It’s the early hours of July 26th, 1878, in Dodge City, Kansas.
At a table in a backstreet gambling house, Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp grins as he lays down a winning hand. The other players groan as the handsome young lawman rakes in the winnings piled in the middle of the table.
The celebration is cut short when he hears the sound of gunshots coming from outside. Wyatt forgets about cards, quickly stands up, buckling on his revolver. Another of the card players does the same - it’s his fellow marshal, a man named James Masterson. The pair hurries toward the door.
Wyatt and James step outside. Further down the street from the gambling house, Wyatt sees a group of young men on horseback, drunkenly whooping and hollering as they ride about, firing their pistols wildly at the surrounding buildings.
Outside the gambling house, Wyatt and James untether their horses, leap on, and then spur them into a gallop. Seeing the lawmen coming, the drunks ride off into the night, firing shots behind them to keep the two sheriffs at bay. But Wyatt and James don’t relent. They charge into the hail of bullets and trail the drunks to a bridge that leads out of town. As the drunks try to get across... Wyatt pulls out his revolver and takes careful aim at one of the riders at the head of the pack. Once he has him in his sights, Wyatt squeezes the trigger.
The drunk screams in pain, then slumps over and tumbles from his horse. As Wyatt and James catch up with the fallen rider, the others disappear down the road in a cloud of dust and they don't return.
Thanks to exploits like this, Wyatt Earp earns a reputation in Dodge City as an effective and dedicated lawman. But he doesn’t stay in Kansas for long.
Wyatt has always been a wanderer. He was born in Illinois, but he’s lived in Iowa, California, and Missouri. He comes from a big family - one of six brothers.
And in December of 1879, Wyatt’s wandering ways take him to the booming frontier town of Tombstone. There, Wyatt and some of his brothers will become ensnared in a deadly feud with a gang of local outlaws, one that will lead to perhaps the most famous shootout in the history of the American Old West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, that happened on October 26th, 1881.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is October 26th, 1881: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Act One: Lawmen
It’s September 1880, a year before the shootout at Tombstone.
Wyatt Earp marches down Allen Street, the main thoroughfare in this rapidly expanding mining town. Mules, cattle, and horses jam the street. Some haul freshly extracted ore from the silver mines that dot the surrounding hills. Other wagons carry freshly butchered meat to market or are loaded with timber and tools for the construction sites that litter the streets. The air rings to the sound of hammers, saws, and picks as foundations are dug and the wooden skeletons of new structures rise into the sky. Most of these buildings are saloons or gambling halls - and business is good.
As Wyatt walks along the sidewalk, he sees a crowd of rowdy drunks, laughing and cutting it up in the streets. When they see Wyatt coming though, they stop laughing and quickly disperse.
Wyatt’s been Deputy Sheriff in Tombstone for two months. But enforcing the law isn’t what he planned to do when he came here. When Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil and James, arrived in Tombstone, the three of them hoped to cash in on the silver rush that’s been causing the frontier town to boom. They were soon joined in the growing settlement by their younger brother Morgan. And for a while, the Earp brothers bought and traded several mining claims in the hills around the town. They made a little money, but the life-changing fortune they hoped to amass proved elusive. So, Wyatt turned to an old line of work.
Being a lawman runs in the Earp family. Wyatt’s older brother Virgil was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the district before they even arrived in Tombstone. He’s responsible for enforcing federal law in the area. As Deputy Sheriff, Wyatt’s duties are far more mundane - he usually deals with the drunks, brawlers, and petty thieves that have thronged to the town since the silver boom began.
Today, he’s been called to yet another barroom fight that’s gotten out of hand. As Wyatt approaches the front doors to the saloon, he stops for a moment to collect himself. He never knows what’s waiting for him inside places like this. So he wants to be ready. He takes a deep breath, slides his hand onto his gun, and pushes inside.
Immediately, he sees a brawl underway. There’s a local prospector lying bloodied on the ground, as his assailant – a notorious drunk – aims a wild kick at his stomach.
Wyatt quickly yanks the old drunk back. He staggers, swinging a clumsy punch which Wyatt easily bats away. Then Wyatt grabs the drunk by his shirt collar and drags him out the bar. The dirty inebriate screams that the prospector owes him money and tries to wriggle his way loose. But Wyatt is decades younger and stronger, too. He easily manhandles the drunk, forces him into submission, and drags him through the streets of Tombstone toward the local jail. The man can sober up there, where he can’t hurt anyone else.
Soon, Wyatt tosses the man inside a cell, slams the door, and locks it. The drunk keeps jabbering on about the money he’s owed, but Wyatt ignores him. Instead, he steps outside to get some fresh air. As he takes in the bustling streets, he sighs with frustration. Wyatt came to Tombstone to get rich, and now he’s spending his days dealing with drunks and buffoons.
Still, Wyatt knows things could be worse. He may not have the riches, but he takes a small amount of comfort in the fact that he does have power. He and his brother Virgil command the type of status and respect in Tombstone that only comes with wearing a badge. They’re quickly becoming major players in the community. But not everyone is happy with the presence of the Earp Brothers here in Tombstone.
The hard stone hills and valleys that surround the mining town are claimed by a gang of violent criminals known as the Cowboys. This loose band of outlaws terrorize the area, raiding ranches and stealing cattle. They’ve become so bold that they’ve even started attacking the heavily-armed stagecoaches that carry silver out of Tombstone.
The Cowboys resent the growing town and the entitled newcomers who act like they own the place. They believe this corner of southern Arizona is their land and the Cowboys are willing to fight for it, even if that means taking on lawmen like Wyatt Earp.
Act Two: The Feud
It’s the night of September 11th, 1881, a month before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In the town Bisbee, located in the far south of Arizona close to the Mexican border, Wyatt Earp and his younger brother Morgan lead a posse of three other lawmen through the dark streets of the small mining town. Soon, they make their way to a ramshackle livery yard - stables where people can rent horses and wagons. The lawmen spread out, taking up positions around the yard. They unholster their guns as Wyatt cautiously approaches the building.
Three days ago, another stagecoach was attacked outside of Tombstone. Luckily, there was no silver bullion on board, and the thieves only got away with a few hundred dollars stolen from the passengers. Still, it was a terrifying ordeal and an embarrassment for the lawmen of Tombstone. So Wyatt and his brothers set out to investigate.
At the scene of the robbery, they found a curious bootprint which they traced to a man named Frank Stillwell, a long-suspected member of the Cowboys. Stillwell runs this livery here in Bisbee. So Wyatt and Morgan rode out with a posse, traveling twenty miles to get here tonight and arrest Frank to bring him back to Tombstone to face charges.
Now, Wyatt hammers on the gates to Frank’s livery yard. Finally, bolts slide back and the gate's edge opens. Then Frank Stillwell pokes out his head. To Wyatt, Frank doesn’t look like much. He’s a short man with a plump face and a cigar clamped between his teeth. And as soon as the gate opens wide enough, Wyatt quickly overpowers him. Then Wyatt and the others in the posse bind his hands, tie him to the back of a horse and ride back through the darkness to Tombstone.
There, Frank will face a judge on charges of highway robbery and theft. But to the Cowboys, the arrest of one of their own is unforgivable. And soon, Wyatt begins to hear rumors that the Cowboys are out for revenge.
Six weeks later, on the night of October 25th, 1881, Wyatt Earp crosses a deserted street in Tombstone on his way to a local saloon that’s partly owned by his family. As he steps up onto the sidewalk, he spots something out of the corner of his eye, a dark shadow moving across the opposite side of street. Immediately, Wyatt realizes he’s being followed.
Since the arrest of Frank Stillwell, the feud between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys has grown even more bitter. As revenge for the arrest, the Cowboys tried to frame one of the Earps’ closest friends. Doc Holliday is a tuberculosis-ridden dentist turned gambler who’s known Wyatt Earp for years. Doc has a stormy relationship with his mistress and the Cowboys used that fact to their advantage. They plied the woman with alcohol and persuaded her to sign an affidavit which blamed Doc for a failed stagecoach robbery the Cowboys pulled off back in March. Then they found a sympathetic judge willing to issue a warrant for Doc’s arrest. When his mistress sobered up though, she retracted her claims, and the false accusation was dismissed, but it deepened the animus between the Cowboys and the Earps.
So tonight, Wyatt turns to confront the shadow following him down the street. He instantly recognizes him as Ike Clanton, a member of the Cowboys and clearly drunk.
Slurring his words and swaying from side to side, Ike says that all the fiery talk between the Cowboys and the Earps has gone on long enough. In the morning, he’ll be ready for a realfight. Wyatt slides his hand on his pistol and orders Ike to go home or suffer the consequences. With a defiant scoff, Ike stumbles off into the night. But as he disappears into the darkness, he shouts over his shoulder once more: come the morning, he’ll be ready for a fight.
In just a few hours' time, the feud between the Earps and the Cowboys will finally erupt into violence, in a deadly confrontation that will become one of the most iconic gunfights in the history of the American Old West.
Act Three: The Gunfight
It’s a cold afternoon on October 26th, 1881.
A sharp wind blows as Wyatt Earp strides purposely through the dusty streets of Tombstone. At his side is his old friend Doc Holliday, and his brothers - Morgan and Virgil Earp. Virgil is now City Marshall – the head of police – and he’s deputized Wyatt and the others for a final reckoning with the Cowboys. They’ve been told that the gang has gathered close to a livery and stable yard at the west end of town: the O.K. Corral.
Wyatt leads Doc and his brothers down the street, their eyes peeled for any sign of trouble. They pass the rear entrance to the livery and come to a narrow vacant lot beside a boarding house. There, the Cowboys are waiting, armed and rearing for a fight. Among them is Ike Clanton, the drunk who threatened Wyatt just a few hours ago. Ike glares at the brothers, his revolver clearly visible at his waist.
In Tombstone, there’s an ordinance that no guns are to be carried by civilians within the city limits. But now, attempting to provoke the Earp brothers, the Cowboys are openly flouting that law. The two groups of men stare each other down, less than ten feet apart. For a moment, the only sound is the wind. Wyatt is the first to speak: “You’ve been looking for a fight, now you can have it”. Then his brother Virgil orders the Cowboys to put up their hands up so he can confiscate their weapons. But as Virgil steps forward, a shot rings out.
Though it's not certain who fired first, the air is soon filled with bullets as the men blast at each other from close range. After thirty seconds of continuous fire, when the black pall of gun smoke clears, six men are shot; three fatally, and the dead are all Cowboys.
The infamous Shootout at the O.K. Corral is not the end of the feud. A few days later, Ike Clanton files murder charges against Wyatt and his brothers. The Earps are arrested and put on trial – but are quickly cleared, with the judge ruling that Virgil employed his brothers as his deputies and that the lawmen were doing their jobs.
The Earp brothers’ exoneration enrages the surviving members of the Cowboys gang. A month after the trial, friends of the slain outlaws ambush, maim, and nearly kill Virgil Earp. The following year, they succeed in assassinating Morgan. Wyatt pursues his brothers’ attackers across Arizona, riding in a posse that hunts down and kills four of the Cowboys, finally bringing the bloody feud to an end.
Wyatt Earp’s legendary exploits will inspire countless books and movies that will make him an icon of the American Old West. But no chapter of his life will be more celebrated than the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” which took place in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26th, 1881.
Next onHistory Daily. October 27th, 1962. Major Rudolf Anderson of the United States Air Force becomes the only direct human casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis when his U-2 spy plane is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.