In 1877, a prospector named Edward Schieffelin was digging for silver at Goose Flats, a desert area some 12 miles from Charleston Arizona. Some soldiers stationed nearby laughed at Ed and told him of the Apaches that roamed the area and told him, “The only thing you'll find out there is your own tombstone”.
His digging eventually paid off and he discovered a rich vein of silver. He staked a claim and called his mine Tombstone as a reminder of the soldier’s warning. The find prompted a rush of other miners to the area and by December 1878, a notice in the Arizona Weekly Star newspaper read, “Tombstone mill site is now the scene of much activity, Houses, shanties and jackals (huts) are going up rapidly and several families are now on the ground” it ends by noting, “a restaurant has been opened by Mr Ike Clanton”.
The new town and its silver mines soon attracted its share of gamblers and ne’er do wells as well as rustlers who roamed the wild country of Arizona and New Mexico stealing cattle from Mexican ranchers and reselling them to legitimate ranchers. Across the border in Mexico, the government had imposed high taxes on alcohol and tobacco which attracted hordes of smugglers buying cheaply in the US and selling to dealers in Mexico. These smugglers in turn were targets for bandits who ambushed them as they returned to the US.
By 1879, lawlessness was so bad that settlers petitioned the government to clamp down and Virgil Earp, a deputy US Marshal for the region, was sent to Tombstone and was later followed by his brothers, James and Wyatt and their wives, who together bought a mine and some water rights in the town. Wyatt’s investments came to nothing and he took a job as shotgun messenger with Wells Fargo, protecting bullion shipments. The next year he was appointed a Pima County Deputy Sheriff, the only official law enforcement position he would hold in Tombstone up to the time of the gunfight. Two other brothers, Morgan and Warren joined them early the next year. The brothers were a tight knit family and had much experience in policing frontier towns with Wyatt himself having been Marshall in Wichita and Dodge City. It should also be noted that Wyatt himself was not whiter than white, having been in trouble with the law in his early years for horse theft, misappropriation of funds and working in a floating brothel in Illinois. John Behan, the Cochise County Sheriff and his deputies were also ordered to stamp out the rustling. Behan, who has been described as, “at best ineffective, at worst crooked”, sided with the cowboys and tension grew between him and the Earps, who tended to support the businesses and townspeople of Tombstone. A Wells Fargo officer at the time was quoted as saying, “Even the sheriff of the county is in with the cowboys, and he has got to be or his life would not be worth a farthing”.
It is interesting to note that the term “cowboy” was used at the time to indicate a rustler or thief; legal cowmen were generally called herders or ranchers. The two local newspapers were divided in their opinions, with The Tombstone Examiner supporting the Earps and the townspeople, while the Nugget backed Behan and the ranchers. Much of the later reporting of the gunfight should be viewed in the light of these preferences.
In October 1880, the Town Marshall, Fred White was shot by William “Curly Bill” Brocious, a fellow rustler and friend of the local Clanton and McLaury families who owned local ranches and were thought to be responsible for much of the cattle rustling in the area. They were prone to heavy drinking and general trouble making and had threatened the Earps on a number of occasions. Wyatt Earp, acting as an unofficial deputy to his brother, arrested Curly Bill, along with Pony Diehl, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. During the arrest, Wyatt pistol whipped Curly Bill, beating him to the ground and starting the first real confrontation between the cowboys and the Earps. Virgil Earp took over as Town Marshall and appointed Wyatt and Morgan as special deputy policeman.
Further friction was caused when the Earps assisted the US Army in finding six mules that had been stolen. The mules were found on the McLaury ranch, together with branding irons to change the US brand to D8. The cowboys protested their innocence and undertook to return the mules, but showed up two days later without the mules and laughed at the lawmen.
In March 1881, a stagecoach, travelling from Tombstone to Benson was attacked and the driver, Eli Philpot, and passenger Peter Roerig were killed. The horses were spooked by the gunfire and ran on for a mile before they could be controlled, leaving the robbers with nothing. Jim Crane, William Leonard and Harry Head were identified as three of the robbers. A posse was organised, consisting of Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams, former Kansas sheriff Bat Masterson and Sheriff Behan and that same night, a fourth man, Luther King, was arrested on a nearby ranch and admitted his involvement. He was brought back to Tombstone, but, reportedly with the aid of Behan, broke out of jail and fled.
The Earps continued to pursue the other robbers for a further 17 days, but after travelling some 400 miles without food and little water, they were forced to abandon the chase. Behan submitted an expenses claim of $796.84 to the county for the posse, but refused to reimburse the Earps. They were later paid by Wells Fargo, but the incident caused further enmity between the factions.
On June 13th, Wyatt met Ike Clanton in the Eagle Brewery saloon and offered him $6000 in reward money to help him capture or kill those involved in the stage robbery. Earp guessed that Clanton would be aware of those involved in the robbery and hoped to bribe him to give them up. Clanton thought about it for a while, but turned Earp down, fearing his life would be in danger if the story ever got out.
Wyatt Earp had previously come into conflict with the Cochise County Sheriff John Behan over a woman, Josephine Sarah Marcus who had been living with Behan before becoming Earp's third wife. Earp also wanted Behan's job as sheriff and planned to stand against him in the next election. By coming down hard on the cowboys he reckoned to earn the votes of the townspeople.