It’s no secret that Western films shaped what people think about the Wild West. Stories of outlaws, bank robberies, and wars with the Native Americans make the Old West seem lawless. In reality, America in the 1800s was far less exciting.
The truth is that most cowboys didn’t wear cowboy hats. Even tumbleweeds didn’t appear in America until the late 19th century. The stereotypical vision of American cowboys shooting guns while on horseback is fake. How many of these false myths about the Wild West did you believe?
Some Outlaws Were Shameless Self-Promoters
In many movies, outlaws had to lay low to avoid getting arrested. In reality, many famous outlaws were shameless self-promoters. That’s how they became so famous. For instance, Jesse James would give notes to witnesses bragging about his exploits, even while holding up a train.
Billy the Kid was known for loudly bragging in saloons. On top of that, many outlaws befriended each other. The groups of outlaws would spread stories about each other, some exaggerated, others true.
Native Americans Were Not A Constant Threat
Western films often portray Native Americans as the antagonists who constantly attacked settlers. In truth, this rarely happened. Historian Roger McGrath said that the Wild West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”
While some Native American tribes warred with settlers, most saw an opportunity for trade. According to Hard Road West: History and Geology Along the Gold Rush Trail, more Native Americans were killed by migrants than the other way around. And even that number is low–only 426 deaths in 20 years, compared to the 30,000 deaths in that timespan.
The Wild West Was Not “Lawless”
The word “lawless” is often used to describe the Wild West. In truth, America was no more lawless then than it is now. Historian W. Eugene Hollon told the Independent Institute that the Wild West “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.”
According to the Smithsonian, the reputation of “lawlessness” began with newspapers from Dodge City, Kansas. That’s where the phrase “get out of dodge” originated. Sensationalized newspapers from the early 1870s provided the basis for Western movie plots.
Cowboy Hats Were Not Popular
The Stetson hat is better known by the name “cowboy hat.” It is so ubiquitous in Western films that people may think every cowboy wore them. In reality, cowboys rarely wore that hat. It wasn’t even designed until 1865.
John B. Stetson designed the hat based on Mexican vaqueros hats. According to the National Cowboy Museum, the hat went through several designs before landing on the classic look we know today. It became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for its durability, but few people wore it during the Wild West era.
Firearms Were Prohibited In Most Towns
In Wild West movies, every character has a gun on their hips. In reality, many towns prohibited carrying weapons. States such as Louisiana and Kentucky outlawed carrying firearms, although many of these laws were repealed. Even Dodge City, a city known for its “lawlessness,” had signs saying “The carrying of Firearms Strictly Prohibited.”
That said, historian Adam Winkler noted that many people still carried guns to protect themselves from wild animals. The federal government stepped away from gun laws, and rules varied from state to state.
Settlers Sat In Traffic Jams
Western movies make 19th-century America look like nothing but small towns and rolling, barren hills. But cities existed in the 1800s, and where there were cities, there were traffic jams. Both carriages and cars sat in traffic jams in the Wild West.
Between 1880 and 1900, over 15 million people moved to American cities. Industrialization encouraged people to leave for rural towns for more job opportunities in the cities. Many of the smaller settlements became ghost towns because of this. With more people, there is much more traffic.
Wild Camels Roamed The American West
If Wild West movies were historically accurate, they would show camels roaming around. Wild camels indeed lived in North America during the 1800s. Thank the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, for bringing camels to the U.S.
Davis thought that camels were the key to westward expansion since they could haul supplies and required little water. The U.S. Army bought 75 camels and sold them at auctions. During the Civil War, many of these camels were released into the wild. Historians don’t know what happened to all of the camels.
The O.K. Corral Fight Didn’t Happen At The O.K. Corral
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of the most famous Wild West shootouts of all time. The 30-second gunfight resulted from a long-time feud between famous outlaws such as Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton. However, it didn’t actually happen at the O.K. Corral.
The shootout actually took place on the side of C. S. Fly’s Photographic Studio on Fremont Street. This was six doors down from the O.K. Corral. That hasn’t stopped the O.K. Corral from becoming a popular tourist destination in Tombstone, Arizona.
Cowboys Had Terrible Hygiene
Although actors appear clean and well-shaven in Western films, the reality was much dirtier. According to True West Magazine, most cowboys were not able to bathe for weeks at a time. This left them susceptible to multiple illnesses and parasites.
Clean water was difficult to come by, as was soap. Settlers made soap from animal fats, and it often irritated the skin. Dentists did not exist; people had to turn to barbers to get their teeth extracted. Native Americans were far cleaner than the average cowboy.
California Was Not The First (Or Only) Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush was the most famous gold rush and the largest mass migration in American history. But it was not the first gold rush in the Wild West. The first significant gold rush occurred in 1799 in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Thirty years later, there was another gold rush in the southern Appalachians in Georgia.
The California Gold Rush was the third significant gold rush in the Wild West. Besides that, silver rushes came up in America as well. In 1858, ten years after the California rush, forty-niners went to Nevada to mine silver.
For The First Time, Women Became Waitresses
Women did not have many rights in the Old West, and they couldn’t get jobs. However, that was rapidly changing. Fred Harvey, the owner of a restaurant chain called Harvey House, began the trend of hiring women as waitresses.
Harvey quickly became tired of the male waiters getting into fights. In a radical move, he fired all the male waiters and replaced them with women. He hired women between the ages of 18 and 30 and put them through a 30-day boot camp. These women received payment, plus tips, which allowed them to live independently.
Bank Robberies Were Very, Very Rare
Bank robberies are one of the most popular plot devices for Western movies. But how many bank robberies actually happened in the Wild West? According to the Larry Schweikart at the Foundation for Economic Freedom, not many. Only eight bank robberies occurred between 1859 1900.
Banks in the 1800s were heavily secured, says the Wild World of History. Banks usually adjoined other buildings, and large iron balls sat on top of safes. The shape of the ball caused an explosive effect when people shot at it. Those who tried to rob banks had a difficult time.
The Pony Express Was Not Successful
The Pony Express endures as the fastest mail service in the Old West. However, it was a financial flop. It only ran for 19 months before it shut down. A few weeks after it began, the Pyramid Lake War between the United States and the Paiute Indians broke out. The express ceased operation, which cost them $75,000.
The Pony Express struggled to recover after that. By the time it shut down in October 1861, the company had lost $200,000 (over $6 million in today’s money). Despite its short life, the Pony Express delivered 35,000 pieces of mail.
Most Cowboys Were Only Around Five Feet Tall
If you assumed that cowboys were the same height as men today, you would be wrong. People in the 1800s were shorter on average than people in the 21st century. When anthropologists examined a Wild West cemetery, they noticed that most men were only five feet tall. The tallest was five-foot-nine.
Oddly enough, men from the Middle Ages were closer to the average height today. In 2004, a study from Ohio State University found that people “shrank” between the Middle Ages and the 1800s. Food shortages, colder weather, and laborious lives were to blame.
Some Cowboys Didn’t Ride Horses
When most people envision cowboys, many imagine a man on a horse. However, not all cowboys rode horses. A minority of cowboys did not ride horses at all. Some even rode camels! This was especially true in the late 1880s when barbed wire became popular, and diseases were ravaging livestock.
Horses were imported from Spain, and as such, they were expensive. People who bought horses also needed horse-riding lessons, and many people could not afford those. Many cowboys had horses and did not ride them; the horses pulled plows or carriages instead.
Tumbleweeds Didn’t Appear In The U.S. Until 1877
When viewers see a tumbleweed in a Western film, most don’t think anything of it. Many people don’t know that the tumbleweed did not appear in America until 1877. The seeds, which are actually the Russian thistle, were brought to America by Ukrainian farmers. They first appeared in South Dakota, so unless you lived there in the late 1800s, you wouldn’t know what tumbleweeds were.
In the U.S., tumbleweeds are an invasive species. Even today, many tumbleweeds cover homes and can cause fires. Some of them even grow up to six feet tall!
There Were Professional Card Players
You may have seen cowboys play cards in a saloon during Western films. But playing cards wasn’t just a pastime in the Old West; some people were professional poker players. According to American Heritage, many people began playing poker for a profit in the 1820s.
Poker is still a professional game in the U.S. In the 1970s, Las Vegas hotel owner Benny Binion founded the Poker Hall of Fame, which still lists champions today. In the Wild West, poker games were far less official, but anyone could try their hand at winning a profit.
The Alamo Was About Slavery, Not Freedom
The popular perception of the Battle of the Alamo is that settlers fought for Texas’s freedom. The reality is that Texans fought to keep their slaves. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829, and Mexican soldiers were encouraged to free slaves when they went to Texas (which was under Mexican territory at the time).
Of course, this wasn’t the only contention that Texans had. Mexico had recently passed new laws that imposed tariffs on Texans. On top of that, most Texans were illegal immigrants, and many become “pirates” to fight against Mexican law.
The 1870s Marked The End Of The Cowboys
Believe it or not, few cowboys were needed after the 1870s. In 1876, John Warne Gates discovered that animals did not cross barbed wire fences. While advertisements called it “The Greatest Discovery Of The Age,” others called it “the devil’s rope.” Barbed wire meant that cowboys were no longer required.
On top of that, cowmen and Native Americans did not like how barbed wire harmed cattle. Some people formed groups called the Blue Devils and the Javelinas to cut peoples’ fences. The dispute continued throughout the end of the 19th century as cowboys faded out of history.
Most Cowboys Were From Mexican Descent
Believe it or not, most Wild West cowboys were not American. Originally, cowboys were of Mexican descent. The concept of a cowboy came from vaqueros, trained ranchers in Mexico who rose to prominence after the Spanish arrived.
According to the Smithsonian, the Wild West was just as diverse–if not more–than America today. One in four cowboys had roots in Africa. Historian William Katz said that people back then had to depend on each other to survive, regardless of background.
Fights Were Very Rare
Pop in an old western film, and a fight is sure to break out during the first half-hour. Ironically, saloon fights and taking people “outside” to settle arguments isn’t actually what happened in the Wild West. Instead, surviving in the rough and tough times meant getting along with your neighbors.
Although about 90 percent of western films feature people drawing guns for a high noon showdown, the truth is that most western towns were safer, with a lower murder rate than many modern cities.
Riding Wasn’t For Everyone
The ideal picture of a cowboy has a rough and tough cattle wrangler astride a sturdy-looking horse. As history would have it, though, that picture of the cowboy isn’t necessarily the truth. Ironically, many cowboys never had to ride. The romantic image of cowboys riding across the planes is nothing more than a fictionalized account of life in the Wild West.
Instead, their job description included little to no riding, especially once 1885 hit. From that year onwards, cowboys would be seen staying close to the ranches where they worked, mending fences, or checking on animals for disease. Not too surprisingly, many hated the work.
Cowboys Were Not Romanticized
While Hollywood, authors, and even rodeos have romanticized the idea of the American cowboy throughout the years, they weren’t exactly seen as the rough and tough heroes they are today. Particularly, the old south saw cowboys as dirty and illiterate vagrants who did nothing more than trample their crops.
People even believed cowboys were going to be the downfall of their towns, spreading the dreaded “Texas fever” throughout the lands. Before pop culture, cowboys were arguably nothing more than a nuisance.
Life Of A Cowboy Was Dirty From Beginning To End
Many images of a cowboy are moral, clean-cut, and look suspiciously like John Wayne on a horse. It might not be a huge surprise to learn that a cowboy’s life was a bit different from the Hollywood depiction. They were dirty, sweaty, and many were riddled with diseases.
Depending on the time in the Old West, anywhere between 50 to 90 percent of the ladies of the night carried a disease. Needless to say, while Hollywood might show cowboys as clean-cut, there was more than one bacterial growth occurring in the bodies of real-life cowboys.
The USA Isn’t The Most “Cowboy Obsessed”
Cowboys might have made a name for themselves across the Wild West of the United States. But the nation is, ironically, not the most cowboy obsessed. In fact, the cowboy obsessed country isn’t even part of North America. Across the pond, Germany is all about the cowboy image.
The country has numerous cowboy-themed clubs where estimated tens of thousands of patrons go, dressing up like they were in the 19th century. Ironically, the country’s infatuation with cowboys isn’t completely modern, dating back to World War II.
A Ten Gallon Hat Wasn’t Practical
Hollywood might have popularized the ten-gallon bucket hat as the go-to headgear for cowboys. But, back in the times of the Wild West, it was probably one of the more impractical fashion statements. Instead, cowboys were seen wearing bowler and derby hats.
Both of those hats were less likely to fly off the heads of a cowboy if, for some reason, they found themselves riding at top speed. Also, a massive hat wasn’t ideal when running from enemies, as it is quite a large target!
Ladies Of The Night Were Actually Well Off
The life of a lady of the night wasn’t always easy, nor was it seen as an honorable career path for women in the Wild West. However, they weren’t as bad off as people believe. In fact, these women lived pretty cozy lifestyles, as they were in high demand and made a solid paycheck.
With their high wages, these ladies had comfortable living arrangements, special social freedoms, and, in some cases, had police officers protecting them. Even most of the madams of the establishments were educated; some being one of the wealthier patrons in town.
Cowboys Originated From Mexico
Cowboys and the depiction of the Wild West are very American, being brought up in various Hollywood films and even in Western novels. Ironically, the concept of the cowboy didn’t originate in America, as many think, but just south of the border in Mexico.
The concept of a cowboy comes from vaqueros, Mexican cattleman who, honestly, take the stereotypical cowboy image and totally run with it. Mexican vaqueros were known for their long cattle rides, cheap rodeos, and sombrero-style hats that more than likely inspired the modern-day cowboy hat. They even came up with some well-known lingo, including “bronco” and “stampede.”
Cowboys Weren’t The Explorers Of The Time
Contrary to popular belief, cowboys weren’t the adventurers Hollywood makes them out to be. While these men are notoriously considered the rough and tough people of the age, explorers, trappers, and mountain men were the individualists of the time.
Dressed in animal skins and carrying a Bowie knife, these groups of individuals were kind of loners, living and navigating off the land that hasn’t even been mapped out yet. Comparatively, cowboys were nothing more than men herding high-priced cargo in an otherwise mapped out territory.
The Life As A Cowboy Was Less Than Glamorous
Many depictions of the Wild West cowboy show the men as clean-cut individuals who always happen to be at the right place at the right time, saving the day from “put of towners.” Well, this image isn’t exactly real. The life of a cowboy was anything but glamorous and heroic.
Instead, these men lived pretty blue-collar lives, working on ranches, mending fences, and having a layer of dirt and grim that never seemed to wash away completely. Typically sleeping on the ground, cowboys were often tired, dirty, and too saddle-sore to take up arms with anyone attempting to rob a salon.
Water Wasn’t Free For The Taking
Considering the long days cowboys worked, water would, supposedly, be in abundance at ranches and while they’re on the road. Well, this actually wasn’t the case. Water was actually fairly pricey back in the Wild West.
While slabs of meat were sold for around a cent, water could be sold by “entrepreneurs” for a few dollars! Needless to say, cowboys didn’t make a lot of money and therefore had to be very careful on how much of their money they spent on the over-priced liquid.
Elmer McCurdy Wasn’t That Interesting
In 1911, Elmer McCurdy robbed a train he thought contained thousands of dollars. It didn’t, and McCurdy made off with a whopping $46 and was shot by law enforcement soon after. With his body going unclaimed, the failed bandit was embalmed with an arsenic preparation and sold to a traveling carnival as a sideshow exhibit.
Time passed, and McCurdy’s body was sold to various circuses, theme parks, and haunted mansions as a prop. It wasn’t until 1976 that it was discovered the “prop” was actually the corpse of McCurdy when one of his fingers fell off, and human tissue was discovered.
Billy The Kid Wasn’t Left-Handed
A famous photograph shows Billy the Kid, born William Bonney, wearing his gun belt on his left side, prompting historians to believe that the famous outlaw was lefthanded. Well, that wasn’t actually the case. After some digging, it was discovered that the tintype camera used for the photograph had a little secret.
When developed, the tintype photograph was actually a reverse, mirror image of the image it captures. That means that in reality, Billy the Kid was actually right-handed.
While It’s Not The Original, The Long Branch Saloon Does Exist
For many people, the Long Branch Saloon is nothing more than an establishment in the television series “Gunsmoke.” What some viewers don’t realize is that the Long Branch Saloon is actually a real place. Or, at least, it was a real place.
The original establishment was burned down in 1885 but was later rebuilt into what it is today, a saloon with the same name. Of course, instead of cowboys and gunslingers frequenting the place, it’s overrun with tourists looking to quench their thirst and visit a piece of Old Western history.
A Winged Monster Roamed California
As far as myths go, the one about the winged monster found by two cowboys in Tombstone, Arizona, takes the cake. According to their story, in 1890, “A winged monster, resembling a huge alligator with an extremely elongated tail and an immense pair of wings, was found on the desert between the Whetstone and Huachuca mountains last Sunday by two ranchers who were returning home from the Huachucas.”
The two cowboys reportedly shot the monster out of the sky. While many want to believe their story, it was never proven. As far as hoax’s go, though, this is one of the better ones to come out of the Wild West.
The Tale Of The Red Ghost
Contrary to popular belief, there were many who thought taking horses on rides through the deserts of the southwest wasn’t the smartest move. So, camels were imported. While the animals were better suited for the tough desert climate, cowboys were accustomed to seeing such animals. So, rumors spread of a Red Ghost.
This “ghost” was said to be a terrifying beast with someone to something strapped to its back. Legend said the Red Ghost was even strong enough to take down a bear. Eventually, the Red Ghost was caught, and it was revealed to be nothing more than a red-colored feral camel.
Rumors Of Abandoned Mines Aren’t Really Rumors
As Jacob Waltz reportedly once told his friends, “Near those mountains is the richest gold mine in the world.” The mountains in question were Arizona’s Superstition Mountains, and Waltz talked about the gold thought to be inside. Well, he wasn’t wrong. The Wild West was full of precious metals, including gold.
Since the gold rush, many mines have become abandoned, if not lost altogether, from natural phenomena. But Waltz’s Lost Dutchman is almost like an urban legend, as no one has been able to find it. While many of the rumors surrounding mines are just that, rumors, this one is thought to be real.
Pioneers Were Scared Of Traveling Long Distances
While some travelers enjoyed long trips on the road, others were very superstitious in the old west. So much so that some believed red-haired cannibalistic giants roamed the deserts of Nevada! In her 1883 novel Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, Northern Paiute author Sarah Winnemucca said, “Among the traditions of our people is one of a small tribe of barbarians who used to live along the Humboldt River. It was many hundred years ago.”
“They used to waylay my people and kill and eat them.” While the remains of the so-called giants have never appeared, the rumors are still very much strong and alive.
A Childhood Of War And Conflict
Doc Holliday was born as John Henry Holliday in August 1851. Just before his birth, his father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, served in the Mexican-American War. In his early childhood, his father fought in the Civil War.
In 1862, the threat of Union troops moved the family further south in Georgia, to Valdosta. John Holliday’s family became prominent in the community, and his mother made sure that he never had to face the horrors of war. Despite the battles raging around him, Holliday didn’t grow up fighting his classmates or neighbors.
Holliday Was A Brilliant Student
Although people may expect Doc Holliday to have been a rowdy student, that was far from the truth. As a child, Holliday suffered from speech impediments and a cleft palate. Through corrective surgery and hours of lessons from his mother, Alice, Holliday recovered from both conditions.
According to historical accounts, Holliday excelled in school. As a teenager, he attended Valdosta Institute, where he learned rhetoric, math, and history. He also became fluent in Latin, French, and Ancient Greek. At age 20, Holliday received his Doctor of Dental Surgery from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.
The Threat Of Tuberculosis
In 1866, Alice Holliday died of tuberculosis. Her death greatly impacted John Holliday, as he and his mother were very close. Three months later, his father married Rachel Martin, who was eight years older than him. John Holliday soon left his family to practice dentistry in Missouri and Georgia.
Sometime in his teenage years, Holliday’s adoptive brother, Francisco, also died from tuberculosis. Holliday seemed to escape the tragedy when he began practicing dentistry. However, he soon learned that he suffered from tuberculosis as well. He was given a few months to live.
The Dentist And Gambling King
After Holliday moved to Dallas, he partnered with a friend of his father, Dr. John Seegar. The two won various awards for their dental work. Holliday ended up living far beyond his initial diagnosis, but he suffered from coughing spells at unlikely times. In the 1870s, his dentistry work slowly declined.
However, Holliday discovered another money-making route: gambling. He had such a knack for gambling that he soon relied on it as his main source of income. In May of 1874, Holliday and 12 others were kicked out of Dallas for illegal gambling.
The Start Of A Rough Fighting Streak
There are few historical accounts of Holliday fighting before he left Dallas. After 1875, that changed. Throughout Holliday’s gambling sprees, he got into several fights. In 1877, Holliday grew violent with a fellow gambler Henry Kahn. After both men were arrested, Kahn once again beat an unarmed Holliday.
In the Dallas Weekly Herald, reporters incorrectly stated that Holliday had died. His cousin, George Holliday, helped him move west to Fort Griffin, Texas. There, he had his only known relationship with an independent, educated street walker named “Big Nose Kate” Horony.
The True Doc Holliday
Despite his violent tendencies, Holliday’s peers described him as a calm-tempered gentleman. In an interview, a newspaper reporter asked Holliday if his conscience ever troubled him. Holliday responded, “I coughed that up with my lungs years ago.”
Others who knew Holliday described him as having a “mean disposition” and “ungovernable temper.” According to Holliday, he had been arrested 17 times, survived five ambushes, and escaped four hanging attempts. Most of his reputation spread through self-promotion and rumors. But this was enough to cement him as a famous Wild West Cowboy for centuries after his death.
His First Meeting With Marshall Wyatt Earp
Around this time, Holliday ran into the famous rogue lawman Wyatt Earp. The details about their meeting are unclear outside of legend, but what is known is that the pair would become the most feared duo in the Wild West. At the time, Earp was still a deputy U.S. marshal.
According to the story, Earp was pursuing the outlaw “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh. He asked Holliday about Rudabaugh’s whereabouts after Holliday gambled with him. Holliday said that Rudabaugh fled to Kansas, and Earp followed. But the two would end up meeting again.
Saving Earp’s Life
According to stories, Wyatt Earp had either two or five cowboys. In the summer, these cowboys rode into the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City. Holliday, who was looking for a dentist position in Dodge, was gambling in the back room. Meanwhile, the cowboys were harassing customers and vandalizing the room.
Upon hearing the commotion, Earp burst through the door. The cowboys pointed their weapons at them. But Holliday stood and pointed his pistol at the men’s leader, forcing them to disarm. No newspaper reports back up this incident. But either way, Earp credited Holliday with saving his life.
In October 1879, Earp arrived in Las Vegas (New Mexico) and met up with Holliday. He told Doc that he was heading toward the silver boom in Tombstone, Arizona. Holliday had tried chasing the gold rushes in Dakota and Wyoming before but reaped nothing. Nonetheless, he eventually joined Earp in Tombstone one year later.
In these new Western territories, there weren’t many government forces to prevent crime so Earp and his brother took up the role. Initially, county sheriff Johnny Behan turned a blind eye to their shenanigans. But after Holliday joined the team, Behan viewed them as criminals.
Becoming “Doc” Holliday
During his time in Fort Griffin, Texas, Holliday engaged in a mixture of fighting, gambling, and dentistry. He developed a reputation for refunding customers for less-than-satisfactory business, which is where he gained the nickname “Doc.” Around 1878, Holliday permanently stopped working as a dentist.
Through his several shootings, Holliday became known for his skill with a weapon. But he still suffered from tuberculosis. For one year, Holliday moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, for the alleged healing properties of the 22 hot springs. Anti-gambling laws sent him back to Dodge City, but he later returned to Vegas to build saloons. That’s where he reunited with Wyatt Earp.
The Accused Stagecoach Robbing Of 1881
In March 1881, three cowboys robbed a stagecoach that was headed to Tombstone. Rumors flew that the new outlaw, Doc Holliday, had led the robbery and slayings. At some point, his ex-lover Horony told authorities that Holliday did attempt to rob the stagecoach.
Holliday was arrested and convicted of assault. Fortunately, the Earps found witnesses who proved that Holliday was nowhere near the incident. Later, Horony said that Sheriff Behan had influenced her to confess and sign a document that she did not understand. This lead to rising tensions between Holliday, Earp, and Behan.
The Duel With Ike Clanton
On October 25, 1881, Holliday was enjoying some beverages in the Alhambra Saloon. There, he entered a heated argument with fellow outlaw Ike Clanton and challenged him to a duel–only to discover that Clanton was unarmed. Rather than let it go, Holliday taunted his opponent by saying that he had recently done away with Clanton’s father.
The next morning, Clanton gathered his weapons and searched the streets for Holliday. Clanton woke up Holliday and his common-law wife, Mary Horony, with loud threats. Reportedly, Holliday famously said, “If God will let me live to get my clothes on, he will see me.”
How A Single Duel Became A Battle
Before Holliday could enter the fray, the Earp brothers disarmed Clanton and took him to court. But while Clanton remained behind bars, his fellow cowboys arrived to back him up. This included his brother Billy Clanton as well as Frank and Tom McLaury. Holliday faced the outlaws with the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan.
What happened next is up for debate. We know that the field erupted in a blaze of shots. Half a minute later, all fell silent. The men managed to fire 30 bullets throughout the brief but bloody battle.
The Showdown At O.K. Corral
In the end, the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton died on the spot. Ike Clanton fled. Reports state that Holliday may have shot each of the three men dead. Although he, Morgan, and Virgil received wounds, they emerged as the victors.
This shootout became known as the fight at the O.K. Corral since it occurred a few doors down from the Corral. As one of the most famous battles of the Wild West, it has been depicted in many movies and TV shows. But the fight was far from over for Holliday and the Earp brothers.
Becoming A Deputy
After O.K. Corral, Virgil Earp was crippled for life. In March 1882, Morgan Earp was ambushed, and he died. Virgil Earp survived through several ambushes himself, but Wyatt and his deputies worked to keep him safe. Unable to find justice in the courts, Wyatt deputized Holliday, and the two agreed to avenge Morgan.
As a federal posse, Holliday and the Earps rode out to find Frank Stilwell, one of the Cowboys they believed to be responsible for Morgan’s death. They found Stilwell lying in wait on a train as Virgil Earp boarded and took his life.
The True Cowboy Life
After the death of Frank Stilwell, a local sheriff placed a warrant for the arrest of the five deputies, including Holliday. But the posse wasn’t done. Just days after the ambush, Wyatt Earp and Holliday arrived at Iron Springs in the Whetstone Mountains.
With Earp, Holliday snuck up on eight cowboys, who drew their weapons and began firing. Holliday and his posse took out at least three of these cowboys. Meanwhile, the only casualty on Holliday’s side was a wounded horse. But with a warrant over their heads, the group decided to leave Arizona and head toward Colorado.
Earp And Holliday Part Ways
Holliday and the posse traveled through the New Mexico Territory, hoping to escape their warrant. But in Albuquerque, Wyatt Earp and Holliday got into a fight. Afterward, Earp remained in New Mexico, while Holliday traveled to Colorado.
In 1882, Holliday headed toward Glenwood Springs. Still suffering from tuberculosis, Holliday hoped that the waters would help his ailing health. But as soon as he arrived in Denver, he was arrested. He headed to jail on the Tucson warrant for murdering Frank Stilwell. This time, Holliday had to face prison alone.
Friends For Life
Fortunately, Holliday hadn’t entirely cut ties with Earp. When Wyatt Earp heard of the charges, he worried that Holliday wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Arizona. Earp asked his friend, Colorado Chief of Police Bat Masterson, to draw up bunco charges against Holliday.
Two weeks after his arrest, Holliday met up with Masterson. The two traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, where Holliday was released on bond. In June 1882, Earp and Holliday met in Gunnison, Colorado. Although the two remained close friends for life, this was the second-to-last time Holliday would see Earp.
Was Holliday Responsible For Johnny Ringo’s Death?
Before Holliday died, he may or may not have taken one more life. In July 1882, Holliday’s long-time enemy, Johnny Ringo, was found dead in a tree. Initially, his death was reported as self-inflicted. But according to Earp’s third wife, Holliday and Earp traveled to Arizona to take Ringo’s life.
Historical evidence doesn’t clarify whether Holliday was the culprit. In Arizona, Holliday still had a warrant, so it’s unlikely that he would enter the area. Some historians believe that this story was a hoax, although we don’t know for sure.
Doc’s Final Days
Holliday spent his remaining days in Colorado. During this time, his health rapidly declined. When Earp saw Holliday for the last time in 1886, he noticed that Holliday had a persistent cough and weak legs. Meanwhile, Holliday ran out of money and continually entered saloon fights.
The sulfuric fumes from Glenwood Springs only worsened Holliday’s condition. Mary Horony joined him during his final days. During his last moments, Holliday looked at his bare feet and said, “This is funny.” He always assumed that he’d die with his boots on.
Holliday died in November 1887. After his passing, his legendary status grew. “Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions,” read his obituary in the Denver Republican.
Wyatt Earp kept positive memories of his friend, saying, “I found him a loyal friend and good company.” Holliday’s stories lived on to inspire books, movies, music, and TV shows. He is now one of the most recognizable cowboys of the Old West.