Back to the O.K. Corral

From time to time during the long settlement wars of the American West, an event would occur which somehow took on a resonance in popular culture that far exceeded its actual historical effect. The defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 26, 1876) is, arguably, a case in point. The shock to the national psyche was undoubtedly great because the Indians won—and they weren’t supposed to. The plains Indians who wiped out Custer demonstrated clearly one last time that they were a people not to be trifled with; and yet they were immediately trifled with, through treaties and removals, as the fighting decades ended and the chiseling decades continued. The Little Bighorn, or the Greasy Grass, as the Indian called it in Thomas Berger’s brilliant novel Little Big Man (1964), was a twilight victory. The body count—about 250 men of the 7th Cavalry and perhaps a little more than half that many Indians—was tiny compared to the fields of the dead after Gettysburg, or Shiloh, or any of the major battles of the Civil War ended just a decade before.

Not everyone took notice when, only a week after the Little Bighorn, the dandified gambler James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok was assassinated in Deadwood, South Dakota, while playing cards. Hickok still shows up here and there in western narrative, but the Little Bighorn is one of the most-written-about battles in world history. Young and reckless, Custer made a very suitable American knight-errant. Alive, he was a problem for everyone, including the wise scouts who pleaded with him not to take his men over that ridge and into that fatal valley. He took them, they died; he alone became an Immortal.

What had occurred at the little creek in Montana was a profound clash of cultures. Custer, perhaps the most aggressive West Pointer of his generation, attacked several of his Native American peers: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Gall, and their thousands of allies. He lost, but the battle at least had great color, great spectacle, and the death of the young knight-errant assured the conflict of mythic treatment.

Militarily, though, its only effect on policy was to make the few commanders still in the field (Crook, Miles, Terry, Mackenzie) a good deal more wary during the few months of skirmishing that remained.

Turn from that much-studied battle to a tiny dispute in the young silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on the afternoon of October 26, 1881. The dispute, at its fiercest moment, involved only eight men. The brothers Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, and the dentist-turned-gunslinger Doc Holliday, were ranged, ostensibly, on the side of the law, while Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury represented, for the sake of argument at least, the bad guys. (A young man named Billy the Kid Claiborne—not to be confused with the real Billy the Kid, who had been killed three months earlier in New Mexico—was …

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Letters

The Death of Wild Bill Hickok April 28, 2005