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It has been a difficult year or so, so a deacon left a book on my desk for “vacation reading”. It was The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral- And How It Changed the American West. This was a book I’ve seen in looking for other historical books on the American West. It looked interesting to me, and I had planned on buying it. It is also of local interest to me since we live about 90 miles from Tombstone.

Virgil Earp

The author, Jeff Guinn, begins the morning of the shootout in his prologue. The night before there had been a long poker game which included Virgil Earp, the police chief. During the night Ike Clanton had gotten into an altercation with Wyatt and Doc Holliday, threatening them. Virgil’s assessment at the time was that Ike needed to sleep off his drunken rage. Ike was known to be lots of talk and little action. Clanton was tied to the Cowboys, who rustled cattle in Mexico (among other places)and Clanton allowed them to fatten them up on his land.

“Much of history results from apparently unrelated dominoes tumbling over one another.”

Location of Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase

Guinn begins with his book explaining the West including the political and social climates at work. He begins with Daniel Boone and the quest for land in the West. American territory was expanded by the Louisiana Purchase, the freedom and statehood of Texas, and the Gadsden Purchase. The earliest settlers were mountain men or trappers, individuals wanting space and isolation. The first big wave of settlers was largely people looking for find land to farm since most of the land in the East was not available. Some wanted a new start, and even a new name because they were running from the law. Most of the early settlers were from the North and had a more Republican view of government. Prior to the Civil War, gold and other precious metals were discovered and a new wave of settlers, mostly men went west in search of a fortune. With the trains and statehood for Kansas came the Buffalo hunters.

After the Civil War, many from the South went west to escape the Yankees and their more restrictive government. With railroad towns in Kansas, herds of longhorn cattle began to be driven up north to supply meat to the east coast. Those town thrived on the business, selling booze, sex, gambling and food to the weary cowhands.

This population shift meant conflict at times as Democrats moved into territories run by Republicans. Most deaths in the westward movement were from disease (90%), particularly cholera. Fewer than 400 people were killed by Indian raids on wagon trains. Of course, if that was your wagon train it didn’t seem statistically insignificant. Unless they were married, women were frequently prostitutes hoping to find a partnership, which was difficult when you sell your body for a living. They often turned to drugs like morphine and laudanum.

The West was not an easy place to live. But we also see some similar political and social tensions today: trouble on the border with Mexico, differing political philosophies, drug and alcohol abuse, sex trafficking and some violence.

Most of the cowtowns prohibited guns in the city limits. This meant most fights were fistfights. The idea of the old West with gunfights breaking out is erroneous. Gun violence was mostly in the form of ambushes, not duels to discover the faster gun.

James (Sir not appearing in the films) Earp

Tombstone was mining town, as well as the territorial seat. That meant there were plenty of miners hoping to strike it rich who came and went. There were tunnels under the town. There were saloons with gambling to blow off steam or relax after time in austere conditions. There was also a Red Light district with prostitutes. The sheriff, John Behan at the time, collected taxes particularly from the saloons and bordellos. Wyatt hoped to run for sheriff which offered an excellent salary. Virgil kept the peace, and sometimes his 3 brothers (Wyatt, Morgan and James who ran a saloon) helped out.

Guinn then shifts to the Earp family, obviously with a focus on Wyatt. His grandfather Walter and father Nicholas passed down a heritage of restlessly seeking success and position. Most of the Earp brothers suffered from this malady. Wyatt often exaggerated his accomplishments and overlooked his failures. He was endlessly seeking fame and fortune, which typically eluded him.

After the death of his first wife, Wyatt was a bit wild. He was accused of crimes. While he fled jurisdiction, his alleged accomplices were found not guilty. He was known as a “bummer” in Illinois- generally a lawless person. He was connected with brothels and arrested and fined a few times.  We are uncertain whether he was a bouncer or a pimp. Eventually he was mostly straightened out, spending his time in Kansas in law enforcement, as a bounty hunter and a buffalo hunter for stretches.

Wyatt and his brothers were very mobile in search of wealth and position/power.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt met Doc in Fort Griffin Texas while trying to hunt down some railroad robbers. Doc had left his dentistry practice due to tuberculosis. Both men were not easy to get along with, and they weren’t immediately friends. Later, when Wyatt was back in Dodge, Doc showed up hoping to make money off the Texans who had herded cattle to Dodge. Wyatt had shot a Texan and a mob of undetermined followers sought to kill him. Doc came to help Wyatt out and their friendship was born. Wyatt was loyal to a fault, and this was true with Doc who came with lots of baggage. He seemed to have a death wish, never backing down from confrontation even though he was not a big or strong man.

Guinn shifted his attention, and ours, to the founding of Tombstone as a mining town. In the next chapter about the Earps’ arrival he has accounts of how filthy it was. The winds blew constantly, covering everything in dust. Sanitation was an issue, particularly in light of the animals. Rats infested the town. The population growth was rapid, but amenities began to pop up so people enjoyed good meals. With the trains now stopping in Tucson, many items were now available to be shipped in.

One of the dangers in the area was the Chiricahua Apache. They would make raids to get supplies. Most of those raids were into Mexico, but people lived in fear of what might happen. Since many people in Tombstone came from Texas there was a fear of Native Americans and prejudice against Mexicans.

Doc Holliday in Prescott AZ.jpgWhile Virgil caught on as a Deputy Marshal, Wyatt’s plans initially fell through. Eventually he became a Deputy Sheriff to bide his time until he could become sheriff and enjoy the money and position that came with it. Virgil was building relationships with the town’s powerful in his position. The Earp’s wives, especially those who were formerly prostitutes and generally common law wives, were not accepted by the city leaders and kept to themselves.

With the reformation of the Texas Rangers, many of the outlaws aka cowboys were pushed out of Texas. Many of them moved to New Mexico and Arizona to continue their generally lawless ways. They weren’t anti-social so much as anti-government and the wealthy. They focused on rustling cattle, primarily from Mexico, which they could sell to feed the growing populations of places like Tombstone and the growing military presence. Among those who arrived in Tombstone were Curly Bill and, separately, Johnny Ringo.

“As the frontier contracted and crimes such as rustling began attracting more notice, “cowboy” became a generic term to describe habitual thugs or lawbreakers.”

These men were not like the cow hands Wyatt was used to dealing with. Those men would head back to Texas shortly after the drive was over and once the money was spent. The cowboys remained in the area, and hard feelings would grow. Incidents with some of the ranchers who allied with them also fostered the bitterness that culminated in the famous gunfight.

“Wyatt understood cards much better than people. He was expert in calculating the odds in poker games, but had little comprehension of the infinite number of ways in which human beings try to get even.”

His problem was not just the cowboys, but also his rival for the position as the new sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County. The political tension between Republicans and Democrats had led to a voter fraud problem for the sheriff of Pima county. Wyatt had quit to take sides with the Republican. He even talked a jailed Curly Bill, who’d accidentally shot and killed the marshal, into admitting the fraud on account of the Democrat but the case got caught up in appeals. Behan was skilled in politics, but Wyatt was not. Behan played Wyatt and got the appointment. He displayed his savvy political nature by having Curly Bill help collect taxes instead of robbing his deputies.

“As far as the Earps were concerned, John Behan had lied to Wyatt, and an insult to one brother was taken as an attack on them all. They never forgot or forgave.”

Soon there was an attempted coach robbery that resulted in the death of the driver and a passenger. When the one robber they caught escaped from Behan’s jail, the sheriff spread the rumor that the Earps and Doc Holliday were involved despite the robber fingering other cowboys. Tensions grew. Wyatt’s plans kept coming up empty. With water appearing in mine shafts, the days of mining were numbered as well. Nearby Bisbee was becoming a better investment and growing. The summer heat of 1881 was unrelenting- the town was a powder keg of broken dreams and pent up frustrations.

After a fire burned down 4 square blocks, and squatters descended upon the now empty lots, the chief of police left town under fire. Virgil was named the temporary chief, and 6 days later made the permanent chief of police, added to his role as deputy marshal. His by the book methods led to a number of arrests to clean up the town under pressure from the town leaders.

“The cowboys still did not think of themselves as criminals. They had rowdy fun north of the border, and taking Mexican cattle was pleasant business rather than theft because Mexicans had no rights.”

Behan’s cooperation with the cowboys now threatened his position as sheriff. His window of opportunity came when an angry, drunk “Big Nose” Kate Elder swore Doc had been part of the robbery. If he could get Doc convicted before the election, he might keep his job. But when the charges were dropped after investigation, Behan experienced more embarrassment.

JohnnyBehan.jpgBehan had romantic issues too. He never kept his promise to marry Josephine, and kept getting caught with other women. With his political clout dropping, she began to look for another future. The man she set her sights upon was Behan’s political and professional rival: Wyatt Earp. Meanwhile Wyatt knew that if he actually captured the coach robbers and killers, he’d raise his chances to win the election. He approached the local ranchers Hill, Clanton and McLaury with a plan that would net them the reward (secretly) and him the glory. The plan failed when it was discovered that two of them had been killed in New Mexico.

This failed conspiracy led directly to the gun fight. Clanton was afraid the cowboys would discover his betrayal. He kept accusing Wyatt of telling others, including Doc. The argument the night before was about that issue.

The chapter on the actual gunfight covers the events that morning that led to it. Fear, political pressure, pride and the attempt to save face in front of others and other additives created the deadly cocktail that resulted in Clanton’s brother and two McLaury brothers being killed, while Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded.

Guinn then moves into the inquest and trial in which the Earps were exonerated. This triggered the attacks on Virgil and Morgan in subsequent months. While they shot and killed Morgan in the billiard parlor, their shots missed Wyatt. An angry, vengeful Wyatt would form a posse and kill three cowboys over the next week, including Curly Bill. For killing Frank Stilwell by the train station in Tucson, Wyatt and his posse were wanted for murder.

As Guinn examines the following years and how the mythology of the old west developed, stories like this were sanitized. In fact, there weren’t many white hats and black hats. The men were all flawed and driven by a variety of sinful motives. The men involved in the events of Tombstone scattered as the town struggled and legal problems mounted. It all seems so inglorious rather than the triumph of good over evil that is often portrayed.

This was a very interesting book to read. He reveals the ambiguities for us, stripping away the mythology or veneer that has obscured the real events from our view through books, TV shows and movies that distorted reality and sometimes just plain ignored it.

I’ll end with the words that end the book:

“Historian John E. Ferling has observed that “events by themselves are unimportant; it the perception of events that is crucial,” and Earp mythology may be the best proof of how perception trumps fact and history is subsequently distorted. The October 26, 1881 shootout on Tombstone’s Fremont Street was an arrest gone wrong and the result of complicated social, economic, and political issues that left eight men dangerously mistrustful of each other. In a very real sense, the confrontation did change the West; because of national publicity regarding the subsequent trial, it became clear that, in the future, on the remaining frontier the rule of law would ultimately be enforced by the courts rather than gunplay, Wyatt’s subsequent actions on the Vendetta Ride notwithstanding. But many have come to consider it an ultimate showdown between clear-cut forces of good and evil, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday defined the best of the wonderful Old West- and America- by shooting down the Clantons (Virgil, Morgan and the McLaurys have faded into supporting roles). …

“As for Wyatt Earp, who was  both more and less than his legend insists, we can feel certain of this: He would be pleased by the way everything turned out, except for the face that he never made any money from it.”

 

 

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