|Author:||Jeff Guinn (2011)|
The first is the siege and the defeat of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and about 200 "Texicans" at the hands of overwhelming odds from Santa Anna's Mexican Army at the Alamo in 1836. Roughly forty years later, there came the total defeat of General George Custer's main force of cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by a combined army of Lakota and Comanche warriors in present day eastern Montana. These were battles by any description--they changed at least for a time the course of history.
The last and most controversial event always seemed inflated beyond measure. But this book explains why what is popularly known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral became a part of frontier lore.
It directly involved only eight or nine men. It took an estimated thirty seconds to unfold. Thirty bullets were exchanged. Three men died. Three suffered serious wounds. One man was grazed by a bullet but not seriously incapacitated.
And one man--a rough-hewn gambler and former deputy sheriff turned deputized U.S. marshall, Wyatt Earp, walked away unscathed and became, along with "Will Bill" Hickok and "Bat" Masterson, one of a handful of men who were to become the most famous lawmen of the frontier.
The writer, Jeff Guinn, a Texan who has already written a well-received book on Depression Era bank bandits Bonnie and Clyde ("Go Down Together") tries as other historians have since the 1920's, to separate fact and fiction for the reader to try and get a grip on why this one event gained so much publicity at the time and why it became an incident that has fascinated screenwriters, writers of fiction and non-fiction in general and the public ever since.
He does a good job I'd say in laying out the forces, economic and political and personal, that brought these disparate men together on that afternoon.
The idea of this one shoot-out "changing the West" is publishing hype, of course. But it should be noted this was an incident that at the time captured interest all over the territory, the Rocky Mountain states, and the big West Coast newspapers. And the subsequent trials for murder and later the vendetta killings carried out by the Earp Brothers and the Clanton/McLaury families became nationwide stories.
Mr. Guinn does succeed in telling readers why Tombstone (now a tourist den where they reenact the events in an area called "Old Tombstone" ) is a good microcosm to examine the forces of late frontier Westward Expansion.
Tombstone, Arizona, in the southeast corner of the territory was a thriving silver-mining and gambling boom-town in the Arizona Territory that had only come into being three years before the incident at the vacant lot took place. It had already attracted a telegraph station, sewer lines, a regular stagecoach run, two thriving daily newspapers--one serving the Democrats (aimed more to those who had come to Arizona from the former Confederate states) and the other for the Union-minded Republican factions that were the most well-heeled in terms of banking, mining, gambling and prostitution (the latter was legal if the "house of ill-fame" paid taxes to the city.) There was a lot of money to be made in law enforcement there since whomever held the offices of sheriff collected taxes for all of Cochise County--keeping at least ten percent as commission-- and whoever was in charge of Tombstone city police also got a rake-off. In addition there was the office of US Marshall, a post held generally by whoever was appointed by the Territorial governor up in Prescott, a couple hundred miles away. The federal salary was supplemented by the chance to get money from Wells Fargo, a massive corporate-style freight company which had no trouble rewarding good lawmen who brought in stagecoach robbers since the company made a point to make good on any losses from robbery.
It was quite possible to make a large fortune in a very short time in and around Tombstone if you could keep the cattle rustlers in line and collect the taxes on ranches and businesses without much fuss and bother to those who held the big purse-strings. This was a place where lawmen could make the equivalent of 20-30 thousand dollars a year, roughly $400,000 dollars annually in modern terms according to Guinn.
So enter to Tombstone around 1879 the brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp to the new boom-town. They were followed by a dentist-turned-gambler named John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a Georgia-born tubercular patient with a fatalist outlook on life. Wyatt and Doc had been friends and fellow gamblers back when Earp had been in a spot of trouble while gambling in a Texas town and Holliday had come to his defense against strong odds. By all accounts Holliday was usually comfortable around trouble. He would have been a good friends for the Earps to have in Tombstone which was why Wyatt wrote to him to come down there when he and three of his brothers came there.
Earp later worked as a deputy marshall in the Kansas cattle towns of Wichita and Dodge City. Earp's main job was to keep the "drovers" in line--drovers were cattle-wranglers who brought Texas longhorns driven up from that state to the railroad lines that furnished beef for the cities back East.
Wyatt Earp had honed his skills at "buffaloing" rowdies and pistol-whipping drunken hot-heads while serving as a bouncer in a bordello or two in Illinois (his birth state) and also running (and protecting) the card gaming that typically went on in places like Dodge City where there were men with new money in their pockets and the foolish desire to gamble with card sharps like Earp and Holliday.
All these towns , including Tombstone, had serious gun-control laws by the way. If you went to an area of saloons and gambling clubs, et al, the authorities took your gun and you got it back when you left town. Similar laws were enforced in Tombstone in 1881. The fact that some men were allowed to have guns in town with permits and other, like the "cow-boys", couldn't get those permits usually made for more bad blood between the factions.
"Few frontier lawmen had clean records," Guinn records. "The idea was that men who had broken laws themselves would understand best how to prevent others from doing the same."
A short entry from Wikipedia sums up Wyatt Earp's past: "Earp left Dodge City in 1879, and with his brothers James and Virgil, moved to Tombstone, Arizona. The Earps bought an interest in the Vizina mine and some water rights. There, the Earps clashed with a loose federation of outlaw Cowboys. Wyatt, Virgil, and their younger brother Morgan held various law enforcement positions that put them in conflict with Tom and Frank McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton, who threatened to kill the Earps. The conflict escalated over the next year, culminating on October 26, 1881 in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which the Earps and Holliday killed three of the Cowboys. In the next five months, Virgil was ambushed and maimed and Morgan was assassinated. Wyatt, his brother Warren, Holliday, and others pursued the Cowboys they thought responsible in a vendetta.
"After leaving Tombstone, Earp continually invested in various mining interests and saloons. He and his third wife, in their later years, moved between Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert, where the town of Earp, California was named after him. Although his brother Virgil had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, and marshal, because Wyatt outlived Virgil, and due to a largely fictionalized biography by Stuart Lake that made Wyatt famous, he has been the subject of and model for a large number of films, TV shows, biographies and works of fiction.":
Indeed in my opinion the best lawman among the Earps was Virgil Earp. He had the best "people skills" and likely had a cooler head when dealing with potential opponents. He had had been crippled in a sneak attack shortly after the famous gunfight and lost part of his arm. His life was more sedate after that, while Wyatt still pursued fame. Late in life, Wyatt became (as the last living man at the famous shoot-out) a minor celebrity. He moved to Los Angeles more or less permanently in the 1920s with his wife and made friends with Hollywood western actors like Tom Mix and William S. Hart. He also was a friend of a young director of Westerns named John Ford, who introduced him to a young prop-man in the Ford company named Marion Morrison, soon to be known as John Wayne.
In his last years, Earp, who died in January of 1929, age 80, tried to capitalize on a renewed interest in the Old West. He hoped that William S. Hart would play him in a film, but it never happened. Earp did find his main biographer, Stuart Lake, and hoped to tell his side of the story about life in Tombstone almost a half-century later. As it was, Wyatt died before the success of the Lake book and the beginnings of the legend of him through "the silver screen" career came about. At least a dozen famous actors--including Henry Fonda to James Garner to Kurt Russell to Burt Lancaster and Kevin Costner have played Wyatt Earp or, in the case of Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, played men inspired by his exploits, however close to the truth they really were.
"The Last Gunfight" is a very interesting book for those interested in Western lore, history and how it all reflects American culture today.