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Tombstone, Arizona: The Real Story Behind The Legendary Wild West Town

Tombstone in 2018 via Wikipedia: Gillfoto

There are a few historic towns that might come to mind when thinking about the Wild West like Deadwood, South Dakota, or Dodge City, Kansas. But few places have as legendary history as the city of Tombstone, Arizona. The old mining town is famous for being the location of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and numerous Old West legends called its streets home over the years, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

These days, Tombstone has become a popular tourist attraction largely thanks to its Wild West gunfight reenactments and the fact that it has become immortalized over the years in popular western films and TV shows.

Read More: The Ultimate Old West Road Trip: From Tombstone to Deadwood

The Founding of Tombstone

tombstone arizona
Tombstone in 1881 via Wikipedia: C. S. Fly

In 1877, a prospector named Ed Schieffelin founded Tombstone, one of the very last boomtowns during the days of America's gold rush. Schieffelin was, at one point, a U.S. Army scout stationed at Camp Huachuca, but began searching the surrounding areas of Arizona for silver ore to make his fortune. Apparently, a fellow army scout told him "The only rock you will find out there will be your own tombstone." Another version of the story quotes him as saying "Better take your coffin with you, Ed; you will only find your tombstone there, and nothing else." Whichever way it actually went, it's safe to say we know where the town's name came from.

Schieffelin indeed found silver and the town was later founded and named based on his claim. It ended up being one of the biggest silver producers in the entire territory, bringing in millions. Prospectors came from all over to make their money in the Tombstone silver mines.

The Cowboys move in

But the southwest town attracted more than just prospectors interested in silver mining. Due to its close proximity to the Mexico border, just a few years after its founding, Tombstone was full of smuggling cattle, tobacco, and alcohol. The outlaws who brought in stolen goods from Mexico began calling themselves "cowboys" and despite their illegal activity, were actually welcome in Cochise County because of their frivolous spending habits. Unfortunately, as a result, shootouts were pretty common so it wasn't necessarily the safest place to call home.

The famous O.K. Corral shootout

tombstone arizona
Tombstone on May 25, 1882 via Wikipedia

Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Morgan and Virgil Earp, soon moved to town after years of working as lawmen in other notable Wild West towns. Virgil began working as the Deputy U.S. Marshal and made his two brothers temporary deputies. In March of 1881, the Earp brothers set off a chain of events after pursuing a group of cowboys who had murdered two people while attempting to rob a stagecoach filled with thousands of dollars of silver bullion. Months later, their pursuit resulted in a shootout where Doc Holliday famously shot and killed outlaws Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton. All three are buried in the town's infamous Boothill Graveyard, which earned its name due to the fact that the majority of people there were buried with their boots on.

Tombstone Today

Years of famous gunfighters and legendary brawls made Tombstone well known among fans of the Wild West which the town still capitalizes on today. Not to mention it saved the declining Tombstone from becoming a ghost town. It's about an hour's drive outside of Tucson making it an ideal day trip for locals as well as tourists looking for some fun activities in southern Arizona. There are numerous gunfight reenactments held all over town at The Saloon Theatre, Old Tombstone Western Theme Park, and The O. K. Corral. The Gunfight Palace even gives you an inside look at what these old shootouts were really like. For example, did you know most shootouts were actually inside the saloons not out on the streets as depicted in the movies?

The Gunfighter Hall of Fame is full of interesting relics including Kurt Russell's gun from the film Tombstone as well as guns from real-life lawmen like Wyatt Earp himself. The Bird Cage Theatre on Allen Street has been perfectly preserved over the years, even showcasing the same poker table that was used for the longest-running game in all of the Arizona territory.

You're also able to visit the Boothill Graveyard as well as The Audie Murphy & Medal of Honor Museum which honors western actor and WWII veteran Audie L. Murphy.

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Tombstone, Arizona: The Real Story Behind The Legendary Wild West Town