Clay Allison | The “Shootist”
The American West was a complicated place. It is often depicted in simplistic terms, the white hat vs. black hat paradigm of law man vs. outlaw. However, it often wasn’t that cut and dried. Several notorious characters were considered law men and outlaws over the course of their careers. Others were somewhere in a ‘gray’ zone, good men capable of bad things or bad men who didn’t get caught. Clay Allison was somewhere in the latter group, a frequent participant in violent altercations throughout his life and a self-proclaimed “shootist.” It wasn’t that he was consistently a “bad” man, it just wasn’t a good idea to get on his “bad” side. Though the tall tales surrounding gunfighters are often exaggerated, he would have been a dangerous dude if he was guilty of 20% of the things that were attributed to him.
Like many young men who migrated west in the late 1860’s, Robert Andrew “Clay” Allison’s formative years were shaped by trauma, violence and loss. He was the fourth of nine children, born near Waynesboro, Tennessee on September 2, 1840. He was born with a clubfoot, a birth defect that didn’t limit him throughout his life, though it may have led to childhood encounters that made him a bit meaner. Purely speculation on my behalf.
His father was a Presbyterian minister who moonlighted as a rancher, raising cattle and sheep on a small homestead. Unfortunately, Clay’s father died when he was 5, leaving an angry boy behind. By the time he was a teenager, those who knew him well feared his temper and mood swings. After his father’s death, he worked the fields on the family farm until the Civil War broke out. He and his brothers immediately signed up to fight for the Confederacy. He enlisted in the Tennessee Light Artillery division on October 15, 1861 at the age of 21.
Clay’s clubfoot didn’t hamper his military service at all, but his psychopathic enthusiasm did. Within the first few months, the overzealous, young cadet threatened to kill his superiors when they refused to pursue retreating Union troops. He received a medical discharge a few months later, on January 15, 1862, citing “Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmal of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal.” His discharge records attributed the emotional issues to a head injury sustained during his youth. His infamous alcohol induced rages have been blamed on the same injury.
Clay re-enlisted in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry on September 22, 1862. He served as a scout and spy for General Bedford Forrest for the remainder of the war. When his unit surrendered in Gainesville, Alabama on May 4, 1865, he was convicted of spying and sentenced to death by firing squad. However, the night before his scheduled execution, he killed the guard and managed to escape, vanishing into the night to resume his civilian life. He was 25.
Civilian, but not Civil
The return to civilian life was not a smooth transition. Allison returned to the family farm and got involved with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan. His vehement hatred of the freed slaves almost led to armed conflict between his KKK chapter and the local Freedmen’s Bureau of Wayne County. There are also reports that he murdered a Union soldier from the Illinois cavalry when the soldier showed up at the family farm to seize the property. Clay calmly excused himself, retrieved his gun from the closet, killed the soldier, and went back to working in the fields.These incidents weren’t Clay’s only altercations. If there was trouble anywhere near him, he was probably involved in some capacity.
Clay Allison left Tennessee permanently in 1866, moving with his siblings and his brother-in-law to the Brazos River Country in Texas. However, he didn’t leave his troubles behind. He found ways to make enemies on the way, like getting into an argument with a ferryman, Zachary Colbert. Clay accused him of overcharging and beat the man unconscious. The ferryman’s nephew tracked him down in New Mexico nine years later. Clay killed him too.
Learning the Ropes and Ranching
While in Texas, Allison worked as a cowhand. He learned the basics of ranching and excelled as a cowboy. However, as always, his temper led to constant conflict. For example, he had an argument with his neighbor over a watering hole. They decided to settle the dispute by digging a grave and fighting to the death with bowie knives. The loser would be buried and the winner would get the watering hole, because that is a completely reasonable, sane way to resolve problems, right? Whereas Allison obviously didn’t lose that wager, there’s no clear indication that his neighbor survived the dispute. Ultimately, Clay Allison didn’t stay long. He joined the cattle drives, including the Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drive on their famous Goodnight-Loving Trail through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado in 1866.
Clay’s sister and brother-in-law moved to newly formed Colfax County in 1870. The Allison brothers tagged along. They received three hundred head of cattle in exchange for driving the herd north. Clay homesteaded a plot of land at the junction of the Vermejo and Canadian Rivers, nine miles north of today’s Springer. His siblings settled nearby. He had ample water for his ranching endeavors and quickly set up a profitable ranch.
Clay and his brother John were bachelors. They became frequent visitors to the small towns and saloons in the area, with Clay rapidly earning a notorious reputation as a fast draw and a mean drunk that extended from the New Mexico territory to Dodge City.
In the fall of 1870, Clay was drinking at a saloon in Elizabethtown with David Crockett (nephew of frontierman Davy Crockett) when a terrified Ute woman burst into the bar. She was crying, hysterical, bleeding, screaming about her husband murdering travelers and their son on the Taos Trail. Allison led a posse out to the cabin, where they found the woman’s husband, Charles Kennedy, inebriated and incoherent. The posse searched the property, finding burned bones, human skulls, and a couple of decomposing bodies under the floor. Kennedy’s most recent victims, an inquisitive traveler and Kennedy’s son, were found in the cellar.
The men hauled Kennedy back to Elizabethtown to face justice. A witness to one of the murders came forward to testify, but the courts refused to hand down a ruling. The court ordered Kennedy held pending a grand jury, a move that was perceived with enormous suspicion by locals due to the amount of corruption in the courts at the time. Clay Allison and his cohorts took matters into their own hands. They broke Kennedy out of jail, killing him slowly and brutally before staking his head outside a local saloon (which saloon and for how long is a matter of debate, but the other macabre details hold up to scrutiny). Click here to read more.
The following spring Clay allegedly stole 12 mules from Fort Union. When he attempted a repeat performance in the fall, he was interrupted by soldiers. He drew his gun and accidentally shot himself in the foot, an injury that left him with a permanent limp. This injury may have been foreshadowing of his ultimate demise. Clay Allison had a knack for being his biggest liability.
While recuperating from shooting himself in the foot, he went on a drinking binge in a local saloon and picked a fight with some random stranger by the name of Wilson. There was no compelling reason for him to assault the guy, but he had a few drinks (or more) and was feeling ornery. Fortunately, Wilson was no fool. He recognized the impending danger and had the good sense to leave. However, that didn’t diffuse Clay’s anger. He was drunk, surly and dissatisfied. He wanted to fight. he started at the County Clerk’s office, slinging a knife at the local clerk, pinning him by his sleeve to the door frame. The clerk tore himself loose and ran across the street to the Doctor’s office.
Then, Clay moved on to a local attorney’s office, Melvin Mills. He repeated the knife trick, with a similar outcome. The attorney fled to the doctor’s office to gather his wits and load his gun, determined to kill the unruly rancher. While the doctor was trying to talk sense into the lawyer, Clay walked into the doctor’s office. The clerk and the lawyer fled out the back door while the doctor chastised Clay for inappropriate behavior. Clay didn’t deny it, mumbling that he wanted Wilson’s ear. He drunkenly shuffled away in search of his momentary nemesis, Wilson. Fortunately, He never found him.
The lawyer, Mills, carried a grudge against Allison for the rest of his life, which became a complication when they were on opposite sides of the Colfax County War.
Though Clay Allison had no fear of other men, he was awkward around women. However, Clay and his brother, John, met the McCullough sisters from Missouri and he was smitten. Dora, the eldest sister, was considerably younger than Clay. The girls had been orphaned during the civil war and were in the custody of Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Young on what is now Vermejo Ranch. Though Mrs. Young liked John Allison, Clay’s reputation was tarnished by 1873. She didn’t approve of him.
Dora and Clay eloped in 1873, begging for blessings and forgiveness when they returned. Eventually the Young’s developed a fondness for Clay, noting that he didn’t look for trouble, but he didn’t back down when trouble came his way.
The Past Returns
Chunk Colbert, the nephew of the ferryman that Clay beat up in Texas nine years earlier, showed up in the area to even the score on January 7, 1874. Chunk had killed 6 men in Texas and fancied himself a gunslinger, bragging that Clay Allison was going to be the 7th.
Colbert spent most of the day drinking and gambling amicably on horse races. He invited Clay to join him for dinner at the Clifton House, an inn located in Colfax County. When Colbert attempted to pull his gun on Clay from under the table during the meal, the gun struck the table, deflecting the shot and giving Allison time to pull his gun. Fatal error. Clay shot Colbert once in the head at close range. When authorities later asked him why he went to dinner with a man that wanted to kill him, Clay responded “Because I didn’t want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach.”
One of Colbert’s friends, Charles Cooper, witnessed the shooting. Two weeks after Colbert’s death, Cooper was seen riding out of town with Clay. He was never seen again. Whether that was coincidence, witness intimidation or murder, it became the scandal du jour for months in the region, further cementing Allison’s infamy.
When Lucien Maxwell decided to sell his land grant, it pit the investors against the squatters, settlers, miners, and ranchers. The investors were backed up by the power of the Santa Fe Ring, an unscrupulous group of corrupt politicians, judges, outlaws and law men who were determined to exploit the local population at every opportunity. The Santa Fe Ring provoked the Lincoln County War and countless other land and water disputes throughout the New Mexico territory. The motive was greed. Profiteering, separating land owners from their property, separating ranchers from their livestock, separating farmers from their crops and land (after harvest).
The lawyer that Allison assaulted became a state Legislator in 1875. The doctor who had chastised him became a probate judge. Both joined forces with the corrupt Santa Fe Ring. Sheriffs started serving eviction notices and waves of retaliation began. Grant pastures were set on fire, cattle rustling increased, officials were threatened at gun point, grant gang members raided area homes and ranches. Local formed their own organization, which they called the “Colfax County Ring”. Clay Allison was rumored to be the leader.
During this time of escalating conflict and strife, Parson Franklin J. Toby enlisted with the Methodist Circuit Riders. He was like a Pony Express preacher, delivering sermons in Cimarron, Elizabethtown, Ute Park, Ponil and Sugarite. Despite his many faults, Clay had respect for preachers. He welcomed the minister to Cimarron. Tolby, in turn, loved Cimarron. He planned to move there, quickly siding with the settlers in their opposition to the new grant owners and evictions. The preacher was very vocal about it, publicly committing to do everything that he could to stop the grant owners. The 33-year old minister was found dead in Cimarron Canyon, between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, near Clear Creek on September 14, 1875. He was shot in the back.
Clay took his death personally and took vengeance by escalating attacks on the new grant owners. Cimarron spiraled out of control and Clay went full autocrat. Guards were posted at all entrances to Cimarron. No one was allowed to leave town without his permission. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Cimarron was in the hands of a mob on November 9, 1875. Actually, Cimarron was in the throes of the Colfax County War, which claimed approximately 200 lives. Read more about it here.
At 37, Clay Allison left New Mexico. He sold his ranch on March 3, 1877. He spent time in Missouri and Kansas before settling outside of Dodge city in September, 1878, which was a few years before Wyatt Earp arrived. By the time Wyatt arrived, trouble was brewing between the cattle men and the law men, with the cowboys claiming harrassment. Clay challenged Wyatt on behalf of the cowboys, trying to draw him into a gunfight. At the time, Wyatt’s main backup was Bat Masterson. There are numerous versions of what happened and why, but they never had the shoot out. A Pinkerton detective who witnessed the incident wrote that a saloon keeper and another cattle man talked Clay out of his suicidal folly.
Clay moved to a ranch in Hemphill County, Texas, next door his brother-in-law, Lewis Coleman on September 14, 1875. While in Texas, Allison’s reputation was kept alive by reports of his unusual antics and eccentricities. He rode through town wearing nothing but a gun belt, yelling that drinks were on him. The women asked the sheriff to intervene. When the officer asked Allison to dismount, he sped off down main street, then got off his horse, pulled his gun on the sheriff, and marched him into the bar, forcing him to drink until he couldn’t stand up.
Clay Allison sold the ranch in Hemphill in October, 1883. The couple returned to the Seven Rivers region in New Mexico where Clay continued to ranch. Clay and Dora’s first daughter, Pattie, was born on August 9, 1885 in Cimarron. Fatherhood may have softened his edges, but it didn’t remove them.
In the summer of 1886, Clay had finished a long, hard trail drive to Cheyenne, Wyoming. He had a toothache and visited a local dentist to have the tooth extracted. The dentist knew about his reputation and got nervous. Clay realized the dentist was trying to pull the wrong tooth. He pushed the dentist out of the way and sought out a different dentist for the extraction. After the new dentist completed the procedure, he returned the first dentist’s office. He held him down in the dental chair and pulled one o his molars out with a pair of forceps. As he started to remove a second molar, the man’s screams were heard and several men came to his rescue.
Several months later, the Allison’s moved to Pecos,Texas, 50 miles south of the New Mexico line. On July 1, 1887, Allison was hauling a load of supplies to his ranch when a sack of grain fell from the wagon. As he tried to catch it, he fell from the loaded wagon and the wheels rolled over him, breaking his neck. The horses panicked, lurching forward, which crushed the buckboard into his neck, nearly decapitating him. The community buried him in the Pecos Cemetery the day after his death. He was 47 when he died.
One month after Clay’s death, his brother Monroe died of a heart attack. His second daughter, Pearl Clay, was born seven months after his death. His wife, Dora, married for a second time and moved to Forth Worth, Texas. John Allison died in Clifton, Tennessee on January 7, 1898. He was 43.