Clay Allison, gunfighter

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Clay Allison

Robert Clay Allison was the fourth of nine children born to Jeremiah Scotland Allison and Mariah Brown Allison.  Jeremiah was a Presbyterian minister and a subsistence farmer.  Clay may have had a hyperactive disorder, as it appears that he was always restless as a child and had severe mood swings [1] and a quick temper.  Clay helped maintain his father’s farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee until the Civil War broke out.  Clay, then 21-years-old, joined Captain W. H. Jackson’s Confederate artillery on October 15, 1861.  Three months later, the army discharged Allison because he was “… incapable of performing the duties of a soldier.  Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxymals [2] of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.”  Oddly enough, Clay Allison was back in the army a year later, this time serving with the Ninth Tennessee Cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Allison surrendered with the regiment on May 4, 1865 at Gainesville, Alabama.  Only briefly held as a prisoner of war, Allison was paroled on May 10, 1865.

Clay had always been ill-disciplined and quick tempered, but after the war he returned to his home with a far-more violent personality.  Not long after his return, he is alleged to have killed a corporal from the Third Illinois Cavalry —an event that prompted he and members of his family to move to Texas.  In fairness, the Reconstruction Era corporal may have had a nefarious intent for visiting the Allison homestead.  Nevertheless, while en route to Texas, the Allison family had an encounter with a man named Zachery Colbert, who operated a Red River ferry.  Colbert demanded that the Allison pay double his fee for ferrying the entire family and their goods.  In the end, Colbert was beaten unconscious and the Allison’s stole the ferry, crossed the river, and moved on into Texas.

For some years after 1866, Clay Allison worked as a cowhand along the famed Goodnight-Living trail.  We next hear of Clay Allison while residing in the towns of Cimarron and Elizabethtown, in the New Mexico territory, where he was known as a dangerous and possibly mentally imbalanced man —someone to avoid whenever possible.

In 1870, authorities arrested a man named Charles Kennedy who was charged with the murder of several men and his own daughter.  Convicted of capital crimes, Kennedy awaited execution in the local jail.  Apparently, Clay Allison concluded that justice was moving too slowly.  One night, he incited a drunken mob to storm the jail, seize Kennedy, and hang him.  This they accomplished after assaulting the deputy on duty.  When Kennedy was judged to be dead, Clay hauled down his body and, with a nearby axe, cut off his head —which was then displayed in front of Lambert’s Saloon in Cimarron.

Reportedly, Clay Allison had several friends, but historians mull over whether these men were his friends, or men too afraid to refuse to do his bidding. He also had enemies.  Allison was a scrapper … someone who was quick with his fists, a knife, or his side arm.  Back in the day, the term “fast gun” didn’t mean a quick draw artist; it meant someone who was quick to resort to violent use of a firearm.  This would appear to be a good description of Clay Allison in the 1870s.  What made Allison dangerous was his willingness to fight —and kill— without much forethought.

One deputy sheriff in Colfax County had no fear of Clay Allison.  His name was Mace (for Mason) Bowman, born as Matthew T. Mason in 1844.  During the Civil War, Mason served with the 11th Texas Cavalry and Graham Rangers. Afterwards, he was involved in the Lee-Peacock feud [3], and then disappeared for a time.  He became a Trinidad, New Mexico lawman in 1873, but two years later he was serving as Colfax County New Mexico Deputy Sheriff Mason T. Bowman.  Mace served as a lawman during the Colfax County War [4] (1873-1888).  He was a man skilled in the art of the quick draw and deadly accurate fire. During a series of friendly “quick draw” competitions with Bowman, Clay Allison learned how slow he was on the draw. Allison could never beat Bowman, either at the draw, or in matching Bowman’s ability to hit his target.

Historians tell us that there was only one “unfriendly” encounter between Bowman and Allison.  The event took place in Lambert’s Saloon in Cimarron.  Allison was not someone who could hold his liquor; the more the drank, the more arrogant he became and his confidence as a gunslinger increased with each shot of rye whiskey.  While inebriated, Allison exchanged harsh words with Bowman.  We don’t know what Allison said to Bowman; we only know that Bowman stepped back from the bar and told Clay Allison “Have at it.”  For once, Allison gave this matter some thought and said, “Hell.  No use in us both dying,” and walked out of the saloon.

Littrell M 001

Sheriff Marion Littrell

Marion Littrell also had no fear of Clay Allison.  Littrell worked as foreman of the Maxell Land Grant and Railroad Company before becoming Colfax County Sheriff.  In unholstering his weapon, Littrell was twice as fast as Allison and did best him on at least one occasion.  A third lawman who would take no guff from Clay Allison was Texas Ranger G. W. (Cap) Arrington, who history remembers as one tough hombre.

One of Allison’s enemies revealed himself in early January 1874. Noted gunman Chunk Colbert had every intention of exacting revenge on Clay Allison for the beating of his Uncle Zachery.  By this time, Chunk was a noted gunslinger, reported to have killed seven men in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.  Today, there is no corroboration that Colbert earned this reputation.  The only person killed by Colbert was a fellow named Charles Morris, whom Colbert believed was romantically involved with his wife.

In any case, in some fashion, Colbert and Allison had engaged in a quarter-mile horse race and decided to have dinner together at the Clifton House, a Colfax County Inn.  These men were not friends, and there was a mutual feeling of distrust between them.  Sitting down at the table, Allison unholstered his weapon and set it to the side of the table. Colbert unholstered his pistol and place it in his lap.  While eating, Colbert reached to his lap for his pistol and attempted to draw a bead on Allison.  Colbert’s pistol fired but was diverted from its target when the muzzle bumped against the edge of the table.  Allison had no such difficult and shot Colbert through the head.  Colbert was buried in an unmarked grave behind Clifton House.  Later asked why he had agreed to dine with someone who was trying to kill him, Allison replied, “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.” Having killed a man with a reputation for gunslinging, Allison’s notoriety as a gunfighter increased —but in all likelihood, undeservedly so.

On October 30, 1875, Allison led a lynch mob to detain a man named Cruz Vega.  Vega was suspected of killing the Rev. F. J. Tolby, a Methodist circuit preacher.  The mob hanged Vega from a telegraph pole near Cimarron.  Two days later, Vega’s uncle, Francisco Griego, led family members and confronted Clay Allison at the Lambert Inn.  Words were exchanged; Griego went for his pistol; Clay Allison went for his; Uncle Francisco was soon after reunited with his nephew.  Allison was arrested and charged with murder, but after listening to the testimony of witnesses, the shooting was ruled self-defense.

In December 1876, Clay and his brother John rode into Las Animas, Colorado where they stopped at a local saloon.  Bent County Sheriff Charles Faber informed the Allisons of an ordinance prohibiting firearms inside the town limits.  He asked them to surrender their weapons and the Allisons refused.  Sheriff Farber left the saloon, deputized two men, and returned with them to the Saloon.  When the posse stepped inside the saloon, someone shouted, “Look out!”  Farber and his deputies opened fire, hitting John Allison three times (although not seriously enough to kill him).  Clay returned fire and killed Farber.  The Allison brothers were both arrested and charged with manslaughter, but witnesses testified that Farber had started the fight and the charge was dismissed.  It was this gunfight that raised Clay Allison to the level of an Old West legend.

In March 1877, Clay sold his ranch to his brother John and moved to Sedalia, Missouri.  Shortly after that, he went to Hays City, Kansas where he established himself as a cattle broker.  By the time Allison arrived in Dodge City, everyone knew who he was.  One story holds that several cowhands working for Allison complained to him that the local marshal had mistreated them.

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Bat Masterson, standing Wyatt Earp, sitting

Allison passed the word that he wanted to have a few words with this marshal.  Eventually the word reached the town marshal, a fellow by the name of Wyatt Earp.  Not long afterwards, Earp confronted Allison and his cowboys in the Long Branch Saloon.  Backing Earp up was his friend Bat Masterson.  According to Earp’s biographer, Allison backed down when cattleman Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson, who at the time owned the Long Branch, offered the good advice to Allison and his boys to surrender their weapons. There is another account, however: Charlie Siringo, a cowboy at the time but later a well-known Pinkerton’s Detective, said he witnessed the event.  According to Siringo there was a confrontation at the Long Branch, but it involved Chalk Beeson and McNulty opposing Allison —Earp wasn’t present at the time and he recalled that Masterson was out of town.

Between 1880 and 1883, Clay Allison ranched with his brothers John and Jeremiah in Wheeler County, Texas.  On February 15, 1881, Clay Allison married America Medora “Dora” McCulloch in Mobeetie, Texas.  Allison was 39-years old; Dora was just 18.  In 1883, Allison sold his ranch and moved to Pope’s Wells, purchasing another spread near the Pecos River along the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

Clay Allison died as the result of an accident that occurred on July 3, 1887.  While hauling a wagon load of supplies, a sack of grain was about to fall out of the wagon.  As Clay reach out to grab it, he lost his balance and fell from the wagon.  The horse team pulled the wagon wheel over him, breaking his neck.  Clay Allison —the notorious gunfighter— died by wagon wheel at the age of 46 years.  Dora remarried after three years; she passed away in 1926. Clay and Dora had two daughters: Patti passed away at Fort Worth, Texas in 1971, Pearl passed away in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962.


  1. Texas State Historical Association/Handbook of Texas
  2. S. Peters, Robert Clay Allison: Requiescat in Pace, 2007
  3. Parsons, Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist, 1983


[1] This may also explain why he was a loyal Democrat.

[2] Sudden recurrence or intensification of erratic symptoms, such as spasms or seizures.

[3] The Lee-Peacock feud took place in the four-corners area of Texas counties Fannin, Grayson, Collin and Hunt.  It was a four-year extension of the American Civil War that lasted from 1867 to 1871. Historians estimate that more than 50 men lost their lives in this conflict.  When the civil war began, Bob Lee joined the Confederate Army, leaving his wife and three children … and his home, in the care of his father Daniel Lee. Toward the end of the war, Lee learned that Union Sympathizer Lewis Peacock had used his home to set up an organization for the protection of blacks, which Peacock named The Union League. By the time Lee and other ex-Confederate soldiers returned to their homes, northeast Texas was already ablaze in conflict, as most residents deeply resented Reconstruction soldiers intruding into their lives.

[4] A range war between settlers and the new owners of the Maxwell Land and Railway Company.  The war began when the new landowners attempted to remove local settlers from the land they had just purchased.  Locals refused to leave, leading to violence lasting several years.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History, Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Clay Allison, gunfighter

  1. Kid says:

    Some people are dangerous and crazy right out of the box. I knew a couple growing up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Sounds like Allison was not the kind of guy that did much to give the ‘Old West’ it’s good name. His ignominious death was well deserved, except it came about thirty years too late.

    Liked by 1 person

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