Allen Barra: What exactly was gthe OK Corral shootout about anyway?

Roundup: Talking About History

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

EXACTLY 125 years ago today, about 2:40 p.m., 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, Ariz., and into a lot behind the O.K. Corral to confront four “cow-boys” (as cattle thieves were then called), the brothers Ike Clanton and Billy Clanton and Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury.

What happened next made newspapers across the country. The New York Times account, except for the misspelling of a few names, mostly got it right: “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 O.K. 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.

Today, some 3,000 tourists will jam the streets of Tombstone 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 O.K. 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....

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