Pima County, Arizona was a wild and dangerous place in the 1870s —and remained so for the next twenty years. The reasons for this are several: discovery of silver, availability of whiskey, political corruption, and a dramatic increase in the criminal population. Of course, some of this “criminal” problem had to do with the war between the states; it was a brutal war that transformed young Americans into brutish men. Many of these men were former soldiers who had no homes to return to. Those that did, particularly in the southern states, returned to a cruel government policy called reconstruction. It was a policy of retribution that officially lasted for ten years, but as a practical matter, it lasted through the mid-1960s. Without a means to earn an honest living, many former civil war soldiers turned to earning a dishonest living (see also: The Sons of Little Dixie).
In Pima County, Arizona (and later, Cochise County) the criminal element took the form of a loosely organized gang of thugs who called themselves The Cowboys. They were dangerous men, bullies, thieves, and to use a more modern word, terrorists. They operated almost with impunity in Pima and Cochise counties. They frequently raided Mexican haciendas, murdering and raping the innocent and stealing their cattle and horses. They then drove these animals into southeastern Arizona and sold them to dishonest butchers and meat merchants. For a while, the Mexican haciendas were “easy pickings,” but in time the Mexican government increased its presence along the border, and this drove The Cowboys to rustle cattle and horses from American ranches. The Cowboys also exhibited no hesitation in the murder of innocent men, for little or no reason, or in robbing stagecoaches that ran between Tombstone and westward cities in Arizona.
As part of civil war reconstruction, hundreds of northerners traveled to southern states to take advantage of a destroyed economy, to secure federal appointments, purchase large tracts of land at rock-bottom prices, or avail themselves of opportunities associated with forced emancipation. They were called “carpetbaggers.” Many of these men were well-educated members of the northern middle class. They were lawyers, politicians, businessmen, teachers, merchants, and journalists. Several were prominent senior union army officers seeking to enrich themselves from the spoils of war. They were also former slaves who were appointed to positions far above their qualification; they secured appointments as county officials and judges. No white man stood much of a chance in a court room that was presided over by a former Negro slave who was unable to write his own name —true even if the white man was as guilty as hell. The best phrase to describe this situation was systemic corruption.
Whether these northerners served as state governors or county sheriffs, southerners looked upon them as opportunist scum. What transpired wasn’t a political problem; it was a human frailty issue. Some southern Democrats saw advantages by joining the Republican Party and then, having done so, joined up with northern carpetbaggers to rape what remained of the southern states. These Democrats were called “scalawags.”
The Arizona Territory was one of America’s last western frontiers and Tombstone, Arizona one of the last old west towns. By 1877 the American southwest had become an area of rapid population growth. The population of Tombstone in 1877 consisted of about 100 miners. They lived in raggedy tents and ramshackle A-frame structures. Eighteen months later, the population of Tombstone included 4,000 citizens, 600 buildings, and two churches. In four more years, the population of Tombstone numbered 7,000 people.
The discovery of silver on Goose Flats (renamed Tombstone) acted as a magnet for all kinds of people: merchants, bankers, politicians, lawmen, prostitutes, and men running from the law in incorporated states. In time, law-abiding citizens felt the pressure of this population explosion. It was as if civilization had miraculously landed in the middle of Tombstone one Sunday afternoon and wasn’t noticed by anyone until early Monday morning.
Taxpayer funded services quite suddenly made its demand on townspeople and farmers/ranchers; there was a sudden requirement for increased law enforcement officers, courts, and jails. Local criminals weren’t too happy with these circumstances, either. Still, when compared to other areas of the American south, the southwest experienced the least amount of social and economic upheaval during Reconstruction Era, but with every passing day, citizens demanded a better place to raise their families. With each passing day, the criminal element became more determined to hold on to their empires.
The most memorable members of the Cowboys (who distinguished themselves by wearing a bright red sash around their waist) were the Clanton family. Shown right is a photograph of Michael Biehn in the role of gunslinger Johnny Ringo in the 1993 film Tombstone —a somewhat historically accurate depiction. The Clanton’s were a mob family in the same sense as the Capones of a later era.
The Clanton family consisted of Newman Clanton, the patriarch. He was also referred to as “Old Man Clanton.” His sons were John Wesley, Phineas, Joseph Isaac (also known as Ike) and William (whom everyone called Billy). Additional members of note included brothers Tom and Frank McLaury, William “Curly Bill” Brocius, “Buckskin” Frank Leslie, Johnny Ringo, Pete Spence, Alex Arnett, John Barnes, Jim Crane, Harry Ernshaw, Bill Harrison, “Dixie” Gray, Charlie Green, Milt Hicks, Joe Hill, Billy Lang, “Indian Charlie” Cruz, and a fellow folks called “Rattlesnake Bill.” Standing in the wings to enable this murdering bunch of scum were Cochise County Democrats Sheriff Johnny Behan and Sheriff’s Deputy Billy Breckenridge.
It has come to pass in this county that life and personal property are unsafe; even in the town of Tombstone it seems as if one of the leading industries is to be destroyed. There is not a teamster to-day who is not in fear and dread of the cowboys, or so-styled “rustlers” depriving him of his hard earnings… How must such men feel to be robbed by a band of thieves and cutthroats, who take pride in announcing to the public that they are “rustlers?” Where is the teamster’s protection? Can you find any [law] officers who will follow, arrest and recover your property? If you can, I would like to see him… These chaps seem to have no difficulty in evading the law, while others, not inclined to work, daily join the band and they are increasing fast in numbers. Our town is filled with spies watching every move of the officers and imparting their information to their comrades… Men who come to examine different mines outside of town, when they learn how the cowboys stand fellows up, do not wish to run such risks; they quietly take the road they came and get into civilization as soon as possible.
—Tombstone Epitaph, 16 September 1881
According to the language of the day, many of the Cowboys were saddlers —meaning that they lived in the saddle. They raided haciendas in Sonora, sold their stolen cattle to dishonest merchants; they robbed and murdered innocent citizens with impunity. Hefty bribes were paid to officials such as Johnny Behan in exchange for looking the other way. Local businessmen, living in fear of the gang, refused to back up honest lawmen. What must ultimately happen under such circumstances did happen.
Newman was born some time in 1816 in Davidson County, Tennessee. His wife was Mariah Sexton Kelso from Callaway County, Missouri. They were married in 1840. In addition to the sons named above, they had two daughters. One of Clanton’s sons named Peter did not survive to adulthood.
Before moving to Missouri, Clanton was a Tennessee planter and a slave holder. For twenty years, Newman Clanton moved his family across the west and southwest. He pursued mining in California and ranching outside Dallas, Texas. When the Civil War broke out, he and eldest son John Wesley enlisted in the Confederate Home Guard. Toward the end of the war, Clanton moved his family to the Arizona Territory where he settled for a time near Fort Bowie (Wilcox). A year later the family moved to San Buenaventura, California where, after sixteen years of marriage, Mariah passed away in 1871. Clanton then moved his family to Port Hueneme, California.
Two years later, Old Man Clanton returned to Arizona where he purchased (or squatted on) a large tract of land in the Gila River Valley near Camp Thomas. When his vision of creating a town failed to materialize, he turned to cattle ranching/rustling. Most of his children followed him to Arizona.
Newman Clanton was constantly in trouble with the law throughout most of his adult life. He and John were charged, stood trial, and were convicted for desertion during the Civil War. The Clanton’s were known thieves and ruffians —and this reputation followed them into Arizona in 1873.
In 1877, Clanton sold his ranch near Camp Thomas to a man named Melvin Jones. Billy Clanton often returned to the old homestead because he had formed a friendship with Melvin’s eldest son. Billy Clanton first met Frank and Tom McLaury at the Jones’ Ranch. The brothers McLaury owned a spread at nearby Sulfur Springs Valley .
After leaving Camp Thomas, Clanton bought land on the San Pedro River where he constructed a large adobe house. His home became the headquarters of the Clanton Ranch and several criminal activities. In 1877, Ed Schieffelin discovered silver in the hill region east of the San Pedro River known as Goose Flats. The discovery was less than 15 miles from the Clanton ranch and well-situated to meet the demands for beef in the emerging boomtown —a place everyone called Tombstone, named after Schieffelin’s mining enterprise. From its founding in 1879, the population of Tombstone grew to around 15,000 in ten years.
Newman Clanton’s ranch grew into a successful enterprise: he supplied beef to Bisbee and other nearby towns. It would be impossible to estimate how much Mexican beef was consumed by Arizonians. Despite territorial and county laws and regulations, the Clanton Ranch never registered a cattle brand, which made it easy to incorporate stolen cattle into his herds. It was at this time that Frank and Tom McLaury began participating in Clanton’s Cowboy rustling operations. Fin Clanton, who worked as a teamster, may have helped line up corrupt butchers to accept stolen cattle. Aiding the Clanton enterprise was the Mexican government’s decision to impose high tariffs on goods moved across the US/Mexican border; it made rustling and smuggling a very profitable endeavor. Other area ranchers raised beef but struggled to keep cattle from disappearing in the middle of the night. The problem for rancher Henry Hooker , for example, was that he didn’t have enough stockmen to safeguard his stock.
When the Mexican government constructed border area forts and implemented border area military patrols, Clanton and the Cowboys  turned to other pursuits; robbing stagecoaches, murdering teamsters and hijacking their goods, murdering citizens and stagecoach passengers in cold blood. Fin Clanton was arrested on several occasions, charged with cattle rustling and robbery, but with Democrats firmly in charge of the county, he was never convicted.
In July 1879, several cowboys attacked a hacienda in northern Sonora, killing several innocent Mexican citizens. Incensed, Comandante Francisco Neri ordered Capitan Alfredo Carrillo across the border into Arizona to arrest and return the Cowboys for trial. Unfortunately for Carrillo, the Cowboys ambushed this expedition. Johnny Ringo (shown right) later admitted to having participated in the murder of the Mexican cavalry detachment. Also involved in these murders was Old Man Clanton, Billy Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, Indian Charlie Cruz, Rattlesnake Bill, Frank and Tom McLaury, Jim Hughes, Joe Hill, Charlie Snow, Jake Gage, and Charlie Thomas. We remember this incident today as the Skeleton Canyon Massacre. Afterwards, Clanton turned the operation of his San Pedro ranch over to his sons and relocated to a new spread in the Animas Valley, one mile north of the US/Mexican border. This new property was the perfect staging ground for cross-border raids into Sonora.
In July 1881, Curly Bill learned that Mexican smugglers were moving silver through Skeleton Canyon. Brocius, Newman, Ike, Billy, Johnny Ringo, the McLaury brothers, and a few others hid in the rocks above the trail. When the smugglers entered the canyon, the Cowboys opened fire killing six men in the opening volley. In all, thirteen Mexicans were killed as they attempted to withdraw. This event is known as the Second Skelton Canyon Massacre.
In the following month, Old Man Clanton and six others were encamped near the Mexican border in the Guadalupe Canyon with a large herd of stolen cattle. At sunrise on August 12, 1881, Mexican federal troops assaulted the Clanton gang; Newman was shot through the head and collapsed into the campfire. Four other Cowboys soon joined him in hell, but Harry Earnshaw and Billy Byers survived the assault. Their testimony is the only reason we know of this incident. Initially, Old Man Clanton was buried near where he fell, but his body was later exhumed and re-interred at the Boot Hill Cemetery in Tombstone.
The activities of the Clanton family and The Cowboys disgusted the Earp brothers in Tombstone, as did the corruption of Sheriff Johnny Behan, who aided and abetted the criminal activities of the Cowboys.
Next week: The Cowboy War
- Alexander, B.Bad Company and Burnt Powder: Justice and Injustice in the Old Southwest. University of North Texas Press, 2014
- Marks, P. M. And Die in the West: The Story of the O. K. Corral Gunfight. Norman, OK. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996
- An Interview With Virgil W. Earp, annotated by Robert F. Palmquist, 1882.
- The Clanton Gang, also known as The Cowboys. Bill O’Neal, ed. Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters. Norman, OK. University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.
- Dodge, F. L. and Carolyn Lake. Under Cover for Wells Fargo: The Unvarnished Recollections of Fred Dodge. Norman, OK. University of Oklahoma Press, 1999
 The McLaury Ranch might have been property owned by Frank Patterson. Title to this land remains sketchy even today.
 Henry Clay Hooker (1828-1907) was a prominent rancher in Arizona who formed the first and (what became) the largest ranch in Arizona. Before William Bonney became known as Billy the Kid, he worked on Hooker’s Sierra Bonita Ranch. Henry Hooker (and others) supported the efforts of the Earp brothers to clean up the criminal corruption in Cochise and Pima Counties. Hooker aided Wyatt Earp during his famed vendetta ride.
 Several Cowboys worked the Clanton ranch, including Pony Diehl, Curly Bill Brocius, Frank and Tom McLaury, and a gunslinger named John Ringo. Ringo participated in the Mason County War in Texas; he was no stranger to murder and mayhem.