The Earp Vendetta Ride, lasting from March 20 to April 15, 1882, was a manhunt for outlaw Cowboys led by newly appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp. He was searching for men he held responsible for maiming his brother Virgil, the Tombstone Marshal and Deputy U.S. Marshal, and assassinating his brother Morgan, an assistant U.S. Marshal. The Earps had been attacked in retaliation for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881, in which the Earps and Doc Holliday killed three Cowboys. Wyatt formed a federal posse that searched southeast Cochise County, Arizona Territory for suspects in both Virgil's and Morgan's attacks who went free owing to legal technicalities or on the strength of alibis provided by Cowboy confederates. Wyatt Earp, deciding he could not rely on civil justice, took matters into his own hands to hunt the men down and kill them.
The event that triggered the long ride, during which the Earp posse did not return to Tombstone, and after which they ultimately left the Territory forever, was the shooting death of Frank Stilwell in Tucson on March 20. Wyatt, his brother Warren, Doc Holliday, and two other deputies had been escorting Virgil and his wife Allie to a California-bound train in Tucson, when Wyatt spotted Frank Stilwell lying in wait near the station. He and several men chased Stilwell down and killed him. The Tucson Justice of the Peace issued warrants for the arrest of the five men suspected of shooting Stilwell. The next day, Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan attempted to detain the Earps' federal posse in Tombstone, but they brushed him aside and rode out of town to find the other Cowboys implicated in the attacks.
At the same time deputy federal marshal Wyatt Earp was riding in a federal posse, Behan formed an opposing Cochise County sheriff's posse consisting of deputies Phineas Clanton, Johnny Ringo, and about twenty other Arizona ranchers and outlaws, with the purpose of serving the Stilwell murder arrest warrants against five members of the federal posse. Behan deliberately failed to include Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul, who had jurisdiction over the Tucson killing of Frank Stilwell, as he was a friend of the Earps. The Behan posse never engaged the much smaller Earp posse, which not only received help from local businessmen and ranchers, but at one point during the pursuit even wrote a letter to a Tombstone newspaper taunting Behan and his men.
Carrying arrest warrants for "Curly Bill" Brocius and others, the federal posse ultimately killed four men, beginning with the shooting of Stilwell and ending with the killing of Brocius. The ride ended April 15 when the Earps and their associates rode out of Arizona Territory and headed for New Mexico Territory.
At about 11:30 pm on December 28, 1881, just over two months after the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, three men ambushed Virgil Earp as he walked from Schieffelin Hall back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where the Earps had moved for mutual support and protection. He was hit in the upper left arm and back by about 20 buckshot pellets, shattering his humerus, forcing Dr. George Emory Goodfellow to remove 5.5 inches (140 mm) of bone. Wyatt, believing that Virgil was dying, telegraphed U.S. Marshal Crawley P. Dake:
Tombstone, Arizona Territory, December 29, 1881—
Virgil Earp was shot by concealed assassins last night. His wounds are fatal. Telegraph me appointment with power to appoint deputies. Local authorities are doing nothing. The lives of other citizens are threatened.