What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part I)

There have been many unsubstantiated tales involving the most notable gunfight that took place in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881, that were born out of the lack of the facts or from the motivation to hype this story to sell anything and everything to the populous.  There were also political upheavals, aspirations and bias that compounded the problem of the actual truth of events being reported to the public, both locally and nationwide.  In the early part of the 20th century, with the founding of Hollywood, its’ movie moguls and producers were prone to romanticize and/or add artistic license to stories based on actual events to sell tickets, and to sell movie goers a legend or a myth rather than reality.  From the earliest movies made about the Earps and the gunfight, to the more recent years, no one movie made portrayed all the details of the truth of what really happened in Tombstone.

Without trying to whitewash or glorify the tragic confrontation, or depict the gunfight as an ambush or as an attack from either side of a gun barrel, what you are about to read is really about a group of men, who considered themselves within their lawful right and duty, whether right or wrong, to disarm a group of men they believed to be potentially dangerous and inflict harm on the Earps or Tombstone citizens, which could have exploded into an all-out war.  That attempt failed.  Add in a dose of hatred from both sides, specifically between Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton, and an unfortunate sequence of events preceding the gunfight, and you have all the makings for a bloody conclusion.

Key Players

The Cowboys: Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury

The Lawmen: Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Johnny Benham

Significant Extras: Doc Holliday

Key Events That Led to the Gunfight

  • In March of 1881, the attempted robbery of $26,000, inside the Wells Fargo treasure box onboard the Benson stagecoach, and the subsequent murders of hired stagecoach gunmen Bud Philpot and Peter Roerig, committed by Billy Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane (part of the cowboy contingency)
  • Tombstone adopts the ordinance of no one carrying guns inside city limits without a permit
  • Wyatt Earp made a secret deal with Ike Clanton, Frank McClaury and Joe Hill for a plan to capture the murderers of Philpot and Roerig of the Benson stagecoach and in exchange, Clanton, McLaury and Hill would secretly receive the Wells Fargo reward money from Wyatt
  • Wyatt’s plan fell apart when Billy Leonard and Harry Head were killed by the Haslett brothers, and Jim Crane was killed later by Mexican soldiers when Crane happened to be with a group of other cowboys, which included “Old Man” Clanton, who were moving cattle to Tombstone
  • Ike Clanton got nervous when the Wells Fargo agent, Marshall Williams ran into Ike and blurted out while drunk…”it’s always a good idea to make deals with Wyatt Earp.” Ike was afraid the cowboy contingency would find out about his deal with Wyatt and kill him
  • Ike badgered Wyatt for months about keeping their secret, not only to protect himself from the other cowboys, but more specifically in regard to Ike’s enemy, Doc Holliday – Wyatt assured Ike that he would get Doc to confirm to him that Doc knew nothing about any deal or plan
  • Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrived in Tombstone the morning of October 25, 1881 – Tom was picking up supplies and Ike went on a drinking and gambling binge
  • The night of October 25, 1881 and into the early hours of October 26, 1881, a heated argument broke out between a drunk Ike Clanton and the “always ready for a fight”, Doc Holliday at the Alhambra Lunch Room
  • According to testimony, after leaving the Alhambra, Ike first threatened Wyatt, saying to Wyatt, “I will be ready for all of you in the morning.”  Ike then threatened Virgil later after a cordial card game
  • On the morning of October 26, 1881, Ike Clanton, still drunk, was armed with a six shooter and a rifle, threatening to kill the “Earp crowd” – Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp were notified about Ike being armed and making threats
  • Virgil and Morgan subdued Ike and then, meeting up with Wyatt, they took Ike to the Recorder’s Office to see the judge – the judge was officiating a wedding, so Virgil went to get him, while Wyatt and Morgan watched Ike – Ike continued to make threats, while Wyatt and Morgan goaded him on – Ike got off with just a $25 fine and $2.50 court fee, which to the Earps they considered a slap on the wrist
  • Frustrated, Wyatt left ready to take his angry disposition out on anyone – Tom McLaury just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and according to some testimony, Tom was carrying a pistol – Wyatt suspected Tom was armed, and asked him if he was – Without waiting for a response, Wyatt then slapped and “buffaloed” Tom across his head with his pistol
  • After Wyatt left Tom laying there on the street, Tom then got back up and with head aching, went to the Capitol Saloon to check his gun, then went back about his business
  • Around 1 p.m., Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton rode into Tombstone and went to the Grand Hotel for a drink – their friend Billy Allen came in and told Frank about what happened to Ike and Tom – Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury left the hotel to find their brothers and then get them out of town

The real “straw that broke the camel’s back” the day of the gunfight was Ike Clanton.  With his overheard threats against the Earps by the townspeople who were constantly running to the Earps to tell them what was going on with the cowboys, and Ike’s badgering of the Earps and his blatant “show of force” on the morning of the gunfight, Ike was essentially the catalyst that expedited the events to come and the ultimate deaths of his brother, Billy, and, his cowboy friends, Tom and Frank McLaury.  Had it not been for Ike and his actions, it’s possible that the gunfight may have never taken place.

On the Earp side, Virgil Earp should have possibly had a better handle on his younger brother Wyatt and his ambitious nature.  With Wyatt yearning to make a name for himself and wanting to “dethrone” Johnny Benham from the Cochise County Sheriff seat, Wyatt made a major miscalculation that not many people were aware of, including his own family.  Blinded by his own ambition, Wyatt neglected to realize that he should have never trusted anyone from the cowboy contingency or anyone even connected to them, especially when attempting to make a deal with the likes of Ike Clanton, or the McLaurys.  The cowboys were not only trigger happy when it came to wanting to get rid of any lawman that stood in their way, but they were willing to do away with each other, just to protect what they had or what they could get.  Good examples of this were the two Benson stagecoach murder fugitives, Billy Leonard and Harry Head, who were hired by possibly, a prominent judge and mine owner, to drive off the Haslett brothers (more of the cowboy contingency) from a prime piece a real estate in the Animas Valley.  The Haslett brothers got wind of the impending attack and killed Leonard and Head first.

For those of you out there that are searching for the factual story of your ancestors, never give up in looking for the truth.  There may be gaps and holes in their stories, but a lot of times, the pieces that you do find may help you piece together their true story, but always keep a thread of doubt in your mind.  You can never assume anything until you have solid evidence of any event that relates to your ancestors.

What happened next in the events of Tombstone, will be covered in the next posting,

“What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part II)”


  • The book, “The Last Gunfight”, written by Jeff Guinn
  • Court testimony during the trial of the Earps (murder charges filed by Ike Clanton)
  • Letters written by Earp family members
  • Interviews with eye witnesses and eye witness accounts
  • Material from other noted Earp authors
  • Material from biographer Stuart Lake

Special thanks to all our Earp relatives out there, and especially to my great-uncle Bill Earp, who started me on the trail of the Earps.

Also, special acknowledgement to my wife, whose love and support keeps me charged everyday.

Brian S. Miller

One thought on “What Really Happened at the OK Corral? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Toledo’s Day in the Sun | Your Ancestors Demystified

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