The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

On Tuesday, October 26, 1881, one of the most famous gunfights in western history occurred, The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. We’ve all seen the films. Some of the fight scenes are epicly long as in Gunfight at the OK Corral and others are short and more historically accurate, as in the 1994 film Wyatt Earp. But what actually happened? We won’t ever fully be able to understand but perhaps by breaking it down to the bare facts we can get an idea.

The Earps

The Earp faction was made up of Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan. Doc Holliday was deputized by Virgil shortly before the fight. Doc gave his walking stick to Virgil and was in return given a coach gun or sawed-off shotgun to put under his long grey overcoat.

The Cowboys

The cowboy faction was made up of Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury Tom McLaury and Billy Claiborne aka Billy the Kid (not the infamous one).

Location of the gunfight

gunfight location sketch
Reputed to be Wyatt Earp’s sketch of the gunfight location.

People presume the fight broke out at the O.K. Corral but it didn’t. It happened in an alley between Fly’s Boarding House and the entrance to the corral. Considering there were two horses and eight men involved in the fight, it was a bit of a tight squeeze. Part of the fight sprawled out onto Fremont Street and the corner of Third Street.

Weather

Cold for Tombstone. There had been snow flurries earlier in the day.

Why did the fight occur?

There are many reasons for the gunfight. The basic reason is that the cowboys were carrying guns in town. There was an ordinance in Tombstone at the time that required visitors to Tombstone to check their guns when they rode into town. They could collect the guns when they were ready to leave.

The more complicated reason goes back through a year’s worth of tension between the cowboy gang and the Earps. Mexican cattle were being rustled and were finding their way to the Clanton and McLaury ranches to be re-branded.

If rustling was bad enough, the stagecoaches were also being robbed. The worst was in March, 1881 when Bud Philpot was killed in a botched robbery. The robbers were identified as Billy Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane.  Wyatt knew that the men were associates of the Clantons and McLaurys so he asked Ike Clanton for information and offered him $6,000 reward money for assisting in the arrest of the robbers. Before Wyatt had a chance to ride out to make the arrest, two men went out and killed Leonard and Head. The cowboys in turn went out and killed the two men in retribution. Word got out about Ike and Wyatt’s secret. Ike presumed that Wyatt had told Doc Holliday and had compromised his safety. If the other cowboys had known Ike was in on the deal, surely Ike would be the next man to be found dead in the brush.

Ike was understandably a bit edgy about the way things were transpiring. To make matters worse, his father Newman Haynes Clanton aka Old Man Clanton was ambushed and killed by Mexicans in retribution for him killing Mexican smugglers in Guadalupe Canyon a month prior. He now found himself in charge of an extremely volatile situation. He needed someone as a scapegoat and Doc Holliday looked like a likely candidate.

The night before the gunfight, Ike and Doc argued. Ike was ready to fight with any of the Earps and made it clear that once the McLaurys arrived that their lives would be in danger. Virgil threatened to arrest both Ike and Holliday if there was any trouble. The men were separated and the evening passed peacefully. Virgil Earp stayed on duty all night before going to bed at sunrise. On the morning of the gunfight, Ike was seen wandering the streets of Tombstone with a Winchester rifle, claiming he would shoot the Earps on sight. He was buffaloed by Virgil, disarmed, fined $25 in court costs and released.

By this time, the McLaurys had arrived in town. They were spotted with Billy Clanton buying ammunition at Spagenberg’s gun shop. Ike even tried to buy a gun to replace the one that had been confiscated, but the storekeeper refused to give him one. Frank McLaury’s horse had got loose and had hopped up on to the sidewalk. Wyatt moved the horse back down onto the street and told McLaury that horses didn’t belong on the sidewalk. Unimpressed by Wyatt’s correction, the cowboys left the store and headed to the O.K. Corral to pick up the rest of the horses, but they didn’t leave town.

Time of the gunfight

“I was in the O.K. Corral at 2:30 p.m. when I saw the two Clantons (Ike and Billy) and the two McLaurys (Frank and Tom) in an earnest conversation across the street at Dunbar’s corral. I went up the street and notified Sheriff Behan and told them it was my opinion that they meant trouble, and it was his duty, as sheriff, to go and disarm them. I told him they had gone to the West End Corral. I then went and saw Marshal Virgil Earp and notified him to the same effect.”

– R.F. Coleman, an eyewitness to the shooting

Who started the fight?

“Blaze away you’re a daisy if you have!”

– Doc Holliday during the fight in response to Frank McLaury from The Tombstone Nugget

It depends which account you believe. During the court testimony Doc Holliday is accused by Ike Clanton and Johnny Behan as starting the fight, but no one knows for sure. Doc Holliday was known to be bad-tempered and a bad drunk. It certainly made the fight look more favourable with the cowboys if Doc appeared that Doc had initiated it. Virgil Earp had commented in an article in The Tombstone Epitaph that he thought that Billy Clanton and one of the McLaurys fired first before the shooting became general.

How long did the fight last?

Around 30 seconds. In this short amount of time over 30 shots rang out.

“I heard Virgil Earp say, “Give up your arms or throw up your arms.” There was some reply made Frank McLaury and then the shooting became general.”

– R.F. Coleman

Runaways

Ironically, considering the amount of death threats that had come from Ike Clanton in the hours before the gunfight, he didn’t stay to fight but ran. He initially grabbed Wyatt but was pushed away.

“The fight’s commenced either get to fighting or get away.”

– Wyatt to Ike

Ike then ran through Fly’s photograph gallery, ran down the hall, out the backdoor and on to Allen Street.

Billy Claiborne, ran before the fighting really got going. He claimed later that he had no interest in being involved in the fight and had only been trying to get the cowboys to leave town.

Casualties

Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury all died within minutes of being shot. Virgil Earp was shot through the calf of his right leg. Morgan Earp was shot through his right shoulder-blade, the ball then went through his back, shattering a vertebrae and came out through his left shoulder-blade. Doc Holliday’s left hip was grazed by a shot. Remarkably, Wyatt Earp was unscathed.

Cowboy caskets
Billy Clanton Frank and Tom McLaury laid out in their caskets on the evening of the gunfight.

“I won’t be arrested today. I am right here and am not going away. You have deceived me. You told me these men were unarmed.”

– Wyatt Earp to Sheriff Johnny Behan

 Aftermath

“The moment the word of the shooting reached the Vizina and Tough Nut mines the whistles blew a shrill signal, and the miners came to the surface, armed themselves and poured into the town like an invading army. A few moments saw to bring out all the better portions of the citizens, thoroughly armed and ready for an emergency.”

– From The Tombstone Epitaph

The following day saw one of the largest funerals in Tombstone’s history. One hearse carried Billy Clanton’s remains, another carried both Frank and Tom McLaury along Allen Street and out to the cemetery. The procession was headed by Tombstone’s brass band. The streets were full of onlookers.

The following Saturday, Wyatt and Doc were arrested by Sheriff Johnny Behan. There were warrants for Virgil and Morgan’s arrest too but they were still recovering from their wounds. Judge Spicer granted bail of $10,000 each for Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, which was provided and they were released.

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy my book: A Gentleman In Hell.

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