Gunfight At The Ok Corral

History Uncovered Episode 21:
Tombstone And The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral

Published September 29, 2023

The inside story of the Wild West's most infamous town, the frontier's most notorious shootout, and the larger-than-life lawmen and bandits who secured their legends there.

On October 26, 1881, a group of nine outlaws and lawmen gathered in a narrow alleyway in Tombstone, Arizona. Their showdown was the culmination of long-simmering tensions that had been building between these two groups.

Less than a minute later, three of the nine men were dead. Though the shootout had taken place next to C.S. Fly’s famous photography studio, it soon became linked to the name of the livery six doors down: the O.K. Corral.

As its legend grew, the classic retelling of the gunfight at O.K. Corral suggested that the lawmen won and the outlaws got what they deserved.

But what really happened on that October day in Tombstone, Arizona? Were the lawmen, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday among them, really the good guys? What about the three men they killed?

To understand what happened at the O.K. Corral, it’s important to understand the town of Tombstone, Arizona. In many ways, Tombstone embodied the Wild West — or, at least, what the Wild West had become by the 1880s.

Tombstone was founded in 1877. By 1881, the town had a luxurious hotel, a bowling alley, a wine shop, plenty of saloons, and several thousand residents — including a lawman named Wyatt Earp and a group of outlaws called the Cochise County Cowboys.

Doc Holliday

Wikimedia CommonsDoc Holliday in Tombstone, Arizona circa 1882.

The Cowboys were primarily cattle-rustlers. They operated along the U.S.-Mexico border, stealing cattle, robbing stagecoaches, and even committing murders. The Cowboys soon became perhaps the most powerful force in Tombstone.

Businesses, nervous about offending the men and losing their much-needed patronage, were often willing to overlook their more outrageous behavior. Before long, Tombstone had a reputation as a lawless and violent den of outlaws and bandits.

So when the Earps — Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan — and Doc Holliday rolled into town, the Cowboys weren’t pleased. They clashed throughout the summer of 1881. Then, on October 25, a cowboy named Ike Clanton hopped from saloon to saloon, getting drunk and making threats against the Earps and Holliday. At the Oriental Saloon, he met up with his fellow Cowboy, Tom McLaury, where they encountered Doc Holliday and the Earps.

They exchanged heated words before Clanton swore to Holliday that he’d kill him “tomorrow when the others come to town.” To the Earps, he added: “Get ready for a showdown.”

That showdown would go down in history.

Though the gunfight at the O.K. Corral lasted just 30 seconds, both the questions surrounding it and its legacy as the most iconic shootout in the Wild West have endured for over a century.

Learn more about the story surrounding the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

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