Just the name rings of excitement.
Tombstone, along with its own title, resonates with fabulous names
found nowhere else in the southwest. The Tombstone Epitaph, the
Bird Cage Theatre, the O.K. Corral, the Crystal Palace and the
Oriental Saloon, Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Wyatt Earp, Johnny
Ringo, Curly Bill, the McLaury brothers...and the Clantons. All
in one place and at one time in history.
The Clantons have a name
that just smacks of outlawry, doesn't it? Kind of like the Daltons
or the Youngers. So what were the Clantons like? I just had to
know, because one or two nagging doubts kept popping up on the
page whenever I'd read about the Clantons, pro or con, usually
con. I guess it's called reading between the lines, but you know,
sometimes you read so much of the same account by so many different
authors that a nagging thought or question keeps surfacing. That's
what happens to me. I read, but when I put the book down and picture
the whole event in my mind, it sometimes doesn't come out the
Now I admit that I am no
Historian, but I have a curiosity bump the size of a watermelon,
and some things I just can't leave alone. In all the accounts
I've read about Tombstone and the Earps, the cowboys as they are
referred to, seem to have no personalities and no substance other
than to be props in the background for the Earps and Doc Holliday
to bounce off of. Were they ever real people or just names?
Happily, with a little digging
and a whole lot of reading, there are some pretty reliable accounts
put to the pen of people who lived in their time and actually
knew those rascals. Often, though, the things they have to say
open up a whole new avenue to go down. For example, we are all
familiar with the references to the patriarch of the clan, 'Old
Man Clanton.' Newman Hayes (Haynes) Clanton is described as the
outlaw king of the area along with his three murderous sons brought
up to violence and thievery. And that famous picture of the irascible
old hillbilly tells it all, doesn't it? But according to some
old-timers who knew the Clantons, that's not how it was. I had
the pleasure of nosing through an interesting trip down memory
lane in a book by Grace McCool. The book is called "Gunsmoke;
the true story of Tombstone". What a read! What fun! A whole new
vision jumps up before the formerly deceived. Grace and her husband
ranched out Charleston way in 1929, back when some of the people
who were there and knew all about it were still alive. And she
was clever enough to ask the right questions and record it all.
Many of the old-timers she
interviewed could still recall the Clantons and others. According
to Charlie Locklin, a Bisbee pioneer, Mr. Clanton was neat and
well groomed with a well-trimmed gray mustache. He was a veteran
of the Civil War and had brought his wife Mariah (or Mary) and
four of their children, Mary, Phin, Ike and Billy, to Fort Thomas,
as he was to operate the hotel nearby. But Mrs. Clanton soon died
and she is believed to be buried in the Fort Thomas cemetery.
The daughter, Mary, married and moved to Tucson.
Now there are some conflicting
accounts as to times and locations, but the general picture is
that the Clantons moved to California and then back again to the
Arizona territories, finally settling in the San Pedro valley
about five miles south of Charleston. They built a large adobe
house there and established the Clanton ranch. Interestingly,
Mr. Clanton had struggled to establish a large farming community
in the Gila Valley previously, but was unsuccessful. He gave it
up after four years and moved to the Lewis Springs location where
the boys settled permanently.
One of the people back then
that Grace McCool interviewed was a man who spent his youth in
Charleston, Frank R. Shearer. He knew the Clantons well and was
proud of the fact that Ike Clanton was his close friend. He said
that of all the cowboys and the ranchers in the area, the Clantons
were the best liked by everyone. What a different picture! His
description of them I'll quote;"...they were true blondes and
rode tall in the saddle. They were extremely handsome boys and
The boys had their ranch
a few miles upriver and a handful of cowboys rode for them. Mr.
Clanton had established a ranch over in Animas Valley in New Mexico,
and not long after, Phin, the quiet soft-spoken one, established
a small ranch up near Morenci. There's some question as to whether
Phin was in this area when Billy was murdered, though some reports
show him as coming to town later the same day.
Mr. Shearer goes on to say
that Ike was well educated and had actually attended two years
of College back east. If you wanted to buy or sell anything in
the way of livestock, Ike was the man to see. He acted as a kind
of broker for a lot of the smaller outfits and seemed to have
his finger on the pulse of the valley.
Now Mr. Clanton must have
instilled some values in his sons because the neighbors say that
Ike was a regular at the little adobe church in Charleston. The
church was well attended and many of the local cowboys as well
as Ike appreciated it. No mention of Billy or Phin attending,
though it would be likely if Ike went, they did too. Ike even
talked Curly Bill into going with him one Sunday. Curly didn't
convert over real quick, but the idea of Ike Clanton evangelizing
really intrigues me.
It seems Ike was definitely
business oriented. There are reliable records to show that he
opened a restaurant in the early days of Tombstone but I'm not
sure if it was in Tombstone or over in Charleston because there
are two conflicting reports on that subject. Perhaps Watervale.
But a business he definitely had. The Arizona Weekly Star of December
12, 1878 reports that Ike Clanton opened a restaurant in the area,
so certainly everything the Clantons did was not tainted. I'm
beginning to get the picture that the vicious reputation they
had was formed in the malicious minds of the Earps and spread
about the countryside by the same self-serving brothers.
There is little reference
to Phineas as he was very quiet and serious. However, Phin left
a lengthy paper trail of arrests and charges throughout his life
and seemed to be in more trouble than the other two combined.
It seems Phin was a typical small time crook or petty thief, doing
things like beating up and robbing a Chinaman or Mexican, or stealing
a calf or a horse here and there. No real aspirations for grandeur!
He relocated up by Morenci, nearer to his sister who had married
and moved to Tucson, then Springerville. Phin continued to get
into trouble up there too. But interestingly, one or two prominent
people in Tombstone who had opportunity to spend some time socially
with Phin considered him rather well mannered and well spoken.
Such a contrast.
But Billy sounds like the
typical hardworking young cowboy of his time. Life was hard and
practical in those days and young men took responsibility early
and grew up fast. He has been described as a tough kid, but a
good rider, roper, and all around top hand during branding season
and round-ups in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Again, Billy, like
his brothers, was well liked by many. There are conflicting reports
about his age but the 1880 census from Charleston lists him as
age 18; born in Texas.
Now Billy had innocently,
according to the old timers, made an enemy of Wyatt Earp on one
occasion. Wyatt was not a gracious man and did not like being
made a fool of by a young kid. The story has been recorded in
many novels and historic articles about Billy stealing a race
horse from Wyatt and hiding it in the Charleston township. (Why
there and not out on the open range?) But the folks around Charleston
tell it somewhat differently, and who's to say today which is
right? Even a combination of the two accounts might be right.
It seems Wyatt had a colt he was riding and, as Wyatt was not
really a horseman (different from one who uses horses for transportation)
he somehow let the animal get away from him. It bucked off the
saddle and took off at a high lope, dusting 'ol Wyatt. The gelding
wandered for a while and found it's way to water on the San Pedro
near Charleston. Billy Clanton found it there and easily rode
the animal about as he had done since he cut his first teeth.
Billy heard about the horse
possibly belonging to Wyatt, so he thought he'd have some fun.
He made a makeshift tin star and attached it to his shirt and
strutted the main street of Charleston with the famous Earp scowl
on his face. The townsfolk enjoyed the show immensely.
Mr. Earp was not amused and
demanded the animal, accusing Billy of thievery. All the loungers
on Charleston's saloon row stiffened and leaned forward, hands
on their sidearms. Just imagine the tension! Billy jumped off,
pulled his saddle and teased Earp by asking if he had any more
horses to lose. The audience laughed, but Billy had made a serious
enemy in a man who should have been older and wiser than that.
This was not the reason Billy
was murdered on Fremont Street in Tombstone. But it likely was
the reason that Wyatt Earp was unable to show mercy to the young
cowboy. The reasons for the standoff seem to be many and they
all piled up on that October afternoon. But the lives of the Clanton
family were changed forever and we'll not likely know for sure
how much of their reputation was actually deserved or not.
Innocent men? Who knows?
Surely some of their activities were unlawful. But perhaps history
will be a little kinder and a little more honest in reviewing
the role of the Clantons and McLaurys. Not completely honest ranchers,
to be sure, but not as bad as they have been made out to be.
Joyce Aros ~ firstname.lastname@example.org