After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881, and Morgan Earp’s murder on March 18, 1882, in a Tombstone, Arizona pool hall, Wyatt and Warren Earp, along with Doc Holliday, “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMasters escorted the Earp family out of Tombstone to Tucson, Arizona on March 20th.
There, Wyatt spied Frank Stillwell, who he suspected of having been involved in the killing of Morgan and had heard was now seeking revenge on Virgil Earp. The next morning a very dead, bullet-ridden Frank Stillwell was found on the tracks next to the depot. This was the first death in what would become known as the Earp Vendetta Ride.
Wyatt would later tell his biographers that he had spied Frank Stillwell and Ike Clanton lying prone on a flatcar with shotguns and that he had killed Stillwell but that Ike had escaped.
The Earp group quickly returned to Tombstone but by March 21st, a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Wyatt Earp, Warren Earp, Doc Holiday, “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson, and Sherman McMasters as suspects in the murder of Stillwell.
Pima County justice of the peace, Charles Meyer sent a telegram to Johnny Behan indicating that the men should be arrested. However, the manager of the telegraph office was a friend of the Earps and showed the message to Wyatt before delivering it to Behan. He agreed to hold on to it for a little while, allowing the Earp group some time to get out of Tombstone. However, just as they were leaving, Behan approached Wyatt, saying that he wanted to see him. To this, Wyatt replied, “Johnny if you’re not careful you’ll see me once too often” and the group left. Later, it would be said that Earp’s group had resisted arrest and pulled their guns on Behan.
For the next three weeks, Wyatt and Warren Earp, along with several of their friends, namely Doc Holiday, Sherman McMasters, “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson, and “Texas Jack” Vermillion would form a “posse” and go after those they felt responsible for Morgan’s death, as well as others that supported the Clanton faction. More men were also thought to have supported the Earps in their revenge including Dan Tipton. Charlie Smith, Fred Dodge, Johnny Green, and Lou Cooley.
Sometimes called the Arizona War or Cochise County War, Earp had been deputized as a U.S. Deputy Marshal and led his force under federal jurisdiction with a warrant for William “Curly Bill” Brocious. This, however; did not stop Earps “posse” from being pursued by a Cochise County sheriff’s posse consisting of Sheriff Johnny Behan, deputies Fin Clanton and Johnny Ringo, along with some 20 other Clanton “Cowboys”, in an effort to arrest the Earps for the killing of Frank Stillwell. The Behan posse deliberately failed to include Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul, who actually had jurisdiction for the Tucson killing of Stillwell. Behan’s group, though much larger, never caught up with the Earp faction.
The first man to be killed by the Earp faction was Florentino Cruz, also known as Indian Charlie. Cruz, along with Pete Spence, Frank Stillwell, Curly Bill, and others, had been prime suspects in Morgan’s killing. Pete Spence had earlier turned himself in so that he could be protected in Behan’s jail, but the Earp faction was unaware of this. On March 22nd, the Earps rode into Pete Spence’s ranch at South Pass in the Dragoon Mountains, looking for Spence. There, they found instead, “Indian Charlie,” who, according to a later account by Wyatt, confessed to acting as a lookout while the others killed Morgan. Wyatt shot him.
Two days later, the Earp faction caught up with several of the “cowboys” at Iron Springs, Arizona. Led by Curly Bill Brocius, others of the “cowboy” faction included Pony Deal, Johnny Barnes, Frank Patterson, Milt Hicks, Bill Hicks, Bill Johnson, Ed Lyle, Johnny Lyle, and by some accounts, “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh. Inevitably, a shoot-out ensued, but the Earps were heavily outnumbered and began to retreat. However, before they did so, Wyatt allegedly killed both Curly Bill and Johnny Barnes. Though some said that Curly Bill survived, he was never seen again. This account is often questioned as accurate as it came from Wyatt Earp himself, who was known to exaggerate his exploits.
In the meantime, the trial for Morgan Earp’s murder was beginning back in Tombstone, but Pete Spence was soon released, without anyone to testify against him. Spence would later serve time in prison on a charge of murder. After his release, he married Fin Clanton’s widow in 1910. Four years later he died and was buried in Globe, Arizona, in the plot next to Fin.
By the middle of April 1882, the Earp posse had been riding for nearly three weeks when they rested at Henry Hooker’s Sierra Bonita Ranch in the shadow of the Graham Mountains. Behan’s posse found out their location, but the rest of his posse abandoned him. Afterward, the Earp faction drove Ike Clanton, Pony Deal, Hank Swilling, and others out of the territory.
Knowing that they could not get a fair trial in Tucson for killing Stillwell, the Earp posse finally gave up and headed to Colorado around April 15th.
Though the “ride” appeared to be over, Johnny Ringo was found dead on July 18th, 1882, some say at the hands of Wyatt and Doc Holliday who had returned to kill him. Other “cowboys” also began to die, including Billy Grounds, who was killed by Billy Breakenridge and Billy William “Billy the Kid” Claiborne by “Buckskin Frank” Leslie.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.
Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman of the American West
John Henry “Doc” Holliday – Deadly Doctor of the Frontier