OK Corral shoot-out echoes 125 years later

Historian Allen Barra provides some all-too-revealing historical perspective on the New York Times op-ed page, Oct. 26:

One hundred twenty five years ago, three lawmen – Marshal Virgil Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan – and their friend Doc Holliday walked down Fremont Street (today Highway 80) in the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, and into a lot behind the OK Corral to confront four “cow-boys” (as cattle thieves were then called), the brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury.

What happened next made newspapers across the country. The New York Times account mostly got it right, except for the misspelling of a few names: “The marshal ordered them to give up their weapons, when a fight was begun, about 30 shots being rapidly fired. Both of the McLowery boys were killed; Bill Clandon was mortally wounded and died soon after.”

The street fight in Tombstone would eventually become known as “the Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Though the shooting lasted for perhaps 30 seconds, and the gunfight was far from the bloodiest of hundreds in cow towns and mining camps on the frontier, it occupies a prime place in American mythology.

Some 3,000 tourists jammed the streets of Tombstone Thursday on the anniversary to watch re-enactments of the event, aiming to come into contact with a piece of distant American history and encounter a time completely separate from our own.

What’s odd about this, however, is that the social and political issues that created the context for the gunfight remain alive, and for the most part unresolved, in the American West today.

For instance, there’s the debate over federal versus local law jurisdiction. Back then, the county sheriff, a Democrat named John Behan, was at odds with the Republican Earps, who, in addition to being town policemen were federal officers resented by the small ranchers who benefited from the cow-boys’ illegal trafficking.

Locals still debate over who, legally was in charge on the day of the gunfight – Behan, a friend of the cow-boys, couldn’t or wouldn’t disarm them; the Earps, no-nonsense-lawmen who eschewed political solutions, saw, in the parlance of the time, no duty to retreat.

Then there’s gun control. The Earps didn’t debate gun control; they enforced it, alienating those who considered it their God-given right to carry guns.

A decade ago, Pat Buchanan, with gun belt, made a campaign stop in front of the OK Corral. If he had done that 125 years ago, he might have met the same fate as the cow-boys, at least two of whom were carrying guns in blatant defiance of town ordinance.

And then there is the question of illegal immigration. In 1881, most of those who came under this heading were Americans, gangs of cow-boys crossing the Arizona-Mexico border into Sonora to steal cattle from the haciendas and killing Mexicans in the process.

“Cowboy depredations,” as U.S. government reports referred to the organized thievery, enraged Mexicans who still had vivid memories of the time when the Southwest was their country.

The Mexican government protested vehemently, but the Posse Comitatus Act, passed in 1878, prohibited federal troops from acting in a law enforcement capacity and threw the border- crossing problem back on the county sheriffs. Sheriffs like John Behan, in many cases friends of the cow-boys, had no inclination to stop their activities.

Yes, the personal animosities that brought violence to Tombstone that day have been obscured or forgotten by time. But to a great extent, the political factors that fueled it continue to echo as loudly as the faux gunshots fired Thursday in the lot behind the OK Corral.

Allen Barra, a contributing writer for American Heritage magazine, is the author of Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends.

See our last post on the struggle for the border.