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The Wild West and the Famous Gunfight at the Ok Corral Between the Cowboys and the Earps

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.



I first read about this incident when I was in school. Later I saw the 1957 movie' Shoot out at the OK Corral.' on the Internet. The movie stars two iconic Hollywood actors Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. What is the truth? The fact is such a fight did take place and remains one of the indelible episodes of the wild West. It was a fight to the finish between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and Doc Holliday on one side against the Clanton and McClary brothers. The shootout took place on 26th October 1881 at a nondescript plot called the OK Corral in a small town called Tombstone.

The Wild West is a part of American history and is the stepping stone to the rise of America as a great power. This was the period after the end of the Civil War(1861-65) when many rich southern families were reduced to penury and took up banditry.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and now we know that the battle between the Wyatt brothers and the Mclary brothers can be traced to the formation of a gang called the Cowboys. Who were the Cowboys? They were an amorphous gang of desperados numbering between 200 to 300 who roamed the borders of Arizona and Mexico committing all sorts of acts from rustling to murder.

The Cowboys were a law unto themselves and between 1879-82 held up and robbed stagecoaches as well as Mexican pack trains. They rustled thousands of cattle and at a conservative estimate murdered at least 35 men. Many dishonest ranchers and cattle dealers supported them. They had a free run of the land till that fateful day when they faced the Earp brothers and Holliday.


The Cowboys

To understand about the Cowboys we must understand about Tombstone. It was founded by Ed Schieffelin, a former scout with the United States Army. When he was going there, the US Army warned him that this was Apache land and most likely his tombstone would be the result. He was a diligent man and hit upon a stream of silver and obviously had the last laugh and named the place as Tombstone in 1877.

By 1881, the population of Tombstone had risen to 7000 as more and more settlers came to try their luck. The Wyatt brothers also came here. Before moving Wyatt Earp was a police officer in Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas. He came along with his brother Virgil in 1879. Virgil became the Tombstone’s town marshal in 1880. They liked the place and their youngest brother Morgan also joined up. Another man named Doc Holliday also came. He was a friend of Wyatt Earp from his days in Kansas. It is difficult to reconcile, but he was a dentist who had given up his profession to become a gambler and gunfighter.

Before the Earps and Doc Holliday came the entire area on both sides of the border was under the sway of the Cowboys. They were desperados who killed without compunction. They rustled cattle for beef as it was in short supply and the butchers bought the beef and just paid without bothering from where it came.

The Cowboys were headed by the Clanton and the McLaury brothers who had a fearsome reputation as outlaws.

There was no federal law at Tombstone at that time and the law was decided by the local Sherriff. Enmity had been building up between the cowboys and the Earp's. Both the groups had realized that only one of them could prevail and the other will have to be eliminated.

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Pistol of Wyatt Earp was auctioned

Pistol of Wyatt Earp was auctioned

The gunfight

Tension was simmering and the Earp's were receiving information that mass rustling of cattle was going on by the Cowboys. They received a tip-off that some stolen cattle and mules were kept at the ranch owned by McLaury. A raid was carried out and the information was true. The Mclaury's accused the Earp's of behaving in a partisan manner and not acting as lawmen. This was to an extent true as the brothers had other business interests including mining and running Saloons.

To obviate the possibility of trouble the Sherriff in conjunction with the Earp's passed an ordinance prohibiting the carrying of guns in the township. This was applicable to the cowboys but the lawmen could carry their guns. The Mclaury's realized that it was an attempt to disarm them and then arrest them.

The match started simmering on the night of 25 October when Doc Holliday had an argument with Ike Clanton at the Saloon. It was reported that Clanton had defied the ordinance and was carrying many guns. Information on this reached Wyatt Earp and his brothers.

Ike was disarmed by Virgil and taken before a judge who released him after imposing a fine. An infuriated Clanton now passed a message to his brother and the Mclaury brothers and all got together. They were asked to surrender their weapons' but perhaps they refused. In the morning the 3 Wyatt brothers and Doc Holliday also approached. It is not known who fired first but the shoot-out, lasted just 30 seconds and at the end Billy Clanton, Tom, and Frank McLaury were dead.

Ike escaped and petitioned the judge that they were unarmed and the Earp brothers had killed them in cold blood. Sherriff Behan arrested Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers but after a preliminary inquiry, it was confirmed that 2 of the cowboys carried guns. The Earp's and Doc Holliday were released.


The true intentions of Wyatt Earp and his brothers have never been established. It is also not known who fired first. The saga of vendetta did not end with the shootout at the OK Corral.

On December 28, 1881, Virgil Earp was the first to pay the price when on 28 December 1881 he was shot in the back and seriously injured. He survived and died later in 1905. The youngest brother Morgan Earp was not so lucky as he was killed in March 1882. No killer was identified but Wyatt Earp knew that it was connected to the shootout at the OK Corral.

Wyatt became a deputy US Marshal and vowed to hunt down the killers of his brother. He made Doc Holliday also a Marshal and launched a massive manhunt. It bore fruit as 4 cowboys suspected of the killing were shot dead as well as an aide of Sherriff Behan.

Wyatt retired to California in end 1882 where he settled with Josephine Marcus, Behan’s former girlfriend. He did not have any children. He died in 1929 and is almost a legend. Doc Holliday died in 1886 of tuberculosis.

The curtain has come down on one of the most famous episodes of the wild west.

© 2021 MG Singh emge

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