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The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys

Killed in the Gunfight at OK Corral, October 25, 1881.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, on view at the Ritter and Ream Funeral Parlor.

The Cowboys numbered up to 300 members. They were rustlers and outlaws around Tombstone, Arizona. The local mining companies wanted The Cowboys out of town as they thought them -.bad for business'. The Clanton gang had "treed" the town. Firing their weapons recklessly in any and all directions, the gunmen who led the violence were Curly Bill, Tom and Frank McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank Patterson, and Pony Deal.

Billy the Kid Claiborne should not be confused with Billy the Kid of Lincoln County fame. William F. Claiborne drifted into Arizona as a teenager, arriving in Tombstone at the beginning of the mining boom. He hooked on as a ranch hand with John Slaughter's outfit, and because he was so tiny of stature, he was nicknamed "the Kid" by the crew. He later began working as a driver for a mining company and, it was rumored, became linked with the Clanton-McLaury gang. He was involved in a couple of gunfights, and he was killed by Buckskin Frank Leslie in 1882.

Joseph Isaac Clanton, Ike's father, N. H. Clanton, took his family from California to a cattle ranch near Fort Thomas, Arizona. He sold out in 1877 and moved one hundred miles south to another spread near Tombstone. For a time Ike and his brother Phineas ran a freight line, but mainly they were involved in "Old Man" Clanton's ranching, rustling, and stage robbing activities.

When the old man died, Ike took over the "ring" at the height of a growing feud with the Earp brothers. (Rumor and Ike's testimony after the O.K. Corral gunfight implicated the Earp brothers in various shady dealings.) On October 25 Ike and Tom McLaury drove into Tombstone to buy supplies. That night, while eating in a saloon, Ike was approached by Doc Holliday, who was backed by Virgil, Warren, and Wyatt Earp. Holliday cursed Clanton and challenged him to a fight, but Ike left the premises, pointing out that he was unarmed. Later, after a poker game with four other men, including City Marshal Virgil Earp, Ike was cursed again and pistol whipped by the lawman.

After the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Ike was probably instrumental in the retribution ambushes of Virgil and Morgan Earp. Ike continued his illegal activities until he was killed by a deputy sheriff in 1887.

William Clanton, N. H. ("Old Man") Clanton had been attracted to California by the gold rush, but eventually he led his family into Arizona. Assisted by his three sons, of whom Billy was the youngest, he operated a ranch one hundred miles north of Tombstone which he sold in 1877. He then located another ranch in the Tombstone area and was closely aided by Billy, whose older brothers, Ike and Phineas, operated a freight line.

Along with two other local ranchers, the McLaury brothers, the Clantons began raiding cattle herds in Mexico and selling them to Arizona ranchers. This lucrative racket attracted such outlaws as Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Buckskin Frank Leslie, Bill Leonard, Jim Crane, Harry the Kid, Billy Claiborne, and Frank Stilwell, who each dabbled in other forms of robbery and became involved in shooting scrapes from time to time.

The Clanton faction eventually came in conflict with the Earp brothers, who held various law enforcement offices in and around Tombstone and who were accused by their detractors of being just as guilty of rustling and stage robbery as the Clantons. The Earp-Clanton feud erupted violently at the O.K. Corral, and there Billy Clanton, through his death, attained his one claim to fame.

A native of Iowa, Frank McLaury and his brother Tom came to Arizona in the late 1870's. They acquired two ranches in southern Arizona and became connected with the Clanton cattle rustling ring. Rumor suggested that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were associated with the Clanton-McLaury faction, but that trouble erupted between the groups over a gambling quarrel or over heated words between Doc Holliday and Frank McLaury about the quality of food in Nellie Cashman's Russ House. Mrs. Virgil Earp even hinted that the origins of the feud could be traced to a midnight rendezvous between Hattie Earp, James Earp's sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, and one of the McLaury brothers.

Whatever the cause, the growing dispute came to a head on October 25, 1881, when Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton drove a wagon into Tombstone to pick up supplies. That night and the next morning the Earp brothers and Holliday cursed and bullied the pair, continually taunting them to fight. Before noon Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury rode into town, and a short time later Frank emerged from a store to see Wyatt Earp pulling his horse by the bit. "Take your hands off my horse!" snapped McLaury. "Keep him off the sidewalk," demanded Earp piously, pulling the animal into the street. "It's against the city ordinance." McLaury, cursing under his breath, rode to the O.K. Corral and tied his horse.

After making several trips to nearby stores, Frank was approached by Sheriff John Behan, who was attempting to head off trouble by trying to disarm everyone. McLaury refused to surrender his six-gun, saying that he intended to cause no trouble. Behan walked along with Frank to the O.K. Corral, still trying to persuade him to turn over his weapon. Behan then asked the entire Clanton party to give up their guns, but Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury protested that they were unarmed, and Frank vehemently declined again. Then the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday appeared, and Behan fruitlessly tried to intervene between the two groups. Both McLaury brothers, along with Billy Clanton, were killed in the gunfight that followed.

Thomas McLaury and his older brother Frank drifted into southern Arizona in the late 1870's and began to build up a ranching enterprise. While Tom improved their spread near Tombstone, Frank hired out to neighboring ranchers to raise money, and in so doing was introduced to the Clanton family.

The Clantons and the McLaurys soon were engaged in widespread rustling activities, and eventually they came into conflict with a faction led by the Earp brothers of Tombstone. The McLaury brothers testified against a key member of the Earp group, Doc Holliday, in connection with a stage robbery in March, 1881, in which two men were killed. Although the tubercular dentist was acquitted, the McLaurys had thus earned the vengeful resentment of the Earps in general and Holliday in particular.

On October 25, 1881, Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton went into Tombstone to buy supplies. That night Clanton was roughed up by Holliday and the Earps, and the next morning Wyatt Earp approached Tom on the street, and harsh words were exchanged. Wyatt drew his foot-long Buntline Special and challenged Tom to fight. Tom refused, and Wyatt slapped him with his left hand, then clubbed him on the head with his gun, knocking him down.

Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton rode into town to help their brothers, but Tom decided he wanted no further run-ins, and early that afternoon he turned over his revolver and gun belt to Andy Mehan, a local saloon keeper. About an hour later the Clantons and McLaurys were asked by Sheriff John Behan to surrender their guns, and Tom pointed out that he was unarmed. Then the Earps and Doc Holliday approached.

Jim Crane was connected with the notorious Clanton-McLaury "ring" in southern Arizona. He engaged in cattle rustling and in 1881 was involved in an abortive attempt to rob a stagecoach, during which he allegedly killed the driver. Crane and two accomplices, Harry Head and Bill Leonard, remained at large until Head and Leonard were killed while trying to hold up a store. In revenge Crane engineered the deaths of the owners of the store, but was himself hunted down and killed a short time later.

Florentino Cruz was a halfblood who was involved with cattle rustlers and stage robbers in the Tombstone area. He was associated with Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, Pete Spence, Frank Stilwell, and other archenemies of the Earp brothers. Cruz was one of five men who killed Morgan Earp, and he subsequently was chased down and shot to death by the Earp faction.

William Graham was a cowhand in Texas who drifted into New Mexico, where he derived a colorful nickname from a cantina singer. He helped drive a herd of New Mexico cattle into Arizona, and there he assumed an inflated reputation as a gunslinger. He was one of the leaders of the Clanton cattle rustling gang, and in Tombstone he frequently went with his men on sprees during which he would "buffalo" the town - take over a saloon as headquarters and ride up and down the streets firing revolvers. On one such occasion he accidentally killed the first marshal of Tombstone.

A few months later a similar attempt to take over Galeyville, Arizona, resulted in the serious wounding of Curly Bill Brocius. As soon as he recovered, he left Arizona for good, although Wyatt Earp continued to scour the countryside for him. Curly Bill had supposedly vowed revenge upon the Earps for killing his cattle rustling cohorts at the O.K. Corral (even though Bill left Arizona well before the famous Earp-Clanton gunfight). Wyatt Earp later claimed to have killed Curly Bill in a gun duel, but Bill actually lived a quiet existence for years after leaving the Tombstone vicinity. He learned about his "death" at Earp's hand a decade later when he was passing through Arizona on the way to Texas.

Harry Head ("Harry the Kid") was a cattle thief in southern Arizona and was associated with Ike Clanton's nefarious operations. In March, 1881, Head, Bill Leonard, and two other men were engaged in a bloody attempt to rob a stagecoach. Three months later Head and Leonard were killed while trying to hold up a store in New Mexico.

Bill Leonard was a jeweler who in the late 1870's practiced his trade in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Drifting into Arizona, he became associated with cattle thieves, including N. H. ("Old Man") Clanton. In March, 1881, Leonard was involved in a bloody attempt to hold up a stagecoach near Tombstone, Arizona. He was wounded, but remained at large for three months until he was killed while attempting to rob a store in Eureka, New Mexico.

The younger brother of noted lawyer and former army scout S. E. ("Comanche Jack") Stilwell, Frank C. Stilwell came to Arizona in 1878 and worked as a miner and teamster at Signal Camp in Mohave County. Soon he was attracted to booming Tombstone, where he became an associate of N. H. Clanton and his ring of southern Arizona cattle rustlers.

Stilwell managed to secure an appointment as deputy sheriff of Cochise County, of which Tombstone was the county seat. He operated out of the copper mining town of Bisbee, south of Tombstone, but seemed more interested in his business activities with a Tombstone resident named Pete Spence: a Bisbee livery stable and a stage robbing partnership.

After the Tombstone-Bisbee stagecoach was looted of three thousand dollars by two bandits, Spence and Stilwell were arrested. They were acquitted, but soon were arrested again by Wyatt Earp, who was hoping to impress the electorate sufficiently to be elected county sheriff. The pair once more were released, but they nursed a grudge which they paid off after the O.K. Corral fight. An embittered Ike Clanton apparently engaged them to wreak vengeance upon the Earps, and after Virgil and Morgan Earp were ambushed, the surviving brothers knew where to look. While still a deputy sheriff, the twenty-sevenyear-old Stilwell was gunned down by Wyatt Earp and four other men.

John O'Rourke ("Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce") was a young gambler who, according to legend, was saved from lynching by Wyatt Earp. That incident was blown out of proportion, and the rest of his story is somewhat hazy. Earp, always a questionable source, repeated the rumor that O'Rourke was responsible for the death of Johnny Ringo in July, 1882, and that a friend of Ringo's called Pony Deal quickly chased the gambler and killed him in revenge.

Curly Bill and his outlaw cronies had two favorite hangouts - Galeyville on the eastern slopes of the Chiricahua Mountains, and Charleston on the San Pedro River. Charleston, a mill town, had about 800 residents and the only law was "Justice Jim" Burnett. This worthy normally ran his office strictly for personal profit and seldom concerned himself with the Cowboys.

One Sunday, Reverend John Addison came down from Tombstone to hold services in Charleston. Ike Clanton, Curly Bill, and a few others of their ilk decided they were in dire need of some religion and showed up at the service. The moment those gun-slung desperadoes appeared most of the congregation decided that they had urgent business elsewhere. Bravely, the sky-pilot continued his sermon, omitting no detail of the awesome punishment reserved in Hell for thieves and murderers. At the end, Curly Bill brandished his weapon and demanded a hymn. The serenade was well appreciated by the gunmen and they kept him singing for over an hour. Then, those same badmen filled the collection plate to overflowing with money and solemnly and quietly departed. Reverend Addison never returned to Charleston again.

Galeyville, the other outlaw hangout, had begun as a silver camp up in Turkey Creek Canyon. The silver did not last. It became a ghost town by the end of 1882, inhabited, for the most part, by outlaws.

Curly Bill learned from an informant below the border that a pack mule train of silver smugglers would be starting up from Mexico in July, 1881. The vaqueros would be moving through Skeleton Canyon, winding through the wild and desolate Peloncillo Mountains. They would come through San Luis Pass into the Animas range, across the Animas valley to San Simon, to the San Pedro, and over into the Santa Cruz Valley. In Tucson the smugglers would exchange their -.dobe dollars for contraband merchandise to take back to Mexico. "Skeleton Canyon" was so called because of the many men and animals who had been killed there, and their bones left to bleach in the sun.

Smugglers led a line of small Andalusian mules through the canyon, never thinking that death lay in wait. Without warning, hidden rifles spouted flame and death from the rocks. The Mexicans had no chance. Heavily loaded though they were, the tiny mules stampeded. The killers raced after them and shot them down. Nine dead Mexicans were left lying at the so-called "Devil's Kitchen" area of Skeleton Canyon. The ambushers gathered at Cave Creek and divided $4,000 in Mexican silver. Most of it was spent on women and whiskey in a saloons of Galeyville and Charleston. John Ringo and Joe Hill won the rest playing poker.

The Mexican government lodged a formal protest to the United States concerning the nine dead Mexican citizens and the theft of goods and money, but no action was taken. John Ringo said he was present at the ambush along with the Clantons; "Old Man", Ike and Billy; Frank and Tom McLaury, Jim Hughes; Rattlesnake Bill; Joe Hill; Charlie Snow; Jake Guage; and Charlie Thomas.

Joseph Isaac (Ike) Clanton was born in Callaway County, Missouri. He is best known for being a member of group of outlaw Cowboys that had ongoing conflicts with lawmen Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp. The Clantons repeatedly threatened the Earps because they interfered with the Cowboys' illegal activities.

Ike Clanton was one of seven children born to Old Man Clanton, (1816-.1881) and his wife Maria Sexton (Kelso) Clanton. His father worked at times as a day laborer, a gold miner, a farmer, and by the late 1870s, a cattleman in Arizona Territory.

Clanton's mother died in 1866. Ike stayed with the family when they moved to Tombstone, Arizona Territory, about 1877 (before Tombstone became a town or even a mining center). At that time, Newman Clanton was living with his sons Phineas ("Fin"), Ike, and Billy.

By 1878 Ike was running a small "lunch counter" at the Tombstone Mill site (now Millville on the San Pedro River-not in modern Tombstone). By 1881, however, he was working on his father's ranch at Lewis Springs, about 12 miles west of Tombstone and 5 miles from Charleston.

The Clantons and their ranch hands and associates were known as the "Cowboys", and they had a reputation for reckless behavior. They were accused of cattle rustling from across the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as other acts of banditry and murder.

Ike Clanton's notoriety is based largely on his conflict with the Earp brothers, especially Wyatt Earp and Wyatt's friend Doc Holliday. The Earps and the Clantons had political, personal, and legal differences and the animosity between them grew throughout 1881. Ike Clanton repeatedly boasting in public, drinking heavily, and having a quick temper. He was well known for talking too much.

In November 1879, shortly after arriving in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp had a horse stolen. More than a year later, probably sometime in December 1880, Wyatt was told the horse was being used near Charleston, and Wyatt and Holliday were forced to ride to the Clanton's ranch near Charleston to await ownership papers in order to legally recover it. According to Wyatt's testimony later, 18 year-old Billy Clanton asked him insolently if he had any more horses to "lose," but he gave the horse up without first being shown the ownership papers, demonstrating to Wyatt that Billy knew to whom the horse belonged. Sheriff Johnny Behan later testified that the incident had angered Ike Clanton. It also angered Wyatt Earp.

In October 1880, outlaw and gunman "Curly Bill" Brocius and a member of the Cowboys, was arrested for the murder of Tombstone marshall Fred White. Wyatt Earp had arrested him, further fueling hostilities between the Clanton and Earp factions. Later, when Brocius was found not guilty, the tensions intensified.

In March 1881, a bungled stagecoach robbery near Benson, Arizona, that resulted in the killing of two men on the stage divided the two factions, with the Earps believing the Cowboys were involved, but with Ike Clanton later publicly claiming Doc Holliday was one of the robbers and that Holliday had fired the shot that killed the stage driver. Wyatt testified that both Frank McLaury and Ike Clanton had agreed to provide information on the capture of the three supposed robbers, named Leonard, Head, and Crane. Later, after the last of these men had died in separate incidents, Wyatt claimed that word of this secret deal began leaking out. Ike Clanton, in contrast, claimed that word of Doc Holliday's involvement, as well as the rest of the Earps' involvement in the robbery, was what was beginning to leak out.

In the summer of 1881, Clanton got into an argument with gambler "Denny" McCann. On the morning of June 9, 1881, they were drinking in an Allen street saloon when Clanton insulted McCann. McCann slapped Clanton, who left and fetched his pistol. McCann did the same and the two met on the street in front of the Wells, Fargo's and Co. office. They drew their weapons when acting Tombstone Marshal Virgil Earp stepped between them, preventing a shooting.

In July 1881, "Curly Bill" Brocius and gunfighter Johnny Ringo were said to have gone to Hachita, New Mexico to kill two brothers, William and Isaac Haslett, in revenge for the deaths of Clanton Cowboy members Bill Leonard and Harry Head, who had attempted to rob the Haslett brothers' general store weeks earlier. Later, also in July, Brocius led an ambush attacking a Mexican trail herd in the San Luis Pass, killing six vaqueros and torturing the remaining eight men. All of these combined events fueled the reputation of the Cowboy gang and added to the tensions around the town of Tombstone.

"Old Man" Clanton was the leader of the group since their base of operation was on his ranch, but he was killed in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre in August 1881, probably by Mexicans in retaliation for an earlier ambush committed by rustlers associated with the Clantons.

The Cowboys faction was not a close knit group, and their acts of violence, rustling or robbery were not usually committed as an organized plan. Old Man Clanton was never the leader but operated his ranch and allowed the outlaw Cowboys to live and work there. Although history has often portrayed the Cowboys as being ruthless and the town of Tombstone living in fear of them, this was not the case. In fact, with the exception of Ike Clanton who was widely disliked because of his big mouth, most of the Cowboys were seen as harmless or merely a minor nuisance.

They also, generally, got along quite well with the town marshal, Fred White, who was respected and well liked by most of the Cowboys, despite later film portrayals, and much to this credit, they rarely committed crimes inside the town limits, and usually when White was forced to arrest Cowboys he had the support of other members of the gang in doing so, to include Brocius, who liked White.

Newman Haynes "Old Man" Clanton was the patriarch of what we'd call today an organized crime family, who settled in Arizona. Old Man Clanton owned a ranch some 30 miles north of the Mexican border, where he established a pattern of raiding ranches in Mexico and stealing cattle in large volume. Some of these rustling episodes reportedly involved mass murder, in which some historians believe Ike took part. The Old Man surrounded himself with a loose group of between one and two hundred full- and part-time criminals who called themselves The Cow-Boys (the spelling of the day), and who sometimes wore red sashes to flaunt their identity.

Their turf encompassed the boomtown of Tombstone in Cochise County, at a time when Virgil Earp was chief of police there. The Clantons had established a close working relationship with the county sheriff, Johnny Behan. Ike, by all accounts, had trouble holding both his liquor and his tongue.

By 1887, gunfire and the legal system was taking its toll on the "dwindling Clanton gang." Phineas, the oldest Clanton brother, and Ike moved north to Apache County not long after the "Tombstone Troubles," and Ike finally got involved in one murder too many. On November 6, 1886 Phin and Ike were hosting some friends at their new ranch when trouble broke out between two of their guests. Lee Renfro suddenly drew his gun and shot Isaac Ellinger in the chest. Ellinger died four days later.

One witness testified (verbatim) as to the discussion with the mortally wounded victim moments after the shooting, "The deceased then said 'take him in boys and don't let him get away.' Ike Clanton then said to the deceased 'we can't do it Ike, he is a friend of ours.' I asked Ike Clanton how he stood on this affair. He said 'just as it is. I can't stand no other way.' Lee Renfro then said 'these boys are friends of mine and they stand with me.' Ike Clanton then said 'yes, we stand with Lee.'" Those words had made Ike Clanton an accomplice after the fact to the crime of murder.

By now, Clanton had made a legion of mortal enemies far beyond the Earp contingent. The deceased Ike Ellinger had influential friends and relatives, and while Ike Clanton had not pulled the trigger, Ellinger had been killed "under his arm," within the "mantle of his protection" as a guest in his home. The Ellinger family, understandably, wanted justice, Ike Clanton had also become a big wheel in the then-flourishing Anti-Mormon Society, and the Clanton family's well-known depredations South of the border had already brought about the death of his father and several associates by Mexican gunfire. In addition, Clanton's years of flagrant rustling had triggered the wrath of the powerful, well-financed stockmen's associations.

Jonas V. Brighton was hired by the Apache County Stock Growers' Association as a private detective, or so he claimed. A Civil War vet with a somewhat checkered past, he had taken a correspondence course to become a private investigator, and had bought a badge. It would have been laughable, but for one thing: all who knew him described Brighton as a man who could relax the people around him and get them to speak freely on almost any topic ... the mark of the born detective. In any case, his work for the stockmen led him to the ranch of Jim Wilson on Eagle Creek in Graham County, Arizona Territory, on May 31, 1887. He was partnered with a special deputy sheriff. Brighton and the special deputy stayed the night at a cabin on the property.

According to the prevailing account, the following morning Detective Brighton and the special deputy were up and going about breakfast when they heard the hoofbeats of a lone rider approaching. Brighton opened the cabin door and saw Ike Clanton on horseback, some twenty yards away. Then the special deputy stepped into the doorway with him, and when Clanton saw that person, a look of shock or fear came over his face. Ike Clanton reached down and grabbed the Winchester in his saddle scabbard, and began to pull it free.

Ike Clanton "reeled in his saddle" as one reporter of the time put it. There was another shot, and Clanton toppled to the ground. The detective and the special deputy cautiously approached his motionless, prostrate form. They said he was dead when they reached him, his Winchester unfired. One gunshot wound had tracked laterally through his chest, armpit to armpit, on a course that would have struck the heart, possibly the aorta, and probably both lungs. Another shot had merely grazed one of Clanton's legs. Subsequently, ranch owner Wilson and four men from the area identified the body as Ike Clanton's. They buried him on the property.

Bill O'Neal. Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters Norman OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

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