leading to the capture or death of the stage robbers. According to Wyatt, the plan was foiled when the three suspects, Leonard, Head and Crane, were killed in unrelated incidents.
In the summer of 1881, Clanton got into an argument with gambler "Denny" McCann. On the morning of June 9, 1881, they were drinking in an Allen Street saloon when Clanton insulted McCann. McCann slapped Clanton, who left and fetched his pistol.
McCann did the same and the two met on the street in front of the Wells, Fargo's and Co. office. They had already drawn their weapons when acting Tombstone Marshal Virgil Earp stepped between them, preventing a shooting.
The Clanton Ranch grew into a successful enterprise. During his testimony after the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Ike Clanton claimed to have raised and purchased about 700 head of cattle during the past year, and the Clanton ranch was one of the most profitable cattle ranches in that part of the country.
However, the Clantons never registered a brand in either Cochise County or Pima County which was required to legally raise cattle.
The Clantons were reputed to be among a group of outlaw Cowboys who crossed the border into Mexico where they stole cattle and re-sold them to the hungry miners in Cochise County. Curly Bill Brocius, Tom and Frank McLaury bought and sold stolen cattle to Old Man Clanton, among others.
The Mexican government at the time placed high tariffs on goods transported across the border, making smuggling a profitable enterprise.
The Cowboy gang in Cochise County were not organized, and their acts of violence, rustling or robbery were usually committed by independent groups of Cowboys.
Old Man Clanton, Ike's father, ran a ranch near the Mexican border that served as a waystation for much of the smuggling carried out by the outlaws.
On August 12, 1881, Old Man Clanton and six other men were herding stolen cattle sold to him by Curly Bill through Gualadupe Canyon near the Mexican border. But then around dawn, they were ambushed by Mexicans dispatched by Commandant Felipe Neri in what became known as the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre. Old Man Clanton and five other men were killed in the ambush.
The night before the gunfight at the OK Corral, Ike Clanton had told others that Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp had all confided in him that they had actually been involved in the Benson stage robbery. Talk about stirring the pot!
And yes, there are those who say that the Earps were actually rivals of the Cowboy faction and hid behind their badges to take revenge upon the Cowboy. And no, it was not unusual in the Old West for outlaws and criminals to operate under the cover of the law both on the bench or behind a badge.
The lines between the outlaw element and law enforcement were not always clear. There are all sorts of examples of this throughout the West. One of the most famous of these was the story of Henry Plummer, Sheriff of Bannack, Montana, who played both sides of the law before being hanged by vigilantes.
Fact is that there were those lawmen in the West who were themselves wanted in other regions of the country. Many hid behind the badge.
As for the Earps, being associated with gambling and questionable men like Bill Leonard, who was implicated in a stagecoach robbery, and Doc Holliday who had a reputation as a killer.
Though modern research has only identified three individuals Doc had actually shot, his friendship with the Wyatt and Morgan could have made it look like the Earps were straddling the line.
Like it or not, it is a fact in life that we are judged by who we associate with.
Besides Doc Holliday and Bill Leonard, in February, 1881, former Dodge City, Kansas lawmen Bat Masterson and Luke Short joined the Earps in Tombstone.
Both worked with Wyatt at the gaming tables at the Oriental Saloon, and gambling was not always looked upon as something someone honest does for a living.
On February 25, 1881, Short got into a dispute with a man named Charlie Storms which resulted in a gunfight in the street.
Charlie Storms soon lay dead in the dust from Short's six-gun. Masterson stayed in Tombstone just a few short months before he was urgently summoned back to Dodge City to help his brother Jim.
Associating with gunmen and gamblers gave the Earps an air of being more a kin to the Cowboy gang, the outlaw element in town, than the honest hard working folks.
In the early West, gambling was considered a profession, as legitimate a calling as say blacksmith or the law. And while gambling was certainly not illegal back then, many of those who worked hard doing labor and in building the town looked at gamblers with contempt mostly because of their professional expertise.
Yes, there were tin-horns, and they also gave gamblers a bad name.
Many tin-horns, especially gamblers, those who pretended to be honest important upstanding citizens, were in reality shady individuals. Many were crooked confidence men and women always looking for an easy mark.
Taking money from those unwise to their trickery was their stock and trade. And yes, contrary to what some say today, fact is that most of the public viewed gamblers as not that much different than they did the outlaws.
By 1881 there were some 8,000 people in the town which boasted more gambling houses, saloons, and the largest "red light” district in the Southwest. The town also supported four churches, a school, two banks and an opera house.
While in Prescott, on November 27, 1879, Virgil Earp was appointed a U.S. Deputy Marshal in Arizona Territory. The next month he arrived in Tombstone on orders by U.S. Marshal Dake.
After the shooting death of the town's marshal, Fred White, in October 1880, Virgil Earp was appointed acting town marshal. He only served until November 12, when he lost a special election to Ben Sippy.
After Tombstone achieved city status in January 1881, the incumbent Sippy defeated Virgil Earp in another election.
But on June 6, 1881, Mayor John Clum appointed Virgil to the position of City Marshal after Sippy abandoned his badge and left town in a hurry.
Marshal Earp, who we must remember doubled as Deputy U.S. Marshal, was busy that summer arresting citizens for mostly minor offenses, but when he arrested Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence for stage robbery, bitterness between the so-called Cowboys and the Earp faction grew.
Marshal Virgil Earp and his three deputies, his brothers Morgan and Wyatt and Doc Holliday came out on top in the famous shootout that October. Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury were killed, and Virgil was suspended from his job for a short period.
As for the famous gunfight? Well that was only the beginning of a whole new chapter in their feud.
Story by Tom Correa