Of all the Wild West towns in America, Tombstone, Arizona, stands out as legendary.
Tombstone got its name from a mining claim filed in 1877. Prospector Ed Schieffelin had been told by local soldiers that the southern Arizona hills were crawling with Apaches, scorpions and rattlesnakes and that he’d only find his tombstone there, so he thumbed his nose at their pessimism by naming his claim Tombstone. Schieffelin discovered the area was rich in silver and the dusty hillside soon became a boom town. Within two years Tombstone had a population approaching 1000.
One early resident, Clara Spalding Brown, wrote that Tombstone was, “. . .an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe, scattered over a slope. . .The only attractive places visible are the liquor and gambling saloons, which are everywhere present and are carpeted and comfortably furnished. . .The camp is one of the dirtiest places in the world. . .The sod lies loose upon the surface, and is whirled into the air every day by a wind which almost amounts to a gale; it makes the eyes smart like the cinders from an engine; it penetrates into the houses, and covers everything with dust. . .The mercury gallivants around in the nineties, with altogether too high-minded ideas. . .we cannot obtain desirable food for hot weather; fresh vegetables are scarce, and the few fruits in the markets require a very large purse. . .The camp is considered a remarkably quiet one – only one murder since my arrival.”
That low murder rate was about to go up. Scattered in nearby ranches and villages was a loose-knit group of cattle rustlers dubbed “the Cowboys.” They’d cross the border into Mexico, steal cattle, and sell them cheaply in Tombstone. In most of the West, “cowboy” simply meant a drover from Texas. Now in Southern Arizona the name took on a pejorative meaning, distinct from the respectable “rangemen” or “cattlemen.”
%Gallery-159476%The cowboys engaged in worse crimes too, including stagecoach robberies. They numbered perhaps 200 but were never a rigid organization. They only came into Tombstone to sell their stolen beef and whoop it up in the saloons. The locals generally tolerated them. Their stolen cattle lowered the price of beef and they spent lots of money.
Into this Wild West town strode the Earp brothers. Virgil was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wyatt rode shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches and moonlighted as a gambler. Morgan was also a shotgun messenger and sometimes a special deputy. One-armed Jim tended bar. A fifth brother, Warren, drifted in and out of town.
The Earps were not impressed with the Cowboys. Virgil said, “As soon as they are in funds they ride into town, drink, gamble, and fight. They spend their money as free as water in saloons, dancehouses, or faro banks, and this is one reason they have so many friends in town. All that large class of degraded characters who gather the crumbs of such carouses stand ready to assist them out of any trouble or into any paying rascality.”
The battle lines were soon drawn, with complex political machinations further dividing the boomtown. It all came to a head on October 26, 1881, with the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, joined by Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday, faced off against five Cowboys, killing three.
This only worsened the feud. Cowboys shot and crippled Virgil, and soon killed Morgan. Wyatt Earp launched into what’s known as his Vendetta Ride, hunting down and killing Cowboys. Eventually he left Arizona, but his legend remained.
Today Tombstone is a huge tourist draw and an easy day trip from Tucson. The famous gunfight, which actually happened just outside the corral, is reenacted every day, as you can see in this video. There’s also a cheesy animatronic recreation.
Much of the town’s historic buildings have been restored and you can see the Bird Cage Theatre and its 120+ bullet holes left by rowdy patrons, the Boothill graveyard, and many other fun sights. You need a whole day to see it all. Check out the gallery for some glimpses of a place where the West really was wild.