Another Perspective

Tombstone in the Raw

The short life and easy death of the most remarkable of boomtowns.

By 11.25.08

Send to Kindle

No matter how wild the mythmakers have depicted the life of the early days of Tombstone, Arizona, it never has come near the unvarnished brutal nature of the reality.

The basic activity of what became briefly the cattle and mining hub of the Southwest was -- not necessarily in priority -- rustling, thieving, fighting, killing, drinking, and gambling. The mining of the local silver deposits and the vast herds of unbranded cattle were simply the economic backdrop.

There were so many longhorn cattle grazing free in Sonora on the Mexican side of the ill-defined border that it is said that the rich Mexican grandees who owned the vast tracks of land couldn't count within a hundred thousand of their actual number. Across the border the "cattle business" of that part of southwest U.S. was built on a seeming unending stream of rustled herds driven north to the American railheads.

The "Anglo" bad guys attracted by the money and freewheeling life were legion: Curly Bill (Brosius or Graham -- whichever one prefers), John Ringo, Frank Stillwell, Joe Hill and Buckskin Frank Leslie were just a few of the top gunmen, among many, readily available for employment. The Clanton and McLowery families ran a sizable business in stolen cattle. County Sheriff John Behan was the protector of most of the illegal trade and the "ace-in-the-hole" for people designated by the cattle rustling families as worthy of special treatment.

The Earp family business of law enforcement, saloons, and gambling had perhaps the deadliest "protector" of them all in the consumptive dentist, J.D. "Doc" Holliday, who had left bodies strewn behind ever since he left his family home in Valdosta, Ga. The cash brought in regularly by hard working miners was easy money for a professional gambler like Holliday and others. Holliday's proficiency with either gun or knife was useful when he acted as the "blocker" for his close friend, Deputy U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp, when the latter was dealing faro.

TOMBSTONE ALREADY was a 24-hour town of unstoppable vitality when the blond, hard-faced, thirty-year old Wyatt Earp arrived there on December 1, 1879, just a little more than six months after Ed Schiefflin's first silver claim was filed in Tucson in April and thirty years since the famous gold discovery in California. Western America since then had been dotted with mining operations and all the rough men and women who followed them.

Ed Schiefflin had been told by the famed civilian scout, Al Sieber, that the only valuable rock he would find in the hills southeast of the San Pedro River would be his tombstone. As a result that was what Schiefflin decided to name his silver strike. Tough guys, crooks and charlatans of every stripe, along with eager miners, were drawn by the magnet of the dream of "shining rivers of silver" that had lured men since the Spanish expeditions of Francisco Coronado.

Soon the sun-bleached tents of the first arrivals in Tombstone gave way to wooden, brick and adobe buildings, some two or three stories high. The makers of homemade alcohol were replaced by rough saloons selling the better brew imported from Santa Fe in the east and California in the west. The madams soon followed with their strings of hardened prostitutes. Those months of evolution from settlement to settled town spawned all the criminality and contest that later would become legend.

But this was not the backward days of the pre-Civil War. The telegraph had brought near instant communication and the railroad carried whole families of merchants and artisans of all kinds to sustain and serve the miners. The cattle industry already had begun its expansion into the open range north of the Mexican/U.S. border country. Cowboys and miners challenged each other in fitful battles to the tune of dance hall music and clicking roulette wheels.

Within two years Tombstone was a thriving desert metropolis of truly schizophrenic caste. Churches sprung up nearly as quickly as had the saloons. During daytime playing children and ladies shopping crossed the dusty, rutted, horse-manured streets or clattered along the wooden sidewalks with their convenient slatted roofs giving protection against the elements. Four newspapers kept everyone up-to-date and politically divided. At night the slumbering saloons and music halls came alive with noise, booze, and battle.

THE FACT IS that it was the combustible nature of boomtowns like Tombstone that provided both the myth and reality of the western American ethos. Rawboned Americans primarily of North European ethnicity dominated the Native Americans as well as the Hispanic settlers who had been the first colonists emigrating north from Mexico. It would be decades before the southwestern border country truly would settle down to a relatively quiet existence.

Anytime a miner or a cowboy went into a bar for relaxation there was the danger of inadvertently becoming involved in a fight. Knives, guns, fists were just the beginning of the weapons used. The fair fights portrayed in story and on film never existed. If a person wasn't killed in a fight, it was because his opponent was too exhausted, disabled or already dead. Boot Hill Cemetery democratically welcomed all comers at the desolate north slope of the town.

Apache bands raided throughout the region with no regard for American or Mexican borders. Plunder was their objective and neither sex, age, nor pleas for mercy restrained their murderous path. They were not out to fight; they wanted only spoils and scalps. Periodically the Army would swing out of their forts to chase down the latest marauders, kill as many as they could, and chase them back to San Carlos and other reserves. Eventually the Apache were reduced by hunger and disease to the point where they no longer had the strength to even steal. The overwhelming and deadly "white eye" tribe had won.

On March 25, 1882, Wyatt Earp and Holliday defiantly rode out of Tombstone never to return. The Earp dynasty had lasted less than two and a half years. In May of that same year a fire destroyed the town -- for the second time. Three years later the silver was mostly played out and the mines were flooded when one of the central pumps failed. A town that had briefly boasted a population of five thousand residents and ten thousand more passing through found itself like so many of its past denizens -- barely breathing. What was left has disappeared into barely recognizable history theatrically manufactured for the tourists.

There was a time, though, when Tombstone was damnably worthy of its name. The real Tombstone, like so many lodestones of the old West, truly drew "the good, the bad, and the ugly" of those rough people who gave life to the manifest destiny of America. The reality may be hard to accept now, but it's there to be seen if you try.


George H. Wittman writes from the great desert Southwest.


Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.