Tombstone Times Tombstone News, History and Information
Part III - The Clantons
by Joyce Aros
Read what other travelers have to say about hotels in Tombstone Arizona

   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 same.

   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 very affable..."

   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 ~


Click for Tombstone Arizona Forecast

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Cochise County Cowboys
from Joyce Aros
Who were the Cochise County Cowboys? This book fleshes out the peripheral characters of the Tombstone Saga!

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