What really happened at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral?

Movies and T.V. portray Wyatt Earp and his brothers as law-abiding heroes—but the real story of the most famous shoot out in U.S. history is more complicated than that.

The Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday advance on the “cowboys” in a dramatic oil painting by British artist Howard Morgan that re-creates the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

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.)

Read This Next

Battle to control America’s ‘most destructive’ species: feral pigs

How coffee can help forests grow faster

The forgotten fossil hunter who transformed Britain’s Jurassic Coast

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet