By the time legendary frontier lawman Wyatt Earp, then 31, showed up in the mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1879, he had moved at least 12 times and lived in at least nine different states and territories. We can’t be sure of the exact number because he was much prone in later life to obfuscation, especially about the horse theft allegation and his stints as a brothel bouncer. But it is clear that he was a restless soul, a trait he shared with his father and brothers.
As author Jeff Guinn shows convincingly in The Last Gunfight, a new approach to the O.K. Corral shootout saga, the Earps were a perennially frustrated family, always disappointed in their status, and always scanning the horizon for the next chance at a big score. And in that, he argues, they were emblematic of an important factor in the settlement of the West: the never-ending search for a quick buck.
For much of the 20th century, the story of the lethal encounter in Tombstone—three killed immediately, and at least three more slain in subsequent revenge killings—was told simplistically and inaccurately: brave lawmen confronting a gang of evil outlaws. But historians in recent decades have exploded that myth, and Guinn now takes the research a step further, to explain the wider socioeconomic context and the specific missteps that led to the showdown between somewhat-shady cops and somewhat-shady ranchers.
Wyatt Earp himself had no particular interest in law enforcement, only in the tax collection commissions that came with a county sheriff’s job. The Earps were trying to impress the town’s Republican business establishment. The ranchers they killed were certainly allied with rustlers, but also with Southern Democratic rural interests that saw the likes of the Earps as big-government thugs. The bloodshed was the result of deep mistrust and misread intentions, fueled by alcohol and machismo.
Guinn lays it all out beautifully: the Western settlement engine shifting from farming to hunting to mining; the quick rise and fall of Tombstone’s silver industry; the cattle rustling that no one cared about because the victims were Mexicans; the political machinations that the Earps completely misunderstood. Decades later, Wyatt, living in “genteel poverty” in Los Angeles, puffed up the heroic version in a totally characteristic last attempt to cash in. Guinn’s dissection is notably more enthralling.