Right about now, Arizona state archivists and conservators must be poring over the documents from the Shootout at the O.K. Corral found during a recent spring cleaning at a Cochise County jail in Bisbee, about 20 miles South of the legendary town of Tombstone, where the shootout took place.
The documents, which describe eyewitness accounts of what’s generally regarded as the most famous gun battle in the history of the American West, were lost in the 1960s, and only a dim photocopy of them remained.
The confrontation on the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1881, ostensibly over a misdemeanor arms violation, pitted the not-yet-famous lawman — later outlaw — Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and their friend John Henry “Doc” Holliday against a band of local ranchers, known as the Cowboys, that included Bill Claiborn, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Bill and Ike Clanton. When the smoke from the 30-second gunfight cleared, the McLaurys and Bill Clanton were dead, and Ike Clanton had fled. The ensuing argument over who fired first and why tore the town in half. The Earps claimed self defense, and an investigation cleared them. But Ike Clanton always called it murder.
Last week, Arizona officials announced the document find after workers cleared a corner of a Bisbee jail storeroom. They were inside a manila envelope labeled “keep” and stuffed in a stray box. A yellowed, thick sheaf of blue-lined sheets taped end-to-end and handwritten in dark blue ink appeared to detail the account by Claiborn. Though its contents were already known, some hope new technology may reveal margin notes or other information not visible before.
A whole shelf of books has been written on the O.K. Corral, and several movies have dramatized it — to the point that, for many, this one conflict has become “the West writ large,” according to Katherine Benton-Cohen, an assistant history professor at Georgetown University who has written extensively about historic Southern Arizona. But like much else in the history of the West, the O.K. Corral gun battle has layers, and for historians, this is the interesting part.
Under its violent surface simmered leftover resentments from the Civil War: local Confederate sympathizers against Northern-allied lawmen viewed as carpetbaggers; partisan politics: Republican Earps vs. Democrat Clantons and McLaurys; and the fundamental conflict over resources and land, of Northern-style “big-government” development vs. traditional “small-government” agrarianism.
“(Earp’s supporters) wanted a government powerful enough to make Southern Arizona safe for capitalism,” Benton-Cohen said. “That came up against a Southern agrarian, democrat world view.”
Benton-Cohen said the West people think of when they think of the O.K. Corral isn’t a border West, and yet that was a major aspect of the conflict, as Tombstone is only about 30 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The politics of border enforcement were an important part of the controversies unleashed by the violence in Tombstone,” Benton-Cohen said. “Federal officials in the U.S. and Mexico — all the way up to the Cabinet level and the President — wanted the Cowboy violence contained to avoid an international controversy with Mexico. Cowboys were going into Mexico, stealing cattle, and murdering their Mexican owners. Officials were calling for a Border Patrol — not to stop Mexican migrants coming north, but to apprehend American criminals going South.”
Conflict over federal presence has long been an issue in Southern Arizona, and because of the proximity of that international border, local fights have often turned into national arguments — as happened last Friday when Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a law requiring local police to strictly enforce immigration laws.
“The border is both local and national,” Benton-Cohen said. “People outside the border regions sometimes don’t understand that.”
One thing the O.K. Corral story does allow is the exploration of different points of view, and thus different interpretations of history. This isn’t merely a story of white hats and black hats. The story received extensive regional — and not necessarily objective — newspaper coverage at the time, and later retellings had decidedly personal points of view. But for historians, the more points of view the better.
“The public often gets a lot of very simplistic interpretations of events, but historical interpretation is a skill,” Benton-Cohen said. “It involves critical thinking. Part of our job as historians is to communicate that complexity to the public .… People often want to find heroes and villains; we know that very few people are either one or the other. That’s true of people in the past, too.”