The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West (2011) by Jeff Guinn
Thanks to tv, radio, and film, many Americans born after 1950 have a specific image of the "Wild West" as a lawless, violent place, where "good cowboys" and "bad cowboys" had shoot-outs on Main Street every other day. Even opera has perpetuated this myth- see Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West.
Because of Jeff Guinn and other historians of frontier America, though, we can learn what the West was actually like: filled with optimists who poured out of the overcrowded East and were interested in building up towns around gold and silver strikes. Contrary to the myths, violence (especially gun violence) was relatively rare and actively dissuaded. In places like Tombstone (Arizona Territory), for instance, men weren't allowed to carry concealed weapons, and even had to check their guns in saloons and other establishments like we check our coats today. After all, bloody shoot-outs and violence scared would-be investors away from burgeoning frontier towns, and when the gold and silver discoveries ended, the towns needed some kind of economic stability.
What makes this book so fascinating, then, is Guinn's exploration of the famous shoot-out near the O. K. Corral on October 26, 1881 between (on one side) lawmen Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and the dentist Doc Holliday, (and on the other side) cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury. Far from being an ordinary occurrence, shoot-outs like this were discussed throughout the territory, and even picked up by newspapers around the nation.
Guinn takes us through all the events that led up to the showdown, including the efforts of the Earp brothers to secure prestigious and remunerative positions in each town they moved to, and the vexed relationship between cowboys (synonymous back then with "outlaws") and lawmen. The argument that led to the showdown between the cowboys and the Earps built up over several months, emerging out of political ambitions, secret agreements, betrayals, and pride. Guinn provides a thorough overview of social and economic conditions in this southwestern territory near the end of the 19th century, but also describes the shoot-out in such detail that you can picture each man's movements.
And like all feuds, the confrontation between the Earps and the cowboys went beyond that day in 1881, snowballing into multiple attempts at retribution on both sides for the deaths of Billy Clanton, the McLaury brothers, and later, Morgan Earp.
Concluding with a discussion of Wyatt's later (failed) attempts to publish his life story and the growing entertainment industry's shaping of the Wild West narrative, Guinn encourages us to rethink our assumptions about this particular time and place in American history and how the myths of Wyatt Earp, cowboys, and Tombstone have shaped how we think of our nation today.