"If you’ve grown up watching Westerns, you might think you know the whole story of the Wild West.
But a visit to Cochise County’s Tombstone, a real town where Wyatt Earp lived and worked, will show you there’s more to the story than the 30 seconds of bullet-flying action portrayed in the movies.
Get to know Tombstone and surrounding Cochise County, where the action of the Wild West lives on in the shoot ’em up, round ’em up and pony it up events of Southeastern Arizona.
Shoot ’Em Up: Cochise County Tough Guys
Every day actors and historians reenact the events of October 26, 1881, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday met the Clantons and McLaurys at the O.K. Corral.
It didn’t turn out so well for the Clantons or McLaurys, but the Earp and Holliday names are now etched in Western history. In many ways, however, the truth of that day is a mystery.
Movie depictions show a bright, sunny scene, but it actually snowed that day. The staff at the O.K. Corral can tell you more facts to help you understand the full story.
Visit Tombstone Courthouse State Historical Park for insight into what the town was like leading up to the event. You’ll soon see what has made Tombstone the “Town Too Tough to Die.”
Speaking of too tough, the name John Slaughter may not mean a lot to you, but dig a little in to history, and you’ll find a successful cattle rancher who became Cochise County sheriff in 1886.
Though diminutive in size, he was tough-as-nails. He cleaned up the county, meting swift justice to outlaws who dared break laws on his turf.
The museum at his ranch, which includes his house and restored structures, is dedicated to his story. East of Douglas, the ranch is a tranquil spot within the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge perfect for an afternoon picnic and a stroll through Slaughter’s homestead.
Pony Up: The Butterfield Overland Stage
Western expansion meant communication challenges. John Butterfield formed his Butterfield Overland Stage Company to negotiate treacherous Indian territories and get word from the East to the West.
Though it only ran for two years, the stage carried important news from relatives to the pioneers of the Western frontier.
The city of Benson remembers those days every October when it re-creates a Pony Express ride. The post office also creates an official Pony Express cancellation stamp so visitors can still send letters via Pony Express and have the cancellation stamp to prove it.
Another one of the Butterfield Stage stops, just east of Willcox near Fort Bowie, was the site of the Bascom Affair, an explosive incident involving the great leader, Cochise.
Falsely accused of kidnapping a child, Cochise was deceived by George Bascom, an inexperienced lieutenant. Bascom “invited” Cochise to talk inside his tent, which his fellow troops surrounded, waiting to pounce.
Cochise realized the trap and made a daring escape. This affair set the stage for a decade of Indian Wars in the West. You can learn more about these incidents at Fort Bowie National Historic Site.
The Indian Wars and other expansion of the West brought Buffalo Soldiers to the area, with Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista as their base. You can learn more about the all-black regiments who fought battles in Sierra Vista’s Fort Huachuca Historical Museum.
Note: Fort Huachuca is an active military installation. Visitor passes are available at the front gate for US citizens with a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of vehicle insurance (or rental agreement). All passengers 13 and older must also have photo IDs. International visitors are not permitted access unless they are sponsored and escorted by authorized personnel.
Round ’Em Up: Guest Ranches
If you’re a hands-on person with a yen to experience the West for yourself, saddle up for a horseback-riding adventure at one of Cochise County’s guest ranches.
Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Price Canyon Ranch and the new Apache Spirit Ranch offer horseback riding for their overnight guests. All three ranches give even the most “citified” rider lessons to make horseback riding an adventure you won’t soon forget.
Grapevine Canyon will even give return guests the opportunity to help in one of their cattle round-ups. Enjoy excursions, ranch life and trail rides within the county’s basin-and-range landscape.
Ghost Towns, Mining Tours & Military History
As the US expanded, towns sprang up, responding to the mining boom that brought so many prospectors to the West. Today, many of those towns are mere shells, with only foundations and adobe walls as evidence of their existence.
Two ghost towns that will give you a sense as to how populated the Western landscape was in those hardscrabble days are Fairbank and Gleeson.
Fairbank was built along the San Pedro River as a transportation hub and supplies depot close to Tombstone.
Its schoolhouse has been restored as a visitor center and bookstore. From fall through spring they hold monthly weekend events called “Fairbank Days” that feature hikes, reenactment of the Fairbank Train Robbery and other activities.
The owners of Gleeson’s restored jailhouse hold monthly open-house events for visitors. You can imagine life in the once-bustling communities that ebbed when the mines in Tombstone flooded.
You can request a free vacation guide to help you explore all the history and adventure possible in the towns of Bisbee, Benson, Douglas, Sierra Vista, Tombstone and Willcox.
Start your visit to Cochise County’s Wild West at our website, www.explorecochise.com.
(Brought to you by the Cochise County Tourism Council.)