The afternoon of October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the frontier town of Tombstone. The fighting was over in less than a minute, and when the gun smoke cleared, three men lay dead. This short skirmish might have been a footnote in American history, but it grew and became a legend, perhaps the most famous in the Old West.
A feud had been building between two rival factions in Tombstone. One was led by Kansas lawman Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and their friend John “Doc” Holliday. The other was a loose band of outlaws called the “cowboys”: Among their members were brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. The rising tensions between the two groups revealed that the line between law enforcement and vendetta was very thin in the Arizona Territory.
Tombstone was founded a few years earlier by Ed Schieffelin, a former scout with the United States Army. Schieffelin headed to the Arizona Territory in the 1870s to strike it rich in mining. He found a promising spot in what is today southeastern Arizona, about 30 miles north of the Mexican border. (See life as a cowboy nearly 100 years ago.)