Arizona: Tombstone Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This primarily residential town was founded by Ed Schieffelin to support the mining industry. It was the site of the famed shootout at the OK Corral and is now a popular tourist attraction.

Site Offices:

Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park

P.O. Box 216

Tombstone, AZ 85638

ph.: (520) 457-3311

Tombstone Tourism Association

P.O. Box 917

Tombstone, AZ 85638

ph.: (520) 457-2211

It has been called “The Town Too Tough to Die.” Its story has been told and retold in dozens of novels and motion pictures. Its legend lingers in the minds of those who have imagined the Southwest in its famous days of wild cowboys, reckless shootouts, and final showdowns. Tombstone, a town founded in 1878 after the nearby discovery of silver, was built and populated by young miners. Almost overnight, the town was tainted with rumors, partially true, of uncontrolled drinking, gambling, prostitution, and violence–rumors that stuck throughout its short, prosperous mining history.

Eight years of long days and lawless nights finally came to an end in 1886 as the silver boom died and the town’s mines gave in to recurrent flooding. Tombstone soon discovered its bad reputation to be a hidden treasure. By stirring up the myth surrounding the highly publicized shootout at the OK Corral, the citizens of Tombstone were able to cash in on the tourist industry and ultimately make Tombstone the most famous town of the western frontier.


In 1877, Arizona’s economic growth was slow. Most of the state’s mining efforts were declining, if not already shut down. Hostile Indians, especially the Chiricahua Apache, constantly threatened the safety of new towns. Arizona was in desperate need of something to reinvigorate its economy. Due to the persistence of a young prospector named Ed Schieffelin, that something was on its way. Born in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, in 1847, Schieffelin had spent the better part of his life wandering Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and California as a prospector. Year after year he had been unsuccessful. In 1875, at twenty-six years old, Schieffelin decided to take his chances in Arizona, near the San Pedro Valley. As he departed, he was grimly told that all he would find in the area would be his “tombstone.”

For almost three years, Schieffelin prospected the area, never making a significant discovery but consistently uncovering small silver bits that hinted at huge shares of ore nearby. He managed to convince his brother, Al Schieffelin, and an assayer from New York, Dick Gird, to form a partnership.

On February 26, 1878, the discovery was made. Ed Schieffelin stumbled upon a large outcropping of ore–almost entirely silver–that proved to be the first of many in the area. As the word spread, men started arriving in the San Pedro Valley to claim a share of the treasure or cash in on the high wages (four to six dollars a day) being paid to mine the ore. Mines sprung up everywhere, some of the most famous being the Tough Nut, the Contention, and the Grand Central. In less than a year, the area, formed into a town and christened “Tombstone” by Ed Schieffelin, had more than a hundred residents, with hundreds more flocking to the area. A stageline was built to run express from Tucson to Tombstone, most of its riders purchasing a one-way ticket. Little by little, general stores and other establishments were opened to cater to Tombstone’s growing population.

Growth of the Town

After the Golden Eagle Brewery opened in 1879, other breweries, saloons, and gambling houses sprang up faster than men could spend their money. By 1881, there were 110 liquor licenses in effect. Along with its drinking establishments, Tombstone boasted a variety of fashionable shops, luxurious hotels, and restaurants with chefs from New York, St. Louis, and Chicago.

Tombstone was no stranger to modern technology. Along with building a hospital and water company, the city was soon using gas lamps, the telegraph, and a good number of telephones. The area even had its own newspapers. Competing for the front line were the weekly Nugget and the daily and weekly Epitaph.

On February 21, 1881, a bill was passed to “incorporate the City of Tombstone, to define its limits and rights, to specify its privileges and powers, and provide for an efficient government of the same.” This government would consist of a mayor and a councilman for each ward. In addition, Tombstone was designated the county seat for all of Cochise County. By 1883, ten thousand people resided in the town and its surrounding countryside. In four short years, Tombstone had become an area of nonstop activity, healthy profit, and unbounded optimism. At its peak, the city had a population of almost twelve thousand. Investments rapidly poured in; mines and mills operated for miles in all directions; elaborate corporate structures abounded; wages were high.

The growth of schools in the town sparked a fresh interest in education and culture. This attention led to the birth of organizations such as the Tombstone City Band, the Tombstone Club (a literary group), and theaters such as the Sixth Street Opera House and Schieffelin Hall. However, theaters like the Bird Cage also sprang up and began advertising alcohol and not-so-tasteful entertainment.

Temptation and Trouble

Most of the population of Tombstone was made up of miners. The days were long and the toil was difficult. Men were left to entertain themselves any way they could, usually through card playing, drinking, gambling, and consorting with “loose women.” Saloons and gambling houses, open twenty-four hours, roared with music and laughter all hours of the day and night. Every day, the town grew wilder and law enforcement became more difficult.

Prostitution was a booming business in Tombstone. Women flocked to town to prosper from the needs of the lonely miners. Although work was abundant, pay was low and living conditions were poor. Most prostitutes lived behind the saloons in cheap shacks where they entertained their clientele. There was no medical inspection of any kind, and venereal disease ran rampant.

Another favorite pastime among miners was gambling–usually mixed with drinking. In fact, drifters often traveled from miles around to collect an evening’s winnings from those too drunk to spot a trick deck of cards. Without regulation, the games were usually crooked and often resulted in the drawing of pistols. Men displayed no fear of ending a dispute with a gunshot, despite the town’s efforts to enforce a law prohibiting the visible carrying of weapons.

Methods of justice in Tombstone were not always traditional. When it was dealt, punishment was severe and often granted deputized officials the opportunity for personal revenge. Likewise, when regular authorities were unable to handle a situation, miners would often resort to vigilante justice. Fighting and feuding were often the result.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

As the silver boom moved along, Tombstone was the frequent target of criminal bands who lived to the south and southeast. These “cowboys” made their living stealing cattle and horses from the United States to sell to Mexico–a practice from which dishonest law officers could profit. One of the most famous gangs of smugglers was the Clanton brothers–Ike, Phineas, and William–from the Charleston area. Often, the trio was joined by Frank and Tom McLowry, who owned a ranch nearby.

Meanwhile in Tombstone, two factions had emerged from the contest for sheriff of Cochise County. Both factions claimed that the other was allied with the “cowboys.” One of the contenders was Democrat John H. Behan, a stable owner and former sheriff from Pima County who was an acquaintance of the Clantons. The other was Republican Wyatt Earp, a peace officer who, until Behan mysteriously usurped his power, had himself been sheriff of Pima County. Now both men were settled in Tombstone, with more than a few bad feelings. When Behan won the seat again in Tombstone, Earp suspected it had something to do with Behan’s association with the Clanton gang.

Along with Earp traveled his four brothers–Jim, Morgan, Virgil and Warren–and his best friends, John Henry “Doc” Holliday and William “Bat” Masterson. When Virgil was appointed city marshal in 1881 by reform mayor John P. Clum, the animosity grew between the Earp faction, supported by the Nugget, and the Behan-Clanton faction, supported by the Epitaph. These feelings were sharpened again when Wyatt Earp became involved with Behan’s mistress, and yet again with the occurrence of two stagecoach robberies for which the factions blamed each other. Finally, on October 26, 1881, the feud came to a head with what is remembered today as the shoot-out at the OK Corral.

The night before the shoot-out, members of both factions were in a saloon where Ike Clanton and Virgil Earp got into a heated argument during a poker game. The next morning, Virgil deputized his brother Morgan, and they went after Clanton, arresting and fining him for carrying a weapon. That same morning, Wyatt Earp initiated a fight with an unarmed Tom McLowry and left him bleeding in the street. Later that day, the Earp brothers, along with Doc Holliday, marched toward the Clanton’s OK Corral to settle the score.

Having been told by Behan that their rivals were unarmed, the Earps rode up to the corral. They were met outside by the McLowry brothers and Ike and Billy Clanton. To the Earps’ surprise, the Clantons and McLowrys reached for weapons; the Earps reacted quickly. Shots echoed through the town, and in twenty short seconds Billy Clanton and the McLowrys were all dead, Virgil and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded, and Doc Holliday was grazed by a bullet.

Warrants were obtained for the arrests of Doc Holliday and Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp. The trial lasted until December 1, when all four men were released due to insufficient evidence. However, Virgil was suspended from his office as marshal, and the town turned bitterly against the Earp family to support Sheriff Behan. Soon after, an ambush killed Morgan and crippled Virgil, causing him to return to his parents in Florida. Wyatt and Warren Earp, along with Holliday, headed north to Colorado.

A Town in Decline

Tombstone’s glory was short-lived. By 1883, despite its prosperous appearance, the town had begun to decline. Although certain changes were not immediately apparent, they eventually affected Tombstone. The price of silver was going down, underground shafts began to flood, and the local cattlemen were joining forces to drive out the smugglers. As word reached Washington, D.C., of the violent behavior in the Southwest, the federal government began to enforce control over the area. Finally, national attention turned away from silver toward the copper industry. Tombstone locals soon began to take interest in mining camps in Colorado and Montana.

Citizens of Tombstone fought hard to bolster the town’s economy, but the next fifteen years marked a steady decline. Severe shaft floods and fires eventually led to the closing of Tombstone’s mines in late 1910. Most of its residents had packed up and followed their fortunes elsewhere. Fewer than a thousand people now populated Tombstone–all that was left were a few scattered ranches and fabricated legends of wild, lawless days.

Ironically, these legends would eventually lead to Tombstone’s rebirth. As time passed, the town’s tales grew tall enough to attract tourists from all over the country. In the 1920’s, citizens of Tombstone built up this new tourist industry by renovating old buildings; staging reenactments of hangings, killings, shootouts, and battles with Indians; and putting on tame, theatrical versions of the old saloons’ bawdy reviews.

Publishing houses and filmmakers also sought to profit from the interest in Tombstone’s past. Fabrication laced almost every retelling: Characters were deemed either wholly good or purely evil, and the town’s violent character was monstrously exaggerated.

Places to Visit

Today most of Tombstone’s historic buildings still stand. One site that has attracted international interest is the home of the Epitaph, founded on May 1, 1880, by John P. Clum. One hundred years later, this daily newspaper was still published locally, along with a national monthly edition circulated in every state and many foreign countries. The Crystal Palace, Tombstone’s first and most popular place of drinking, socializing, and gambling, is another tourist favorite. Finally, the Boothill Graveyard on the northwest corner of town is the resting place of Tombstone’s pioneers and many of those who made the town famous. Because it lay neglected for many years, much of the cemetery has returned to nature. However, in 1923, the city conducted a search to discover who lay buried there and undertook a cleanup and restoration of the site. Gravestones reveal the names of Tom and Frank McLowry and Billy Clanton.

Many other historic buildings and sites, such as the Bird Cage theater, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Rose Tree Inn, Tombstone Courthouse, and the OK Corral still stand as well. Although much of Tombstone’s past has been glamorized, its rich history cannot be denied.

For Further Information
  • Dollar, Tom. Tucson to Tombstone: A Guide to Southeastern Arizona. Phoenix: Arizona Highways, 1998. A guidebook to Tombstone and the surrounding area accompanied by photographs and maps.
  • Faulk, Odie B. Tombstone: Myth and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. A detailed account of what happened at Tombstone, including its ascent and decline and many of the myths that have grown to be believed about the town.
  • Lake, Stuart N. The Life and Times of Wyatt Earp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. Gives a detailed biography of Earp, along with speculative dialogue.
  • Lavender, David. The Southwest. Reprint. New York: Harper, 1984. A briefer account that focuses on the story of the shootout at the OK Corral, but gives solid background information on the circumstances in Tombstone surrounding the event.
  • Shillingberg, William B. Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem. Spokane, Wash.: Arthur H. Clark, 1999. A description of frontier and pioneer life in Tombstone.
Categories: History