The 1957 movie, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was popular, but mostly myth. In this timeline, we have endeavored to tease the facts from the popular legends. For example, the real gunfight took place on Fremont Street a half block from the back entrance of the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp hid his six-shooter in the pocket of his overcoat, not in plain view in a holster as depicted here. Nevertheless, the Earps & Holliday “walked the walk” without apologies. That part was real. Following are the principles, their age, and status at the time of the gunfight, October 26, 1881.
This is Part I. Part II will deal with the most infamous gunfight and its aftermath.
The Cowboy Faction
Johnny Behan – 37. Sheriff of Cochise County.
Billy Claiborne – 21. Cowboy, self-described gunfighter.
Billy Clanton – 19. Rancher, rustler.
Ike Clanton – 34. Rancher, rustler.
Frank McLaury 33. Rancher, rustler.
Tom McLaury – 28. Rancher, rustler. (At various times, these ‘Cowboys’ may also have been involved in other illegal activities, such as robbing Mexican wagon trains and American stagecoaches.)
The Earp Faction
John Clum – 30. Mayor of Tombstone & Publisher/Editor of the Tombstone Epitaph.
Virgil Earp – 38. Deputy U.S. Marshal for Tombstone District, Tombstone City Marshal, Tombstone Fire Marshal, Tombstone Tax Collector. Virgil’s other title is Tombstone Chief of Police with the legal power to deputize civilians in an emergency.
Morgan Earp – 30. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police.
Wyatt Earp – 33. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police.
John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday – 30. Temporary, special deputy to Tombstone Chief of Police.
The Years Leading up to the Gunfight
1859 – Virgil Earp Marries
Future frontier marshal, 16-year-old Virgil Earp, elopes with a young Iowa girl. They have a daughter.
1861 – The Earps Enlist in the Union Army
Three Earp brothers, James, Virgil, and half-brother Newton, enlist in the Union Army and fight in the Civil War. James is badly wounded and is discharged. Wyatt and Warren are too young to enlist.
1863 – While Virgil Earp serves in the Union Army, his wife receives a false report that he had died. She moves to Oregon with her parents. Virgil would not see her or his daughter again for 37 years. Eventually, he will have two more ‘wives’. By the end of the war, Virgil will have seen and done a lot of killing.
1870 – Lamar, Missouri
Wyatt Earp is 22 years of age. He is elected town constable, the only elected office he will ever hold. His young wife dies either in childbirth or from typhoid fever. Wyatt spends the next few years adrift.
1871 – Arkansas River
Wyatt is hunting buffalo when he meets Bat Masterson, who will become one of the most famous lawmen of the Old West. The two become life-long friends.
1873 – August; Ellsworth, Kansas
Ellsworth has replaced Abilene as the rowdiest town where cowboys deliver their herds to the railhead. In a dispute over a card game, notorious gunfighter Ben Thompson is embroiled in a violent confrontation that results in the shooting death of Chauncey Whitney, the County Sheriff. For reasons now unknown, the mayor immediately appoints Wyatt marshal and sends him into the fight. Wyatt coolly convinces Thompson to give up. Thompson pays a small fine and leaves town.
1874 – Wichita, Kansas
Wyatt is a part-time deputy marshal. Wyatt’s older brothers, James (Jim) and Virgil, and his two younger brothers, Morgan & Warren are also living in Wichita. Jim’s wife runs a local whorehouse. In Wichita, Wyatt’s reputation as a cool-headed, honest peace officer spreads. Marshal Dick Cogdell, said of him, “Earp is a man who never smiled or laughed. He was the most fearless man I ever saw. Wichita Deputy marshal Jim Cairns served with Wyatt and said, “Wyatt Earp was a wonderful officer. He was game to the last ditch, and apparently afraid of nothing. The cowmen all respected him and seemed to recognize his superiority and authority at such times as he had to use it.”
1876 – Dodge City, Kansas
Casey Tefertiller, the single best Earp biographer, said of Dodge, “If Wichita was wicked, Dodge was Sodom itself.” Wyatt is assistant marshal at various times. Here he must deal with the dregs of frontier society. Whatever we “moderns” consider the “worst of the worse’ today, such as members of the drug cartels, Wyatt had to deal with many who were as despicable. One does not live in that world and not become hardened. Wyatt meets a prostitute, Mattie Blaylock. She becomes his common-law wife.
1877 – Fort Griffen, Texas
Wyatt has drifted into Indian Territory. Here he meets John Henry (Doc) Holliday, dentist. Having contracted tuberculosis, ‘Doc’ spends more time gambling than pulling rotten teeth. Doc Holliday is living with Mary Katherine Horony, a prostitute. For reasons unknown today, Mary Katherine is known as Big Nose Kate Elder. Surviving photographs of her do not show a particularly prominent proboscis. Yet, the moniker stuck.
Doc becomes known for his quick wit, hot temper, and heavy drinking. He comes from a prosperous Southern family and is, for the time and place, highly educated. Along about this time, a couple of cowboys corner Wyatt outside the Long Branch Saloon. Wyatt tells people many years later that Doc was playing cards in the saloon when he heard Wyatt was in trouble just outside. Many people today wonder why Wyatt stuck by Doc through all of his outrageous drinking bouts. Late in life, Wyatt told a reporter, “One thing I’ve always believed, if it hadn’t been for Doc Holliday, I’d have cashed in that night.”
Bat Masterson said of Doc, “His whole heart and soul were wrapped up in Wyatt Earp and he was always ready to stake his life in defense of any cause in which Wyatt was interested.” When the two get to Tombstone, much of Wyatt’s problems will be caused by his defense of his loyal friend, the often drunk, cantankerous Doc Holliday.
1877 – Summer
Prospector Ed Schieffelin finds a vein of silver ore on a waterless plateau above the San Pedro River called Goose Flats. Many say this vein was the purest silver ever discovered and, almost overnight, Mr. Schieffelin becomes one of the richest men in America. He names his first mine in this area the ‘Tombstone’ because the soldiers at Fort Huachuca told Ed that the only thing he would find in these Apache-infested hills would be his own tombstone. Goose Flats soon has a population of over 100, mostly miners living in tents and shacks.
1878 – April; Dodge City, Kansas
Dodge City Marshal Ed Masterson, Bat’s brother, is killed by a drunken cowboy. Wyatt is appointed Assistant Marshal of Dodge. The Ford County Globe praised the appointment. “Wyatt Earp, one of the most efficient officers Dodge ever had, has just returned from Fort Worth, Texas. He was immediately appointed Assistant Marshal by our city dads, much to their credit.”
1878 – Fall
Virgil Earp is elected Constable of Prescott, capital of Arizona Territory.
1879 – March
Ed Schieffelin helps establish the township of Tombstone. Lots on Allen Street sell quickly for $5 each. In just a few years, the town’s population will grow to around 14,000, according to the official census. Because census takers only counted property-owning adult males, future historians can only guess at the peak population of Tombstone. It could just as easily have been more than 20,000 in its boom years. For tourists walking around Tombstone 130 years later it will be hard to imagine that many people living here, but at its height Allen Street, which will become the historic district, boasts 110 saloons and brothels.
Virgil and Allie have staked a mining claim near Prescott. Virgil is working part-time carrying mail and serving as acting Deputy Sheriff. Two cowboys come to Prescott, get drunk and shoot up the town. Virgil is a member of the posse organized by the Sheriff to go after the offenders and arrest them. Virgil encounters, shoots, and kills one of the suspects. Virgil Earp is appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal by U.S. Marshal Dake. Dake asks Virgil to move to Tombstone to deal with the outrageous number of outlaws, including a loose-knit gang of horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, and murderers known generally as the ‘Cowboys’.
At that time and place, “cowboy” is a pejorative term. Legitimate cattlemen are referred to as “ranchers”.
1879 – October
Johnny Behan, who will become Sheriff of Cochise County where Tombstone is located, meets Josephine Sarah (Sadie) Marcus, a young beauty traveling with the Gilbert & Sullivan acting troupe playing at venues in the Western boomtowns.
1879 – December; Tombstone, Arizona Territory.
Four Earp brothers, James, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan, arrive in Tombstone to seek their fortune. They invest in town real estate, mining claims, and water rights. James’ wife, Bessie; Virgil’s, common-law wife, Allie; Wyatt’s ‘wife’ Mattie; Morgan’s common-law wife Louisa, soon join their men. Apparently, the Earp men are not big on formal marriage. Tombstone is not yet an incorporated city and has only about 100 residents, mostly miners “living” in tents or hastily constructed shacks.
1880 – July
Virgil is Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Tombstone District. Wyatt is riding shotgun on the Wells Fargo stage, until Pima County Sheriff Charlie Shibell appoints him Deputy Sheriff for the Tombstone District. ‘Old Man’ Clanton, his sons Ike, Billy, and Phin, plus two brothers, Frank and Tom McLaury are outlaw ranchers in Southeastern Arizona in the Sulphur Springs and San Pedro River Valleys. Together they serve as the unelected leaders of the ‘Cowboys’. Their ranches serve as ‘clearing houses’ for stolen cattle, horses, and mules. They purchase stolen animals, re-brand as necessary, then re-sell them for a substantial profit.
In mid-July, six U.S. Army mules are stolen from Ft. Rucker 75 miles east of Tombstone. Lt. Hurst rides to Tombstone to ask Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp to help recover the animals. Virgil forms a posse that includes his brothers Wyatt and Morgan.
Along with some soldiers, they track the mules to a ranch owned by Frank and Tom McLaury. Some 15 rustlers are altering the brands. The McLaury brothers are providing sanctuary. Caught in an awkward situation, the McLaurys agree to return the mules if no charges are brought. Days later, the lieutenant becomes incensed when the mules are not returned and publicly names the thieves. The McLaurys, employing a legal tactic they and the Clantons will soon use against the Earps, accuse Lt. Hurst of stealing the mules.
1880 – September
Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate arrive in Tombstone.
1880 – October
Tombstone Marshal Fred White is shot by a well-known outlaw, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius. Wyatt, responding to gunfire, arrives on the scene, buffaloes (pistol whips) ‘Curly Bill’ and arrests him. Fearing a lynch mob, Wyatt and Morgan closely guard the jail and protect their prisoner. Seriously wounded, Marshal White tells Wyatt that he believes the shooting was unintentional. The next day, Wyatt takes ‘Curly Bill’ to Tucson to stand trial. White dies two days later. Virgil is appointed acting Tombstone Marshal. Virgil is now both Marshal of Tombstone and Deputy U.S. Marshal. At the trial in Tucson, Wyatt testifies that he thinks ‘Curly Bill’s’ shooting of Marshal White was an accident. Brocius is acquitted, primarily on Wyatt’s testimony. (These two will meet again.)
1880 – November
Ben Sippy beats Virgil in a special election for the job of Tombstone Marshal.
Wyatt is a Deputy Sheriff of Pima County. As such, he investigates allegations of voter fraud. The investigation leads to Ike Clanton and notorious gunman Johnny Ringo. On February 1, 1881, the rugged, 7,000 square mile, southeastern portion of Pima County will become Cochise County. Tombstone will become the county seat of Cochise County. Wyatt’s speculative investments in local mining claims and real estate are paying off handsomely. He resigns as Deputy Sheriff and Johnny Behan is appointed to replace him. (Big mistake.)The Year of the Gunfight – 1881
1881 – February
The southeast portion of Pima County becomes Cochise County. This remote corner of Arizona Territory is mostly beyond the reach of law enforcement. The population is a mix of law-abiding prospectors, store owners, professionals such as doctors and lawyers and lots of miners as well as cattle rustlers, prostitutes, con men, stagecoach robbers, plus many common thieves and murderers. Moreover, renegade Apaches, many led by Geronimo, are a constant threat to Anglo and Mexican ranchers, miners, and other settlers.
Traveling beyond the relative safety of large settlements is exceedingly dangerous. (It is very difficult for modern readers of this time & place to relate to the terror posed by Geronimo and his Apache warriors. Think Osama bin Laden, but worse.)
Tombstone has become a boomtown, the richest silver-producing mining district in Arizona Territory. It becomes county seat for the newly-formed Cochise County. The town is built on the ground over several highly productive mines, including Ed Schieffelin’s Toughnut.
Tombstone has fine dining establishments, a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, two banks, an ice cream parlor, and four newspapers, including the Epitaph and the Nugget. It also has over 100 saloons, dance halls, and brothels. Here the ‘Cowboys’ are welcomed for their free-spending ways. Drunkenness, fights, and shootings are common occurrences.
The more genteel of Tombstone’s citizens attend operas and other refined performances by visiting acting troupes at the new Schieffelin Hall.
Lowly miners and cowboys enjoyed more raucous shows at the Bird Cage Theater, which the New York Times declared “the wildest, wickedest night spot between Basin Street (New Orleans) and the Barbary Coast (San Francisco).” An officer of the law is considered ‘good’ if he can keep the peace without killing the customers. Some officers are elected. Many are appointed. In February 1881, the county-controlled Democratic Party convinces Arizona Territorial Governor John C. Fremont to appoint Johnny Behan Sheriff of Cochise County.
Behan is a political hack who does exceptionally well financially by padding his expense account and taking a generous cut of the taxes he collects. He befriends the ‘Cowboys’. When Behan finds out that Wyatt may seek his job as Sheriff in the next election, he offers Wyatt the position of under-sheriff and a share of the substantial tax-collecting benefits.
1881 – March
On the 15th, the Benson stage is robbed just north of Contention City on the San Pedro River. Popular stage driver, ‘Bud’ Philpot, is shot and killed, as is a passenger.
Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, Bat Masterson, Johnny Behan and others form a posse and pursue the murdering thieves. One man is captured and confesses. Jailed in Tombstone, he soon escapes with the help of his ‘Cowboy’ friends.
The posse pursues the other thieves for two weeks and finally gives up when Behan fails to bring them fresh horses as promised. Afterward, Wyatt learns that Sheriff Behan has reneged on his pledge to appoint Wyatt under-sheriff and share revenues from their tax collecting duties, creating a rift between the two men that will have extraordinary consequences in the near future.
Moreover, Sheriff Behan refuses to share the $800 in expense money with the other members of the posse. Behan explains to Wyatt and the others that he had not formally deputized them. (Here you are free to add your own adjective describing Johnny Behan.)
1881 – April
In an effort to reduce violent crime, Tombstone City Council passes an ordinance prohibiting the possession of deadly weapons within town limits. Folks entering Tombstone are required to deposit their guns at a livery stable or saloon immediately upon arrival. The City of Tombstone now has about 7,000 residents, not counting Mexicans and Chinese. (In this time & place, PC was completely unknown.)
1881 – June
Town Marshal Sippy takes a leave of absence. Tombstone City Council once again appoints Virgil temporary City Marshal. On June 22, the heart of Tombstone is almost completely destroyed by fire. Virgil is credited for keeping looting to a minimum.
On June 28, the town learns that Sippy had left with about $3,000 in bad debt. Financial improprieties in his office are also discovered. Mayor John Clum appoints Virgil permanent City Marshal with a respectable $150.00 per month salary.
Tombstone’s two major newspapers take sides. The Tombstone Epitaph is founded, published, and edited by Republican Mayor John Clum. It is the Republican Party house organ and they run the city. Clum leads the Citizens Safety Committee comprised mainly of local businessmen who want law and order so their ventures can prosper. They back the Earps.
The Tombstone Nugget is the Democrat’s house organ. The Democrats run the County and back Sheriff Behan and the ‘Cowboys’. According to the Nugget, the ‘Cowboys’ are honest, hardworking ranchers and cowhands who come to town to quench their thirst, play cards, enjoy the ladies, and let off a little steam.
1881 – July
Sheriff Behan has persuaded the vivacious Sadie Marcus to join him in Tombstone where she believes Johnny will marry her. They are living together. After he takes all of her money, Sadie discovers that Johnny is a perennial womanizer. She breaks off the relationship.
1881 – August
Sadie Marcus meets Wyatt Earp. They become ‘friends’. The rift between Behan and Wyatt Earp grows in intensity. Wyatt does not allow his long relationship with his common law wife Mattie Blaylock to come between him and his new love, the beautiful Sadie Marcus. In the meantime, ‘The Cowboys’ are busy with their rustling operations. ‘Old Man’ Clanton and some others are killed by Mexican soldiers seeking revenge for theft of Mexican cattle and the death of many Mexicans in the running gun battle that ensued.
1881 – September
The stage from Tombstone to Bisbee is robbed. The stage driver tells the authorities that one of the robbers was Pete Spencer and another was Sheriff Behan’s deputy, Frank Stilwell. Both are arrested, post bail, and released.
1881 – October
Deputy city marshal, Morgan Earp, is unarmed and cornered by Frank and Tom McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Johnny Ringo.
Frank speaks for his side. “You may have arrested Pete Spencer and Frank Stilwell, but don’t get it in your heads you can arrest me. If you ever lay hands on a McLaury, I’ll kill you.”
Morgan replied, “If the Earps ever have occasion to come after you, they’ll get you.” He then just walked away.
In the meantime, Ike Clanton fears that a secret deal he made with Wyatt to turn in some stagecoach robbers and share the reward will become public knowledge. In addition, Ike is afraid Wyatt has told his good friend, Doc Holliday, about the deal. If the word gets out, Ike knows the ‘Cowboys’ will kill him. Ike ‘reasons’ that he has to convince his gang that Wyatt is lying just to stir up trouble. Either that, or he can keep Wyatt and Doc from revealing the plot by killing them. Ike begins drinking heavily and making very public threats against Holliday and the Earps. Yet, he is seldom foolish enough to be armed.
1881 – October 19th
Fearing Ike’s threats will be backed up by dozens of ‘Cowboys’, Wyatt sends Morgan to bring Doc back from Tucson where he has been gambling. Holliday arrives in Tombstone on October 22nd.
1881 – October 22nd
Doc and Ike are embroiled in a confrontation. Ike again publicly threatens Holliday and the Earp brothers.
1881 – October 25th
Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury start drinking in the early afternoon at the Grand Hotel, a favorite ‘Cowboy’ establishment. That night, they join an all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Also at the table are Virgil Earp and Johnny Behan.
NEXT: Part II The Events of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and its Aftermath.