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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > July 2019 > The Wild West

The Wild West

Tales of a lawless frontier are ingrained in American culture, but, as Pat Kinsella explores, the West had to be tamed
GETTY IMAGES

The most famous shootout in the history of the Wild West – the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona – lasted just 30 seconds. In that half-a-minute of mayhem and murder at around 3pm on 26 October 1881, three outlaws from a gang known as the ‘Cowboys’ were shot dead when they faced off against the Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday.

Boomtowns - like Deadwood in South Dakota, seen in 1877 - sprouted up across the West, but they were lawless places

That the brief and bloody shooting happened isn’t in doubt. But the real gunfight little resembled the way it has been portrayed in numerous films and books. Aside from the brevity of the action, the shooters were extremely close together, standing about six feet apart when the exchange of bullets began. It hadn’t been prearranged, almost all of the 30 shots were fired from handguns, and it didn’t even happen at the OK Corral, but in a vacant lot on the side of a photography studio nearby.

Wyatt Earp held roles as a lawman and was arrested multiple times - such was the state of law and order in the West
ALAMY X3, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY IMAGES X4, SHUTTERSTOCK X1

The dead Cowboys have been largely greyed out of the collective memory of the event, reduced to anonymous villains when compared to town marshal Virgil Earp and his deputies. But in the aftermath, and amidst a swell of sympathy in Tombstone for the dead, the Earps and Holliday were arrested on charges of murdering brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and 19-year-old Billy Clanton as they tried to surrender. Tey were put on trial and spent time behind bars before ultimately being acquitted.

The OK Corral became an icon of the Wild West
Tombstone was a thriving silver-mining town

In the grand scheme of things, the gunfight was a minor, albeit lethal, scuffle. It was borne from a simmering feud involving ageold themes - jealousy power, money mistrust and machismo - which, in the febrile booze-and bullet-filled atmosphere of the time, got out of hand. Tat year, 1881, was one of the wildest 12 months in the American Old West, at least as big-name shootouts go. Tree months before the OK Corral, on 14 July Sheriff Pat Garret gunned down Billy the Kid, while earlier, in April, the ‘Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight’ had taken place in the infamously lawless town of El Paso, Texas.

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About History Revealed

For most of us, when we think of the Wild West, we imagine gunslinging cowboys, dusty prairies and swinging saloon bar doors – not to mention rolling tumbleweed. But was the American West really all that wild? Plus: the remarkable women whose work at Bletchley Park helped break the Enigma Code in World War II, the French Revolution told through seven severed heads and the Stonewall Riots, flashpoint for the fight for gay rights in the US.