With reenactments at least four times daily every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas in Tombstone, Arizona, the mis-named Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’s 136th anniversary is here and might have some lessons for us today. Tombstone was a flash point where two rival frontier cultures clashed in a shootout that still echoes today. Books and movies played loosely with the facts, turning sometimes-corrupt individuals into Heroes of the Old West. The facts are often more complex and those heroes often flawed and self-serving. Instead of Villains with black hats and Heroes in white hats, we might more accurately see them both in gray, caught in a changing way of life they had difficulty adjusting to.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral actually took place near, but not at, the legendary battleground, in a vacant lot several buildings away from the corral. Like most stories, this one started long before guns boomed in the streets. Silver mining began in Tombstone in 1857, with Frederick Brunckow using Mexican laborers. A worker revolt against mistreatment left Brunckow and two associates dead at the bottom of a mine shaft.
When the Chiricahua Apache Reservation was eliminated in 1876 the area was reopened to prospectors, and Camp Huachuca built in 1877 to provide protection. Ed Scheiffelin staked the first of 400,000 claims and began mining and milling in 1878. The new boom town of Tombstone was incorporated in 1879, attracting merchants, bankers, salesmen, speculators, landlords, bar owners and brothels. Cattlemen outside of town resented the new city folks and the limits they were putting on certain rural activities.
One of those activities was cattle rustling, stealing in Mexico or from Mexican ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico, and selling the cattle to local Anglo ranchers. The Clanton and McLaury family ranches were reported to be centers for the deposit of stolen cattle. In 1881 Mexico protested the wanton theft and Territorial Governor John Fremont proposed funding a State Militia to stop the rustling. Mexico built forts along the border and there were several fatal shootouts.
A stagecoach robbery in 1881 caused a citizen uproar and a demand for protection against the “Cowboy” rustlers and robbers. Cochise County Sheriff John Behan was believed to be crooked, using Cowboy leader “Curley Bill” Brocius as his “tax collector,” to shake down local businesses. Virgil Earp was the City Marshall for Tombstone. His brother Wyatt served as Deputy, and was responsible for federal law enforcement. Wyatt Earp planned to run against Behan for Sheriff in 1882 and, with an eye on the election, met with Cowboy rustlers Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury to seek support.
Earp promised Ike Clanton a reward for information on the whereabouts of the three stage coach robbers. Ike made the deal, but then his father was killed in a border shootout along with one of the robbers, and Ike turned back to the Cowboys. Led by Johnny Ringo, the Cowboys took a blood oath to kill the Earps.
THE FIGHTING PIMPS
Wyatt Earp’s closest friend in Tombstone was the heavy-drinking dentist John “Doc” Holliday. With Wyatt’s previous service in the brothels of Peoria, Illinois, and their mutual lust for companionship with the ladies of the night the two became known as “the fighting pimps.”
Ike Clanton rode into town mid-day on October 26, 1881, and started drinking, cursing and threatening the Earps. Virgil Earp pistol-whipped Ike Clanton before arresting him and hauling him in front of a judge to be fined. Wyatt pistol-whipped Frank McLaury’s brother Tom. Tensions rose as the two groups moved towards confrontation. Doc Holliday joined the three Earp brothers with his sawed-off shotgun.
Accounts differ, but it is believed that when the two groups faced off across a 15-foot wide vacant lot on Fremont Street, Virgil Earp said either, “Throw up your hands, boys, I intend to disarm you,” or “You SOBs have been looking for a fight and you can have it!”
When the gunsmoke cleared Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, Frank and Tom, were dead or dying. Virgil and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday were wounded. Only Wyatt Earp, who probably fired the first shot when Frank McLaury went for his gun, was unscathed.
THE YANKEE – COWBOY WAR
The “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” could be considered an early skirmish in what was later called “the Yankee and Cowboy War,” a clash of class and culture as urbanization and industrialization built walls and fences that limited cattle ranchers and rustlers in the west and mid-west. The late writer Carl Oglesby, a past president of Students for a Democratic Society, titled his 1976 book on the John F. Kennedy assassination “The Yankee and Cowboy War.” Oglesby saw the assassination as a conspiracy by twentieth-century “cowboys” to wrest “deep state” power from the less-volatile and more moderate Eastern Establishment.
Echoes of that struggle between competing capitalist visions are in our face again today, with both the Republicans and Democrats deeply divided among themselves. When Oglesby wrote his books after being forced out of SDS for encouraging alliances between New Leftists, Populists, Libertarians – and Conservatives – the Cowboys tended to be oil millionaires and defense contractors. Today they include hedge fund managers and Silicon Valley techies. And multi-millionaire real estate developers.
Oglesby’s vision of elements of the Left and the Right finding common ground against crony capitalism and outlaw politics has taken root in several areas. In Georgia and Florida the Tea Party Patriots, Sierra Club, NAACP and other organizations have formed Green Tea Coalitions to support solar energy against the opposition of the big power companies. Similar alliances are being explored in other states as well.
I know from personal experience in my rural community of Picture Rocks that people of wildly-differing politics can work together for the common good. I have watched the barriers of partisanship fall as neighbors join to pick up litter on the roadsides or gather signatures against Interstate 11 coming through the Avra Valley or help a neighbor. The first step is to stop attaching labels and calling each other names. We start by talking to each other as equals, and listening, also as equals.
ABOUT COMMENTS FROM THE CHEMO COUCH: I am nearing 80 years of age and am taking chemo for multiple myeloma, an aggressive and incurable blood cancer that attaches itself to my ribs and spine and sucks the calcium out so that a sneeze breaks two ribs. That keeps me close to home. After several months of treatment it seems the chemo is slowing the cancer down, but it all leaves me with little energy and a lot of time to think. And I think a lot, and because I’m a writer I want to put what I think into words for others to read. Give them something to think about too, about local and national politics, about nature, community, history, and maybe even about facing the end of my time on this earth. I am grateful to John and Lori Hunnicutt and the Arizona Daily Independent for carrying my opinionated stories, and hope these columns will get readers thinking. I am a trained researcher and do diligent research to present facts and avoid name-calling. Hopefully we will all learn something we didn’t know and will talk to each other about it. Right or Left, we have more in common than we are often willing to admit, and dialogue is, perhaps, the only thing that can save democracy in America. — AVL