Shootout at the O.K. Corral Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the sleepy frontier town of Tombstone in Arizona Territory, a gunfight broke out between the Earp brothers and a group of ranchers tied to an outlaw gang called the Cowboys. The entire event lasted only about thirty seconds, but almost immediately after, it became the stuff of legend and grew to define the lives of the participants, especially that of Wyatt Earp, for the remainder of their days. For Americans more generally, the shootout eventually came to define law and justice on the frontier, with the deputy marshal at the center of events playing both hero and villain. In popular imagination, Wyatt Earp became somewhat of an avenging angel, the lone gunslinger, taking the law into his own hands, having gone up against an armed band of desperados. This archetype would come to define heroism in not just the American West, but throughout the world.

Summary Overview

At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in the sleepy frontier town of Tombstone in Arizona Territory, a gunfight broke out between the Earp brothers and a group of ranchers tied to an outlaw gang called the Cowboys. The entire event lasted only about thirty seconds, but almost immediately after, it became the stuff of legend and grew to define the lives of the participants, especially that of Wyatt Earp, for the remainder of their days. For Americans more generally, the shootout eventually came to define law and justice on the frontier, with the deputy marshal at the center of events playing both hero and villain. In popular imagination, Wyatt Earp became somewhat of an avenging angel, the lone gunslinger, taking the law into his own hands, having gone up against an armed band of desperados. This archetype would come to define heroism in not just the American West, but throughout the world.

Defining Moment

Tombstone, in southeastern Arizona Territory was not that different from the hundreds of frontier boomtowns that began to appear in the region in the late 1800s. Initially established thanks to the railroads and expanding in response to the prospect of mining riches, such dusty backwaters were known to appear suddenly and vanish just as quickly once all available resources were picked clean. If someone were smart enough and quick enough, they could make a small fortune in the interim. It was for this reason that Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, arrived in Tombstone in the winter of 1879, just a few months after the town's founding.

The Earps, long-time ramblers seeking their fortune, hoping to join western high society, quickly, albeit reluctantly, took on jobs in law enforcement. Having worked as lawmen in frontier towns before, including the raucous Dodge City, the Earps understood that they were expected to walk a fine line. They were charged with keeping the peace, but also, more importantly, in protecting the interests of the wealthy ranchers and miners who were the real power in the region. As long as business wasn't disrupted, trivial things like the law did not really matter. It was in this environment that the Earps came into direct conflict with “the Cowboys”—a loose confederacy of outlaws and cattle smugglers, who made their living by robbing the territory's ranchers and miners.

In the Spring of 1881, after a band of Cowboys attacked a stage coach, murdering the driver, Wyatt Earp, hoping to use the publicity of a successful capture to boost his chances of getting elected sheriff, made a secret deal with Ike Clanton, a corrupt local rancher with ties to the Cowboys, in which Clanton would turn over the fugitives in exchange for cash. The deal came to nothing, but Clanton began to grow increasingly nervous that Earp would reveal their secret deal to the Cowboys.

On the night of October 25, 1881, a drunk, nerved-up Ike Clanton started publically threatening the lives of the Earp brothers, telling anyone who would listen that he planned to gun all three down the next morning. Acting on rumors of an imminent ambush, and bowing to pressure from wealthy interests eager to see the Cowboys disbanded, Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt's good friend, Doc Holiday, a mysterious, hot-tempered gunslinger from the deep South, went to confront Ike Clanton and his brother Billy, who had gathered along with fellow ranchers, Tom and Frank McLaury, at a small enclosure known as the O.K. Corral. Immediately upon approaching the ranchers, after Wyatt told Ike Clanton he was under arrest, gunfire erupted from both sides. The shootout lasted thirty seconds. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc had all been wounded, Frank and Tom McLaury, along with Billy Clanton were killed, Ike Clanton ran, only to be arrested later. Wyatt Earp came through unscathed.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral became an immediate sensation, and the Earps were largely celebrated for their actions. However, the event soon set off a long chain of violence and reprisals, from both Ike Clanton and his Cowboy allies, and, after the murder of Morgan and the attempted assassination of Virgil, from Wyatt Earp as well. In the end, Wyatt, backed and encouraged by the territorial business interests, would track down and kill many of the men whom he thought responsible for the attack on his family. Only Ike Clanton escaped Wyatt's retribution, only to be killed in an unrelated incident six years later.

Author Biography

Wyatt Earp was born in 1848, the third of five boys, sons to a father who moved the family farther and farther west, partly in search of opportunity, and partly to escape paying off the family's extensive debts. Growing up on the frontier, never staying in one place long enough to plant any roots, the Earp brothers learned to rely on each other, with Wyatt standing in as their silent, steady center. Wyatt set out to make his own destiny at the age of seventeen. He worked as a laborer on the railroads and briefly as a brothel operator, but eventually found his way into law work. In 1879, Wyatt and his brothers moved to Tombstone, with dreams of easy riches, but his famous clashes with the Cowboys soon derailed those plans. Somewhat of a pariah after his well-publicized vendetta and hounded by both the public and media over his infamous gun battle, Wyatt eventually settled in San Francisco. There, with his partner Josephine, he attempted various business ventures, including mining, real estate speculation, fight promotion, and prospecting. Wyatt eventually died in 1929 at the ripe old age of eighty, never quite having found his fortune and haunted always by the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

Historical Document

Statement of Wyatt S. Earp

in the Preliminary Hearing in the Earp-Holliday Case,

Heard before Judge Wells Spicer

November 16, 1881

[On this sixteenth day of November, 1881, upon the hearing of the above entitled action, on the examination of Wyatt Earp and J. H. Holliday, the prosecution having closed their evidence in chief, and the defendants, Wyatt Earp and J. H. Holliday, having first been informed of his rights to make a statement as provided in Section 133, page 22 of the laws of Arizona, approved February 12, 1881, and the said Wyatt Earp having chosen to make a statement under oath and having been personally sworn, makes such statement under oath in answer to interrogatories as follows: ]

(Q) Give any explanations you may think proper of the circumstances appearing in the testimony against you, and state any facts which you think will tend to your exculpation.

(A) The difficulty which resulted in the death of William Clanton and Frank McLaury originated last spring, and at a little over a year ago, I followed Tom and Frank McLaury and two other parties who had stolen six government mules from Camp Rucker. Myself, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp, and Marshall Williams, Captain Hurst and four soldiers; we traced those mules to McLaury's ranch.

While at Charleston I met a man by the name of Dave Estes. He told me I would find the mules at McLaury's ranch. He said he had seen them there the day before. He said they were branding the mules “D S,” making the “D. S.” out [of] “D. S.” We tracked the mules right up to the ranch. Also found the branding iron “D. S.” Afterwards, some of those mules were found with the same brand.

After we arrived at McLaury's ranch, there was a man by the name of Frank Patterson. He made some kind of a compromise with Captain Hurst. Captain Hurst come to us boys and told us he had made this compromise, and by so doing, he would get his mules back. We insisted on following them up. Hurst prevailed on us to go back to Tombstone, and so we came back. Hurst told us two or three weeks afterwards, that they would not give up the mules to him after we left, saying that they only wanted to get us away, that they could stand the soldiers off. Captain Hurst cautioned me and my brothers, Virgil and Morgan, to look out for those men, as they had made some threats against our lives.

About one month after we had followed up those mules. I met Frank and Tom McLaury in Charleston. They tried to pick a fuss out of me down there, and told me if I ever followed them up again as close as I did before, they would kill me. Shortly after the time Bud Philpot was killed by the men who tried to rob the Benson stage, as a detective [working for Wells, Fargo & Co.] I helped trace the matter up, and I was satisfied that three men, named Billy Leonard, Harry Head, and James Crane were in that robbery. I knew that Leonard, Head and Crane were friends and associates of the Clantons and McLaurys and often stopped at their ranches.

It was generally understood among officers and those who have information about criminals, that Ike Clanton was sort of chief among the cowboys that the Clantons and McLaurys were cattle thieves and generally in the secret of the stage robbery, and that the Clanton and McLaury ranches were meeting places and places of shelter for the gang.

I had an ambition to be Sheriff of this County at the next election, and I thought it would be a great help to me with the people and businessmen if I could capture the men who killed Philpot. There were rewards offered of about $1,200 each for the capture of the robbers. Altogether there was about $3,600 offered for their capture. I thought this sum might tempt Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury to give away Leonard, Head, and Crane, so I went to Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Joe Hill when they came to town. I had an interview with them in the back yard of the Oriental Saloon. I told them what I wanted. I told them I wanted the glory of capturing Leonard, Head, and Crane and if I could do it, it would help me make the race for Sheriff at the next election. I told them if they would put me on the track of Leonard, Head, and Crane, and tell me where those men were hid; I would give them all the reward and would never let anyone know where I got the information.

Ike Clanton said he would like to see them captured. He said that Leonard claimed a ranch that he claimed, and that if he could get him out of the way, he would have no opposition in regard to the ranch. Clanton said that Leonard, Head, and Crane would make a fight, that they would never be taken alive, and that I must find out if the reward would be paid for the capture of the robbers dead or alive. I then went to Marshall Williams, the agent of Wells, Fargo & Co., in this town and at my request, he telegraphed to the agent, or superintendent, in San Francisco to find out if the reward would be paid for the robbers dead or alive. He received, in June, 1881, a telegram, which he showed me, promising the reward would be paid dead or alive.

The next day I met Ike Clanton and Joe Hill on Allen Street in front of a little cigar store next to the Alhambra. I told them that the dispatch had come. I went to Marshall Williams and told him I wanted to see the dispatch for a few minutes. He went to look for it and could not find it, but went over to the telegraph office and got a copy of it, and he came back and gave it to me. I went and showed it to Ike Clanton and Joe Hill and returned it to Marshall Williams, and afterwards told Frank McLaury of its contents.

It was then agreed between us that they were to have all the $3,600 reward, outside of necessary expenses for horse hire in going after them, and that Joe Hill should go to where Leonard, Head, and Crane were hid, over near Yreka, in New Mexico, and lure them in near Frank and Tom McLaury's ranch near Soldier's Holes, 30 miles from here, and I would be on hand with a posse and capture them.

I asked Joe Hill, Ike Clanton, and Frank McLaury what tale they would make them to get them over here. They said they had agreed upon a plan to tell them there would be a paymaster going from Tombstone to Bisbee, to payoff the miners, and they wanted them to come in and take him in. Ike Clanton then sent Joe Hill to bring them ‘in. Before starting, Joe Hill took off his watch and chain and between two and three hundred dollars in money, and gave it to Virgil Earp to keep for him until he got back. He was gone about ten days and returned with the word that he got there a day too late; that Leonard and Harry Head had been killed the day before he got there by horse thieves. I learned afterward that the thieves had been killed subsequently by members of the Clanton and McLaury gang.

After that, Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury claimed that I had given them away to Marshall Williams and Doc Holliday, and when they came in town, they shunned us, and Morgan, Virgil Earp, Doc Holliday and myself began to hear their threats against us.

I am a friend of Doc Holliday because when I was city marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, he came to my rescue and saved my life when I was surrounded by desperadoes.

About a month or more ago [October 1881], Morgan Earp and myself assisted to arrest Stilwell and Spence on the charge of robbing the Bisbee stage. The McLaurys and Clantons were always friendly with Spence and Stilwell, and they laid the whole blame of their arrest on us, though the fact is, we only went as a sheriff's posse. After we got in town with Spence and Stilwell, Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury came in.

Frank McLaury took Morgan Earp into the street in front of the Alhambra, where John Ringo, Ike Clanton, and the two Hicks boys were also standing. Frank McLaury commenced to abuse Morgan Earp for going after Spence and Stilwell. Frank McLaury said he would never speak to Spence again for being arrested by us.

He said to Morgan, “If you ever come after me, you will never take me.” Morgan replied that if he ever had occasion to go after him, he would arrest him. Frank McLaury then said to Morgan Earp, “I have threatened you boys' lives, and a few days later I had taken it back, but since this arrest, it now goes.” Morgan made no reply and walked off.

Before this and after this, Marshall Williams, Farmer Daly, Ed Barnes, Old Man Urrides, Charley Smith and three or four others had told us at different times of threats to kill us, by Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Joe Hill, and John Ringo. I knew all these men were desperate and dangerous men, that they were connected with outlaws, cattle thieves, robbers and murderers. I knew of the McLaurys stealing six government mules, and also cattle, and when the owners went after them finding his stock on the McLaury's ranch; that he was drove off and told that if he ever said anything about it, he would be killed, and he kept his mouth shut until several days ago, for fear of being killed.

I heard of John Ringo shooting a man down in cold blood near Camp Thomas. I was satisfied that Frank and Tom McLaury killed and robbed Mexicans in Skeleton Canyon, about three or four months ago, and I naturally kept my eyes open and did not intend that any of the gang should get the drop on me if I could help it.

Ike Clanton met me at the Alhambra five or six weeks ago and told me I had told Holliday about this transaction, concerning the capture of Head, Leonard, and Crane. I told him I had never told Holliday anything. I told him when Holliday came up from Tucson I would prove it. Ike said that Holliday had told him so. When Holliday came back I asked him if he said so.

On the night of the 25th of October, Holliday met Ike Clanton in the Alhambra Saloon and asked him about it. Clanton denied it. They quarreled for three or four minutes. Holliday told Clanton he was a damned liar, if he said so. I was sitting eating lunch at the lunch counter. Morgan Earp was standing at the Alhambra bar talking with the bartender. I called him over to where I was sitting, knowing that he was an officer and told him that Holliday and Clanton were quarreling in the lunch room and for him to go in and stop it. He climbed over the lunch room counter from the Alhambra bar and went into the room, took Holliday by the arm and led him into the street. Ike Clanton in a few seconds followed them out. I got through eating and walked out of the bar. As I stopped at the door of the bar, they were still quarreling.

Just then Virgil Earp came up, I think out of the Occidental, and told them, Holliday and Clanton, if they didn't stop their quarreling he would have to arrest them. They all separated at that time, Morgan Earp going down the street to the Oriental Saloon, Ike going across the street to the Grand Hotel. I walked in the Eagle Brewery where I had a faro game which I had not closed. I stayed in there for a few minutes and walked out to the street and there met Ike Clanton. He asked me if I would take a walk with him, that he wanted to talk to me. I told him I would if he did not go too far, as I was waiting for my game in the Brewery to close, and I would have to take care of the money. We walked about halfway down the brewery building, going down Fifth Street and stopped.

He told me when Holliday approached him in the Alhambra that he wasn't fixed just right. He said that in the morning he would have man-for-man, that this fighting talk had been going on for a long time, and he guessed it was about time to fetch it to a close. I told him I would not fight no one if I could get away from it, because there was no money in it. He walked off and left me saying, “I will be ready for you in the morning.”

I walked over to the Oriental. He followed me in and took a drink, having his six-shooter in plain sight. He says, “You must not think I won't be after you all in the morning.” He said he would like to make a fight with Holliday now. I told him Holliday did not want to fight, but only to satisfy him that this talk had not been made. About that time the man that is dealing my game closed it and brought the money to me. I locked it in the safe and started home. I met Holliday on the street between the Oriental and Alhambra. Myself and Holliday walked down Allen Street, he going to his room, and I to my house, going to bed.

I got up the next day, October 26, about noon. Before I got up, Ned Boyle came to me and told me that he met Ike Clanton on Allen Street near the telegraph office, that Ike was armed, that he said, “as soon as those damned Earps make their appearance on the street today the ball will open, we are here to make a fight. We are looking for the sons-of-bitches!” I laid in bed some little time after that, and got up and went down to the Oriental Saloon.

Harry Jones came to me after I got up and said, “What does all this mean?” I asked him what he meant. He says, “Ike Clanton is hunting you boys with a Winchester rifle and six-shooter.” I said, “I will go down and find him and see what he wants.” I went out and on the comer of Fifth and Allen I met Virgil Earp, the marshal. He told me how he heard Ike Clanton was hunting us. I went down Allen Street and Virgil went down Fifth Street and then Fremont Street. Virgil found Ike Clanton on Fourth Street near Fremont Street, in the mouth of an alleyway.

I walked up to him and said, “I hear you are hunting for some of us.” I was coming down Fourth Street at the time. Ike Clanton then threw his Winchester rifle around toward Virgil. Virgil grabbed it and hit Ike Clanton with his six-shooter and knocked him down. Clanton had his rifle and his six-shooter was in his pants. By that time I came up. Virgil and Morgan Earp took his rifle and six-shooter and took them to the Grand Hotel after examination, and I took Ike Clanton before Justice Wallace.

Before the investigation, Morgan Earp had Ike Clanton in charge, as Virgil Earp was out at the time. After I went into Wallace's Court and sat down on a bench, Ike Clanton looked over to me and said, “I will get even with all of you for this. If I had a six-shooter now I would make a fight with all of you.” Morgan Earp then said to him, “If you want to make a fight right bad, I will give you this one!” at the same time offering Ike Clanton his own six-shooter.

Ike Clanton started to get up and take it, when Campbell, the deputy sheriff, pushed him back in his seat, saying he would not allow any fuss. I never had Ike Clanton's arms at any time, as he stated.

I would like to describe the positions we occupied in the courtroom. Ike Clanton sat on a bench with his face fronting to the north wall of the building. I myself sat down on a bench that ran against and along the north wall in front of where Ike sat. Morgan Earp stood up on his feet with his back against the wall and to the right of where I sat, and two or three feet from me.

Morgan Earp had Ike Clanton's Winchester in his hand, like this, with one end on the floor, with Clanton's six-shooter in his right hand. We had them all the time. Virgil Earp was not in the courtroom during any of this time and came there after I had walked out. He was out, he told me, hunting for Judge Wallace.

I was tired of being threatened by Ike Clanton and his gang and believe from what he said to me and others, and from their movements that they intended to assassinate me the first chance they had, and I thought that if I had to fight for my life with them I had better make them face me in an open fight. So I said to Ike Clanton, who was then sitting about eight feet away from me. “You damned dirty cow thief, you have been threatening our lives and I know it. I think I would be justified in shooting you down any place I should meet you, but if you are anxious to make a fight, I will go anywhere on earth to make a fight with you, even over to the San Simon among your crowd!” He replied, “I will see you after I get through here. I only want four feet of ground to fight on!”

I walked out and then just outside of the courtroom near the Justice's Office, I met Tom McLaury. He came up to me and said to me, “If you want to make a fight I will make a fight with you anywhere.” I supposed at the time that he had heard what had just transpired between Ike Clanton and myself. I knew of his having threatened me, and I felt just as I did about Ike Clanton and if the fight had to come, I had better have it come when I had an even show to defend myself. So I said to him, “All right, make a fight right here!” And at the same time slapped him in the face with my left hand and drew my pistol with my right. He had a pistol in plain sight on his right hip in his pants, but made no move to draw it. I said to him, “Jerk your gun and use it!” He made no reply and I hit him on the head with my six-shooter and walked away, down to Hafford's Corner. I went into Hafford's and got a cigar and came out and stood by the door.

Pretty soon after I saw Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and William Clanton pass me and went down Fourth Street to the gunsmith shop. I followed them to see what they were going to do. When I got there, Frank McLaury's horse was standing on the sidewalk with his head in the door of the gun shop. I took the horse by the bit, as I was deputy city marshal, and commenced to back him off the sidewalk. Tom and Frank and Billy Clanton came to the door. Billy Clanton laid his hand on his six-shooter. Frank McLaury took hold of the horse's bridle and I said, “You will have to get this horse off the sidewalk.” He backed him off into the street. Ike Clanton came up about this time and they all walked into the gun shop. I saw them in the gun shop changing cartridges into their belts. They came out of the shop and walked along Fourth Street to the comer of Allen Street. I followed them as far as the comer of Fourth and Allen Streets. They went down Allen Street and over to Dunbar's Corral. [Dunbar and Behan.]

Virgil Earp was then city marshal; Morgan Earp was a special policeman for six weeks or two months, wore a badge and drew pay. I had been sworn in Virgil's place, to act for him while Virgil was gone to Tucson on Spence's and Stilwell's trial. Virgil had been back several days but I was still acting and I knew it was Virgil's duty to disarm those men. I expected he would have trouble in doing so, and I followed up to give assistance if necessary, especially as they had been threatening us, as I have already stated.

About ten minutes afterwards, and while Virgil, Morgan, Doc Holliday and myself were standing on the comer of Fourth and Allen Streets, several people said, “There is going to be trouble with those fellows,” and one man named Coleman said to Virgil Earp, “They mean trouble. They have just gone from Dunbar's Corral into the O.K. Corral, all armed, and I think you had better go and disarm them.” Virgil turned around to Doc Holliday, Morgan Earp and myself and told us to come and assist him in disarming them.

Morgan Earp said to me, “They have horses, had we not better get some horses ourselves, so that if they make a running fight we can catch them?” I said, “No, if they try to make a running fight we can kill their horses and then capture them.”

We four started through Fourth to Fremont Street. When we turned the comer of Fourth and Fremont we could see them standing near or about the vacant space between Fly's photograph gallery and the next building west. I first saw Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Billy Clanton and Sheriff Behan standing there. We went down the left-hand side of Fremont Street.

When we got within about 150 feet of them I saw Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton and another party. We had walked a few steps further and I saw Behan leave the party and come toward us. Every few steps he would look back as if he apprehended danger. I heard him say to Virgil Earp, “For God's sake, don't go down there, you will get murdered!” Virgil Earp replied, “I am going to disarm them.” he, Virgil, being in the lead. When I and Morgan came up to Behan he said, “I have disarmed them.” When he said this, I took my pistol, which I had in my hand, under my coat, and put it in my overcoat pocket. Behan then passed up the street, and we walked on down.

We came up on them close; Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton standing in a row against the east side of the building on the opposite side of the vacant space west of Fly's photograph gallery. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne and a man I don't knows were standing in the vacant space about halfway between the photograph gallery and the next building west.

I saw that Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury had their hands by their sides, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton's six-shooters were in plain sight. Virgil said, “Throw up your hands; I have come to disarm you!” Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury laid their hands on their six-shooters. Virgil said, “Hold, I don't mean that!” I have come to disarm you!” Then Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury commenced to draw their pistols. At the same time, Tom McLaury throwed his hand to his right hip, throwing his coat open like this, [showing how] and jumped behind his horse. [Actually it was Billy Clanton's horse.]

I had my pistol in my overcoat pocket, where I had put it when Behan told us he had disarmed the other parties. When I saw Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury draw their pistols, I drew my pistol. Billy Clanton leveled his pistol at me, but I did not aim at him. I knew that Frank McLaury had the reputation of being a good shot and a dangerous man, and I aimed at Frank McLaury. The first two shots were fired by Billy Clanton and myself, he shooting at me, and I shooting at Frank McLaury. I don't know which was fired first. We fired almost together. The fight then became general. After about four shots were fired, Ike Clanton ran up and grabbed my left arm. I could see no weapon in his hand, and thought at the time he had none, and so I said to him, “The fight had commenced. Go to fighting or get away,” at the same time pushing him off with my left hand, like this. He started and ran down the side of the building and disappeared between the lodging house and photograph gallery.

My first shot struck Frank McLaury in the belly. He staggered off on the sidewalk but fired one shot at me. When we told them to throw up their hands Claiborne threw up his left hand and broke and ran. I never saw him afterwards until late in the afternoon, after the fight. I never drew my pistol or made a motion to shoot until after Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols. If Tom McLaury was unarmed, I did not know it, I believe he was armed and fired two shots at our party before Holliday, who had the shotgun, fired and killed him. If he was unarmed, there was nothing in the circumstances or in what had been communicated to me, or in his acts or threats, that would have led me even to suspect his being unarmed.

I never fired at Ike Clanton, even after the shooting commenced, because I thought he was unarmed. I believed then, and believe now, from the acts I have stated and the threats I have related and the other threats communicated to me by other persons as having been made by Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Ike Clanton, that these men last named had formed a conspiracy to murder my brothers, Morgan and Virgil, Doc Holliday and myself. I believe I would have been legally and morally justified in shooting any of them on sight, but I did not do so, nor attempt to do so. I sought no advantage when I went as deputy marshal [city marshal] to help disarm them and arrest them. I went as a part of my duty and under the direction of my brother, the marshal; I did not intend to fight unless it became necessary in self-defense and in the performance of official duty. When Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury drew their pistols, I knew it was a fight for life, and I drew in defense of my own life and the lives of my brothers and Doc Holliday.

I have been in Tombstone since December 1, 1879. I came here directly from Dodge City, Kansas. Against the protest of businessmen and officials, I resigned the office of city marshal, which I held from 1876. I came to Dodge City from Wichita, Kansas. I was on the police force in Wichita from 1874 until I went to Dodge City.

The testimony of Isaac Clanton that I ever said to him that I had anything to do with any stage robbery or giving information to Morgan Earp going on the stage, or any improper communication whatever with any criminal enterprise is a tissue of lies from beginning to end.

Sheriff Behan made me an offer in his office on Allen Street in the back room of a cigar store, where he, Behan, had his office, that if I would withdraw and not try to get appointed sheriff of Cochise County, that he would hire a clerk and divide the profits. I done so, and he never said an¬other word about it afterwards, but claimed in his statement and gave his reason for not complying with his contract, which is false in every particular.

Myself and Doc Holliday happened to go to Charleston the night that Behan went down there to subpoena Ike Clanton. We went there for the purpose to get a horse that I had had stolen from me a few days after I came to Tombstone. I had heard several times that the Clantons had him. When I got there that night, I was told by a friend of mine that the man that carried the dispatch from Charleston to Ike Clanton's ranch had rode my horse. At this time I did not know where Ike Clanton's ranch was.

A short time afterwards I was in the Huachucas locating some water rights. I had started home to Tombstone. I had got within 12 or 15 miles of Charleston when I met a man named McMasters. He told me if I would hurry up, I would find my horse in Charleston. I drove into Charleston and saw my horse going through the streets toward the corral. I put up for the night in another corral. I went to Burnett's office to get papers for the recovery of the horse. He was not at home having gone down to Sonora to some coal fields that had been discovered. I telegraphed to Tombstone to James Earp and told him to have papers made out and sent to me. He went to Judge Wallace and Mr. Street. They made the papers out and sent them to Charleston by my youngest brother, Warren Earp, that night. While I was waiting for the papers, Billy Clanton found out that I was in town and went and tried to take the horse out of the corral. I told him that he could not take him out, that it was my horse. After the papers came, he gave the horse up without the papers being served, and asked me if I had any more horses to lose. I told him I would keep them in the stable after this, and give him no chance to steal them.

I give here, as part of the statement, a document sent me from Dodge City since my arrest on this charge, which I wish attached to this statement and marked “Exhibit A.”

In relation to the conversation that I had with Ike Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Joe Hill was four or five different times, and they were all held in the backyard of the Oriental Saloon.

I told Ike Clanton in one of those conversations that there were some parties here in town that were trying to give Doc Holliday the worst of it by their talk, that there was some suspicion that he knew something about the attempted robbery and killing of Bud Philpot, and if I could catch Leonard, Head, and Crane, I could prove to the citizens that he knew nothing of it.

In following the trail of Leonard, Head, and Crane, we struck it at the scene of the attempted robbery, and never lost the trail or hardly a footprint from the time we started from Drew's ranch on the San Pedro, until we got to Helm's ranch in the Dragoons. After following about 80 miles down the San Pedro River and capturing one of the men named King that was supposed to be with them, we then crossed the Catalina Mountains within 15 miles of Tucson following their trail around the foot of the mountain to Tres Alamos on the San Pedro River, thence to the Dragoons to Helm's ranch.

We then started out from Helm's ranch and got on their trail. They had stolen 15 or 20 head of stock, so as to cover their trail. Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp, Robert H. Paul, Breakenridge the deputy sheriff, Johnny Behan the sheriff and one or two others still followed their trail to New Mexico.

Their trail never led south from Helm's ranch as Ike Clanton has stated. We used every effort we could to capture those men or robbers. I was out ten days. Virgil and Morgan Earp were out sixteen days, and [we] all done all we could to catch those men, and I safely say if it had not been for myself and Morgan Earp they would not have got King as he started to run when we rose up to his hiding place and was making for a big patch of brush on the river and would have got in it, if [it] had not been for us two.

[Signed] Wyatt S. Earp


corral: a pen for livestock

faro: a gambling card game

stage: slang for stagecoach

Document Analysis

The document represents the firsthand testimony of Wyatt Earp about the events leading up to, and including the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Earp goes into great detail, trying to explain the complicated web of tensions that connected the Earps to the Clantons, McLaurys, and the Cowboys. Establishing the corrupt, illegal practices of Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury long before the shootout, then addressing the deal brokered for the capture of the fugitive Cowboys, Wyatt Earp carefully lays out every piece of the sordid drama. By the time he finally comes to the events of October 26, 1881, the entire affair appears to be spiraling toward an unavoidable confrontation. Despite this buildup, even at the last moment, Wyatt Earp appeared to hope for a resolution. His intention, he says, was to arrest the men, not shoot them.

It is important to remember that this is Wyatt Earp's court testimony. We have only his version of events. As a lawman, Earp understood that, in order to avoid legal troubles of his own, he had to lay a foundation of criminality at the feet of Ike Clanton and establish that he had no other option but the use of force. At the same time, there's little reason to doubt Earp's testimony. Ike Clanton and the Cowboys were not innocent bystanders. The threats against the Earp brothers, Ike Clanton's erratic, aggressive behavior was not in question, and tensions, in fact, had been boiling for months. The tone of Wyatt Earp's testimony is steady, there's little in way of exaggeration or sensationalism. His version of events, though clearly one-sided, has the air of authenticity. The fact that he could have shot Ike Clanton but spared him, speaks volumes to his credibility.

After the events in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp was never the same again. Not for the loss of his brother Morgan, although that too had a profound effect, but more so for the shootout at the Corral. Up until the end of his life, he never made peace with that had happened. He carried that burden always. In reading his testimony, it is difficult not to get a sense of the weight on Wyatt Earp's shoulders. He did what he had to; there was no other choice.

Essential Themes

After the dust settled in Tombstone, the shootout at the O.K. Corral became an instant legend. Immediately, it became the basis for dime novels and stage plays from coast to coast. Wyatt Earp's testimony was widely circulated. It was published in newspapers and books, reprinted millions of times over, and read by people across the globe. And although he was generally celebrated for his swift justice and eventually exonerated of any wrong doing, many loud voices in both the press and in the public derided Earp for his lack of restraint, calling him little more than a thug and a killer. As a result he was shunned by polite society, left to exist as a sort of curiosity. For the rest of his life, Earp tried desperately to set the record straight, to further justify his actions and expand on his testimony. He hoped more than anything that motion pictures might serve as a vehicle to aid his rehabilitation. But it wasn't until the twentieth century, after Earp passed away, that a public in desperate need of heroes, began to reevaluate the events of October 26, 1881. Many of the details that Earp so laboriously catalogued were edited out and the story greatly simplified. The primary focus became that of a righteous frontier lawman, going toe-to-toe against a band of nefarious outlaws. And so in this document, we have the birth of the modern protagonist—the archetypal lone hero. Wyatt Earp's story, the shootout and the quest for vengeance that followed, was popularized in film and literature. It was the story of a good man wronged and taking the law into his own hands. It became a popular narrative, one that still influences storytelling today. As for Wyatt Earp, he became the quintessential frontier lawman. His brand of justice came to define all discussion of law and order in the chaotic American West.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Barra, Allen. Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carol & Graf, 1998. Print.
  • Guin, Jeff. The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How It Changed the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
  • Marks, Paula Mitchell. And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1989. Print.
  • Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998. Print.
  • Tefertiller, Casey. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. Print.
Categories: History