What led to the O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona Territory?
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The lead-up is pretty complicated. The Earp brothers and the Cowboys had been tense for several months, disagreeing over local politics, power and law and order. Everything came to a head on October 26, 1881.
Cowboy Ike Clanton went around Tombstone, threatening to kill the Earp brothers and John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Marshal Virgil Earp cracked Clanton over the head with a pistol and arrested him. The court fined Ike for carrying a gun within town limits and released him.
Then Wyatt Earp confronted Tom McLaury—which ended when Earp pistol whipped the Cowboy. Tempers were up by early afternoon.
Several Cowboys gathered in an empty lot behind the O.K. Corral. Evidence suggests the McLaurys were planning to leave town, but they lingered too long and remained armed.
The Earps and Holliday went to arrest the lawbreakers. Virgil handed Holliday a shotgun to conceal under his coat. As the lawmen approached the lot, Sheriff John Behan told them he had disarmed the Cowboys. Wyatt and Virgil put away their pistols.
Moments later, the Earp crowd noticed that Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were armed. Tom McLaury may or may not have been armed, but he had a rifle within easy reach, in a scabbard on Frank’s horse.
The two sides were a few feet away when Virgil shouted, “Boys throw up your hands. I want your guns!”
Both sides misinterpreted the other’s intentions. History does not record who made the first move, but the ball opened. And we know what happened from there.
Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. . His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org