30 shots in 30 seconds: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 135 years ago today

Remember when Kevin Costner and Val Kilmer played cowboys back in the 90s? Tombstone, anyone?

Well, this and literally dozens of other films were inspired by a shootout between two groups of cowboys that happened 135 years ago today.  It became the ultimate legend of the Wild West: the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

First things first–corral?

For the non-cowboys amongst you, a corral is a thing to keep livestock from running away. And a good place to shoot people, apparently–but then again most places probably are in a town called Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone in 1881

Tombstone in 1881

When gunslinging was a thing

In 1877, silver was found near Tombstone, But all the money in the world couldn’t change its cowtown mentality overnight.  

A group of five nearby ranchers moonlighting as bandits, known as “The Cowboys”,  had their eyes set on all the new riches flowing through town.

The town marshal, Virgil Earp, and his brothers Earp and Wyatt, the town bank’s security guard and a former policeman, considered themselves in charge of Tombstone. Oh, and their friend Doc Holliday (why don’t people have names like this anymore??? Doc Holiday’s common-law wife was also incidentally called “Big Nose Kate”). 

Big Nose Kate

Big Nose Kate at 40

On October 25th, 1881, the Earps ended up pistol-whipping a Clanton and McLaury who were in town. When more of the Clanton-McLaury gang came into town the next day, Doc Holliday took great pleasure delivering this news at–where else–the local saloon.

None too pleased, the Clanton-McLaury gang gathered near the O.K. Corral. They were actually in narrow lot next to an old fashioned portrait shop.

The Earp brothers and Doc show up down the road at exactly 3:00PM sharp. Words are exchanged. Presumably, they aren’t nice words.

Tombstone map

History nerds use Tombstone map to prove shootout location (green) NOT at the O.K. Corral (yellow)

30 shots in 30 seconds

Although no one knows for sure who fired the first shot, guns blazed for 30 seconds, and 30 shots were fired.

Three of the gang were killed, and the two survivors fled the town. The Earps were later acquitted of all charges against them.    

dead cowboys

The fallen Cowboys after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

But the trouble was just starting…the surviving Cowboys later tracked down Virgil, seriously injuring him, and killed his brother Morgan by shooting him through a saloon window. Wyatt, newly minted as a Deputy Marshall for the county, was enraged and launched a vendetta–but not without the local county sheriff trying to stop him, carrying a warrant for his arrest. So it was in the Wild West.

Celebrity came later…much later

For half a century, none of this was known until 2 years after Wyatt’s death in 1931, when his biography was published. The gunslinger never got to meet any of the actors that would play him.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp (front row, second from left)

Little did Wyatt know in 1881 he’d be played by John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Kurt Russell, or Kevin Costner.