How the West was Won: Marshal Dake, the Earp Brothers, and the Tombstone Shootout

On October 26, 1881, a 30-second gunfight became the stuff of legend. Today marks the 130th anniversary of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, and to commemorate the occasion, Katie Beaver, a summer intern in textual processing, wrote the following post.

One of the most well-known stories of the “Wild West” comes from Tombstone, Arizona: Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp’s feud with the Cochise County sheriff, their desperate quest for fortune, and their deadly encounter with the Clanton brothers. It’s Hollywood material, and the Archives has it all.

U.S. Marshal Crowley P. Dake was appointed to the office as an urgent response to several raids by American “Cowboys” across the Mexican border. At the time of his appointment, he was viewed as a competent, courageous officer of the Civil War, who would have been perfectly capable of cracking down on security at Arizona’s border with Mexico.

In 1879, he tragically mistook Virgil Earp’s desire for the title of Marshal of Tombstone as genuine desire to hunt down and prosecute the Cowboys. Unfortunately for Dake, Earp was much more preoccupied with the profit he made as Marshal rather than with law enforcement itself. This attitude created several enemies for the Earps and soon, personal affairs took priority over the Cowboy prosecutions. A street fight broke out between the Clanton/McLaury brothers and the Earps, who attempted to use their statuses as deputy marshals to arrest and shoot their opponents. The McLaury brothers were, indeed, killed, and Virgil Earp had his deputy title revoked as a consequence.

Months later, after Virgil and Morgan Earp had been attacked and killed (respectively) by old enemies, Wyatt Earp sought to be deputized by Marshal Dake, who still trusted in him to pursue the Cowboy gang. Like his brother, Wyatt was not concerned with the Cowboy raids in Mexico, but rather with obsessively rampaging after his brothers’ attackers. He killed three more men to avenge Morgan’s death (not a legal cause for murder) and fled to Colorado as an outlaw, pursued by the Tombstone sheriff for the rest of his days. No matter his intentions, Wyatt Earp’s escapades in the West launched him into the realm of frontier lore, and established him as a symbol of America’s romantic notion of the Wild West.

Source: Calhoun, Frederick S. The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989. New York: Penguin Group, 1991.

See the series: Appointment Files for Judicial Districts, 1853-1905, (NAID 734590), Office of the Attorney General, Department of Justice. Record Group 60: General Records of the Department of Justice.

& folder: December 1881 – July 1882 (NAID 4687936), from the series: Letters Received, 1871 – 1884 (NAID 4687929). Record Group 60: General Records of the Department of Justice.