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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Arguably the most famous gunfight in the history of the American west, the Gunfight at the OK Corral is more than just the clash between Wyatt Earp and the Clanton brothers. It is now recognized as a symbolic cultural battle between old and new, hired lawmen versus outlaw gunmen, western values against eastern business. Even so, the Gunfight remains an exciting example of western lore, entertaining and educating generation after generation of western aficionados. Depicted countless times in books and on film, the historic 30 shots that rang out across the town of Tombstone, in the Arizona Territory, ring as loud today as they did on October 26, 1881.

The Beginning

Tombstone at the time of the Gunfight was undergoing rapid expansion. The discovery of silver in the Goose Flats area of the territory by prospector Ed Schieffelin had turned the once desolate landscape into a bustling boomtown complete with saloons, a theater, gambling halls, fine hotels and restaurants that would rival those of San Francisco or New York. Chinese immigrant construction workers couldn't work fast enough to keep up with the demand for new shops and buildings by the hundreds of businessmen flooding the town with eastern big money. Innovations such as refrigeration and limited telephone service brought even more boomers to the town, seeking their fortune among the many mines and other industries popping up around Tombstone.

While the newcomers marveled at the progress of their newfound home, the area remained a desert landscape, home to cattle ranches and cattle rustlers, bank robbers and outlaws. Many of the stagecoaches bringing investors to the town were robbed on a regular basis, and the rowdy behavior of the cowboys in the saloons and gambling halls terrorized citizens and scared away business. The business owners, fearing the outlaw's behavior would drive away the miners and even the families that had moved west to join them, protected their interests by bringing in the law.

The Earps

Although he carried no badge, Wyatt Earp became the unofficial Chief of Police of Tombstone, partly because of his astute business sense, partly because of his friendship with the rather successful gambler and well-connected John "Doc" Holliday and partly because his brother, Virgil Earp, was already a deputized U.S. Marshal. Together with their brother Morgan, the Earps and Holliday set out to rid the town of the outlaws, often provoking gunfights under the authority of Virgil's badge until one day, the outlaw bandits had had enough.

Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp

The Clantons

Ike and Billy Clanton (Billie on his Boot Hill grave marker) were cattle rustlers and bandits who, with their cowboy partners Tom and Frank McLaury were responsible for much of the saloon fights, stagecoach robberies and even murders in the western backcountry surrounding Tombstone. It was a direct confrontation with the Clantons and McLaurys that led to the fateful Gunfight.

It Began With a Gun

Although Tombstone was the heart of the Wild, Wild West, the carrying of firearms or other deadly weapons inside the City limits was against the law. This was an attempt by the Earps to control violence when the cowboys came to town and got drunk, and eliminate the threat that they themselves would be shot in a standoff between the interests of the business owners and the interests of the bandits.

For several days leading up to October 26, 1881, the Clantons were in and out of jail and court for flagrantly violating the gun ordinance. The last straw came at noon on the 26th when Ike Clanton was spotted by several townspeople being fully armed and going from saloon to saloon, getting drunker by the minute. The Earps arrested Ike Clanton and after a visit before the judge, Clanton paid his $25 fine and set out to find his brother and the McLaurys. Death threats between the two sides grew louder and more credible; leading both the Clantons and Earps to believe a showdown was inevitable.

Finally, around 3:00 p.m on October 31, 1881. the Earps caught up with the Clantons and McLaurys at the OK Corral, and the shooting started. Thirty seconds later thirty shots had been fired and three men were dead. Billy Clanton and both Tom and Frank McLaury were killed, while Morgan and Virgil Earp were wounded. Witnesses were confused as to who started shooting first, and people loyal to each side had their own ideas about what happened that day.

Visit The OK Corral

Today, visitors to Tombstone can retrace the steps of the Clantons as they make their way across Fremont Street, or the Earps and Holliday as they approach the OK Corral looking for the outlaws. After reenacting the shootout, take a trip to the outskirts of town and visit Boot Hill, the final resting place for the McLaurys and Billy Clanton. Judge for yourself what happened over 125 years ago.

Whatever the truth may be, the Gunfight at the OK Corral remains the most legendary gun battle in the history of the American west.

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