The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Virgil Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K, Corral. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Occasionally visitors to Dodge City ask Boot Hill Museum staff to point them to the infamous O.K. Corral.

And we have to tell them it's not here.

The O.K. Corral is over 700 miles away in Tombstone, Arizona.

But when people hear "Dodge City," the names Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday come to mind. And when they think of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, their thoughts often turn to the shootout at the O.K. Corral, which took place on October 26, 1881.

Wyatt Earp spent some time in our area in the late 1870s. And his friend Doc Holliday was in Dodge City for a short time in 1878. He practiced dentistry in room 24 of the Dodge House Hotel.

However, though they were involved, both Wyatt and Doc were not the prime movers in the Tombstone shootout. Both escaped without serious injury. It was Wyatt's brother, Virgil who was the principal character in the gunfight at O.K. Corral. And the battle did not take place in or adjacent to the O.K. Corral - it happened nearby. Providing a little background, silver prospector Ed Schieffelin founded Tombstone in 1877 in what was then Pima County, Arizona Territory.

Like most frontier towns, Tombstone was a boom town with many thriving businesses, and it had a wild reputation.

Complicating this boom, were the "cowboys" who operated around Tombstone. During this time and in this place the term "cowboy" was another word for rustler or outlaw. Legitimate ranchers and drovers would have been insulted if they were referred to as cowboys. The Earps - town marshal Virgil, special policeman Morgan, and Wyatt - and temporary policeman Doc Holliday came down firmly on the side of the businessmen; perhaps too firmly as they had a reputation of being heavy-handed.

For a number of reasons, including politics, financial and maybe romantic, bad blood built up between them and a group of cowboys. These cowboys included Billy Claiborne, brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury.Leading up to the shootout, various incidents of violence took place in and around Tombstone. Interestingly, what sparked the shootout was an attempt by the Earps and Holliday to enforce a Tombstone ordinance prohibiting the carrying of firearms.

After a day and a half of tension, which included pistol whipping, the Earps and Holliday confronted the five cowboys in a vacant lot, asking them to surrender their weapons. No one is sure who fired the first shot, but what ensued were 30 shots fired in 30 seconds.

When the smoke cleared, killed were Billy Clanton and the McLaurys. Holliday was only slightly injured, but Virgil and Morgan were more seriously wounded. Wyatt was uninjured as were Ike Clanton and Billy Clairborne who fled the scene.

Sheriff John Behan charged the Earps and Holliday with murder. A month later a judge declared them not guilty.

However, in the long run the Earps paid dearly for their part in the gunfight. On December 28, cowboys maimed Virgil in a murder attempt to exact revenge. And on March 18, 1882, a cowboy shot Morgan Earp dead.

In 1931, two years after Wyatt Earp's death Stuart Lake published his book "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal," which made the shootout at O.K. Corral famous. It also put more emphasis on Wyatt's role in the gunfight than was due him.