The story of Wyatt Earp, his brothers, friend Doc Holliday and events surrounding the inaptly named Gunfight at the O.K. Corral remains one of the most infamous episodes in the history of the American West. For nearly 140 years the tale has been told and retold in countless newspapers, magazines, books and films. Most accounts scrutinize the goings-on in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in a vacuum, detailing the relationship and antagonism between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday on one side and the Clanton and McLaury brothers on the other in the weeks and months leading up to the October 26, 1881, shootout in a vacant lot near the O.K. Corral. More recent revisionist narratives even claim the troubles in Tombstone were essentially a vendetta between two rival factions, the Cowboys and the Earps. Those accounts are wrong.
Truth is, Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, while clearly flawed—each had seen the inside of a jail cell—took on and defeated the biggest outlaw gang in Arizona Territory. It is impossible to understand the brothers and their actions in Tombstone unless one understands who the Cowboys were, where they came from and what they did.
The Cowboys were a loosely organized band of some 200 to 300 desperadoes that raided freely on both sides of the Mexican border. To Mexicans they were broadly Tejanos, or Texans, while Americans dubbed them the Cowboys. In the wake of their depredations the formerly innocuous term “cowboy” became a dirty word in Arizona and New Mexico territories. “The cowboy is a cross between a vaquero and a highwayman,” one contemporary Southwestern newspaperman declared.
The Cowboys committed stage robberies, attacked Mexican packtrains, rustled thousands of cattle along the border and murdered at least 35 men between 1879 and ’82. The gang colluded with dishonest ranchers, cattle dealers and butchers to smuggle and sell stolen livestock. They operated virtually unopposed until running headlong into the Earp brothers and Holliday.
The man responsible for starting up the Cowboys was New Mexico Territory transplant John Kinney, aka the “King of the Rustlers.” In the mid-1870s Kinney established a huge stock-stealing operation, and he and his gang played leading roles in the bloody El Paso Salt War and the even bloodier Lincoln County War back in his adoptive territory. Billy the Kid rode with Kinney’s band and later turned against him. Among Kinney’s stalwarts were Bob Martin and “Curly Bill” Brocius, a pair of accused murderers who escaped custody near El Paso in November 1878 and fled to Arizona Territory. Martin and Brocius soon fell in with a small army of outlaws, including Charles “Pony Diehl” Ray (see sidebar, P. 48), John Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, Duke Raymond, Ponciano Domingues, Jim “Six-Shooter” Smith, Martin “Bud” Stiles, Jim Crane, “Harry the Kid” Head, Luther King and Billy Leonard.
Bob Martin headed up the Cowboys in Arizona Territory, organizing them along the lines of Kinney’s loose-knit group of horse and cattle thieves. They were the frontier equivalent of a modern street gang. Mexican diplomats filed repeated protests with the U.S. State Department about Martin’s raids, deeming him “a noted robber on the Texas and New Mexico frontier.” Martin and the Cowboys also took a hand in politics. For example, they opposed the election of Bob Paul—a longtime lawman, Wells Fargo detective and close friend of the Earp brothers—as sheriff of Pima County. In 1880 Martin and cohorts stuffed ballot boxes in the San Simon Valley to ensure the reelection of Sheriff Charlie Shibell, who like his deputy, John Behan, made little effort to oppose the Cowboys. Paul sued, proved election fraud and ultimately replaced Shibell as sheriff.
As if to prove the old adage “There is no honor among thieves,” the Cowboys were soon at one another’s throats. Shortly after the election a quarrel broke out over a band of stolen horses. Claiming the animals on the one hand were Martin and George Turner; disputing their claim were Smith, Stiles, King and Leonard. On the night of Nov. 22, 1880, the latter four slipped onto Turner’s ranch in the San Simon Valley, rounded up seven horses and mules and fled south.
Discovering the theft the next morning, Martin and Turner gathered three of their men—Raymond, Domingues and a Cowboy known only as Colt—grabbed their guns, saddled up and galloped off in pursuit. The possemen tracked their quarry 60 miles southeast into New Mexico’s Animas Mountains. They caught up with the rival Cowboys near the Downing ranch, where a blistering gun battle erupted. Outnumbered and outgunned, Smith, Stiles, King and Leonard bolted, leaving behind Turner’s animals and eight other horses they had stolen from the mining town of Shakespeare, New Mexico Territory. The posse then rode back to Turner’s ranch with the recovered stock.
The deadly attempted stagecoach holdup at Drew’s Station on March 15, 1881, proved the turning point that brought the Earp brothers into direct conflict with both the Cowboys and Cochise County Sheriff Behan
Vowing revenge, Leonard and his fellow Cowboys circled back and shadowed their pursuers to Turner’s ranch, watching them from a distance through a field glass. Finally, they saw Martin and Turner start from the ranch with a remuda of horses. Following, Leonard and the others bided their time. Meanwhile, Martin and Turner, in an uncharacteristic display of honesty, rode the 35 miles northeast to Shakespeare and returned the eight stolen horses to their rightful owner. On November 27 they mounted up and rode back toward Turner’s ranch. By then the duo had been almost continuously in the saddle for four days. Their enemies were ready for them. Smith, Stiles, King and Leonard set up an ambush in Granite Gap, 10 miles north of the ranch and just east of the Arizona Territory line. They knew Martin and Turner would have to pass through the gap on the return trail.
Just before dusk the unsuspecting Martin and Turner rode into Granite Gap. From concealment behind rocks along the road the four ambushing Cowboys suddenly opened up a terrific barrage. Bullets tore into the riders’ horses, killing both mounts. Martin and Turner jumped free, but before they could get their guns into action, a bullet struck Martin in the head, killing him instantly. Turner scampered for cover. He spotted the attackers’ horses picketed up the trail. Hoping to gain his escape by shooting their mounts, he opened fire but only managed to kill one animal. The four assassins kept up a hot fire, forcing Turner to hunker down in the rocks. As darkness fell, he slipped away and walked the 10 miles back to his ranch. “It was a close call,” a reporter noted days later, “as there were several bullet holes through his clothes.”
At daybreak Turner, accompanied by a band of loyal Cowboys, returned to Granite Gap with a wagon. Loading Martin’s body aboard, they brought it back to Turner’s ranch and buried the Cowboy leader. But their rivals weren’t finished. The murderous foursome soon arrived at the ranch, seeking to make off with more stock. Turner and his men drove them away with rifle fire and went in pursuit, but Smith, Stiles, King and Leonard vanished. Turner’s men found nothing but their abandoned camp in the hills. On November 29 Turner telegraphed Sheriff Harvey Whitehill in Silver City. “Myself and Bob Martin were waylaid on Friday by four horse thieves, and Martin killed,” he wrote. “If possible, send out four men to protect life and property. I will give $1,000 for the apprehension of these murderers.”
The irony of a Cowboy seeking aid from the law was lost on Sheriff Whitehill, who had previously befriended both Kinney and Brocius and allowed Martin to go about unmolested in Silver City. He sent his fast-shooting deputy, Dan Tucker, to investigate. “Tucker is now at the San Simon looking after these pets,” a Silver City newspaperman reported tongue in cheek. But the deputy couldn’t find Leonard, King, Stiles and Smith.
Their ambush killing of Cowboy leader Martin greatly emboldened Leonard and King. The former had perhaps the most unusual background of all the Cowboys. Billy Leonard hailed from New York and was trained as a watchmaker, gunsmith and jeweler, a trade that came in handy whenever the Cowboys had to melt down stolen gold and silver. A morphine addict whose left arm was heavily scarred from needle marks, he’d made Doc Holliday’s acquaintance in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. Charged with shooting a man and carrying deadly weapons, Leonard fled Las Vegas and drifted south to the New Mexico bootheel, where he filed a claim on government grazing land. There he met Martin and other prominent Cowboys. According to lawman Paul, Leonard was about 30 years old, 5-foot-8 and weighed just 120 pounds, with “long, dark, curly hair, when cared for hanging in ringlets down to shoulders; small, dark, boyish mustache, otherwise almost beardless…small, sharp and very effeminate features…chews tobacco incessantly; speaks good Spanish; good shot with rifle and pistol.” One Tombstone pioneer recalled Leonard as “the toughest nut that ever carried a gun. He wasn’t originally a cowboy; had very little experience at it. He was a jeweler from New York City, a high-class workman. He had consumption, knew he had to die and really would have preferred being killed.”
On the night of March 15, 1881, Leonard, King and fellow Cowboys Harry Head and Jim Crane set up an ambush at a dry wash near Drew’s Station, on the stage road 16 miles northwest of Tombstone. They planned on holding up a stagecoach transporting a half dozen passengers and $26,000 in gold bullion. Unknown to them, the shipment was guarded by Paul, who was working for Wells Fargo while awaiting a decision in his election lawsuit against Sheriff Shibell. As the coach entered the wash, Paul spotted the four rifle-bearing outlaws paired up atop 10-foot-high embankments on either side of the road. A full moon lit the scene, and Paul recognized Leonard. Jumping into the road from Paul’s right, another of the Cowboys shouted, “Hold!”
“I don’t hold for anybody!” thundered the Wells Fargo man.
Cowboys on either side simultaneously opened fire with their Winchesters, while Paul jerked his shotgun to his shoulder and triggered both barrels. Buckshot ripped into Leonard’s belly, staggering him in pain. His fellow Cowboys continued to rain gunfire into the stage. One bullet plowed through Paul’s seat cushion, and two more tore his clothing. Another rifle slug slammed into driver Bud Philpott’s left arm above the elbow. Splintering the bone, it passed through Philpott’s arm, entered his left side through the ribs, cut the aorta and severed his spinal column. Paul grabbed for the slumping reinsman with one hand, but Philpott tumbled over the footboard, dropped between the wheelhorses and landed heavily on the road. He was dead.
Crazed by gunfire, the team broke into a run. The spiteful Cowboys, seeing their loot rolling away, riddled the departing stage with 20 rifle bullets, mortally wounding passenger Peter Roerig, who sat exposed in the rear dickey seat atop the coach. Meanwhile, the reins had slipped down out of Paul’s reach, and the out-of-control stage thundered past Drew’s Station. Thinking quick, he yanked on the brake, finally bringing the runaway team to a halt a mile farther down the road.
This deadly attempted holdup proved the turning point that brought the Earp brothers into direct conflict with both the Cowboys and Cochise County Sheriff Behan. In its aftermath Wyatt sought to strike a secret bargain with Ike Clanton, in which Clanton would lure the wanted men out of hiding so Earp could capture or kill them. Though eager to claim the reward, Ike knew the Cowboys wouldn’t hesitate to kill him if word of the plan leaked out. That episode spawned a series of events leading to the gunfight in the vacant lot behind the O.K. Corral.
From November 1878 to that fateful day in October 1881 the Cowboys—from Martin to Brocius to Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury—had run rampant along the border, bullying, raiding, smuggling and robbing. They killed anyone who dared oppose them. The only time they had faced deadly force was when they fought fellow Cowboys or battled Mexican troopers and vaqueros. They showered Tombstone and its fellow mining towns of Charleston and Galeyville with stolen loot and cattle. They befriended many merchants and even lawmen like Behan. But all that changed in Tombstone on Oct. 26, 1881, when a band of Cowboys faced four hard-nosed opponents who had “smelt powder” and weren’t afraid of a fight. MH
California author John Boessenecker is the award-winning author of 10 history books and a frequent contributor to Wild West. The Wild West History Association awarded him the 2021 Six-Shooter award for best general Western history article for this feature. His 2020 book Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang is recommended for further reading, along with A Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told, edited by Roy B. Young, Gary L. Roberts and Casey Tefertiller. This story was published in the October 2020 issue of Wild West.