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The Cowboys of Tombstone


January 8, 2022 by Pamela Nowak

Though NECESSARY DECEPTIONS is not at all about the Clanton Gang, they were very much a part of the Wyatt Earp legend and what happened to Josie Marcus and Mattie Blaylock. The gang was actually a very loosely associated group of outlaws in Arizona Territory. At the time, they were known as the “Cowboys”, a term which was relatively new at the time and used as a synonym for rustler (those who drove cattle were known as “cowhands”). Ike Clanton and his cohorts were extensively engaged in rustling, often riding into Mexico to steal cattle, then selling them to restaurant owners and butcher shops, undercutting prices charged by other suppliers (thus setting up a strong relationship with those businesses). When the Mexican government began to crack down, the rustlers focused on local ranches, horse theft, and stagecoach robberies to maintain their livelihood. This is the scenario that surrounded Tombstone when the Earps arrived there in 1879.

The Cowboys, or the Clanton Gang, active in Pima and Cochise counties included Ike, Billy, and Phin Clanton; Frank and Tom McLaury; Curly Bill Brocius, Billy Claiborne, Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Pete Spence, and others. This week, I’ll talk a bit about each of them. Next week, I’ll explore their involvement in the politics of Tombstone.

Ike Clanton (Joseph Isaac) was one of seven children of Newman (Old Man) Clanton. Born in Missouri, he moved with his widowed father and brothers Phin (Phineas, aka Fin) and Billy to the area around what would become Tombstone in the 1870s. Old Man Clanton ran a small café at a local mine and ranched near Charleston, about twelve miles west of Tombstone. The Clanton brothers were engaged in freighting but had a reputation for recklessness and involvement in cattle rustling and other crimes.

Ike, Phin, and Billy would likely have gone down in history as petty criminals (though they were accused of murder) had it not been for their eventual involvement in political maneuvering that brought them into conflict with the Earp brothers. Their quick tempers, drinking, and constant conflict with the Earps would lead them to the O.K. Corral.

The Clanton ranch was a successful one, though the 700 head of cattle Ike often bragged about had likely been rustled rather than purchased/raised. The Clantons never registered a brand and the brothers were rumored to be heavily involved in raids into Mexico. The group was not organized and the rustling, robberies, and involvement in election fraud was usually undertaken by small numbers of the “gang” without any real oversight by the Clantons. There was, however, enough influence by the brothers that the group was sometimes known as the “Clanton Gang.”

On August 12, 1881, Old Man Clanton and six others were bringing cattle across the Mexican border when they were ambushed by a Mexican posse. Clanton and five others were killed in what became known as the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre. Billy Clanton was among the Cowboys killed at the O.K. Corral. Ike would continue in the gang, which became increasingly violent and Ike faced charges of cattle-rustling and murder in 1887. He was shot during an arrest attempt for those crimes. Phin was convicted but served less than two years, pardoned when it was discovered a witness had lied.  Upon release, Phin and Pete Spence raised Angora goats near Globe, Arizona. Phin was arrested in 1894 of robbery but acquitted. He married in 1902 but developed a fatal case of pneumonia after a wagon accident, dying in 1906.

Tom and Frank McLaury had a ranch next to the Clantons. Among the youngest of twelve children, Fran and Tom were born in New York and moved with their family to Iowa as children. The two brothers settled in Arizona in 1878, ranching next to the Clanton family. They were soon friends and partners with the Clanton brothers in rustling cattle across the Mexican border.

When mules were stolen from Camp Rucker, Wyatt Earp was part of the U.S. Army effort to recover them; the animals were located on the McLaury Ranch along with a branding iron used to alter the brands. The military official accepted their promise to return the mules but the mules turned up missing and the McLaury brothers were never tried for the crime and laughed at the Army’s failure to do anything.

On October 26, Tom McLaury was to have taken a very drunk and hostile Ike Clanton out of Tombstone. Ike had been threatening to kill the Earps for hours. When the group did not immediately leave town, the Earp brothers approached them at the O.K. Corral. Witnesses later varied on who drew first. Tom and Frank were among the dead. Tom had $3000 in his possession and William McLaury, another brother, claimed Frank and Tom were about to leave for Fort Worth. Historians claim the gunfight was the only violent episode for Tom.

William Brocius was born in 1845 but little is known of his early life. He arrived in Arizona in the late 1870s and was known as Curly Bill (he had curly black hair), a gunman, rustler, and outlaw who rode with the Cowboys. The name may have been an alias.  Curly Bill served briefly as a tax collector for Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan. He was known to be an angry drunk and to engage in cruel practical jokes. Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge cited in his memoirs that Curly Bill shot at the feet of a preacher until he danced and forced Mexicans at a dance to remove their clothes and flee naked.

In late 1880, a drunk Curly Bill was firing a pistol into the air when Tombstone’s town marshal Fred White attempted to disarm him. Wyatt Earp was involved in trying to restrain Curly Bill. Bill’s pistol fired, killing White. Curly Bill was arrested for murder but claimed it was the attempted restraint that caused the gun to discharge; he was exonerated in part by White’s dying words in support of his claim.

Curly Bill was active with the Cowboys and had a number of conflicts with the Earps. He was deadly with a pistol and some sources claim he killed a man in Texas prior to coming to Tombstone (under the name Curly Bill Bresnaham). In March 1881, Curly Bill was accused of killing fellow Cowboy Dick Lloyd but was acquitted when the saloon owner took the blame. Two months later, Curly Bill was again heavily drinking when he got in a fight and was shot in the face. In July, he and Johnny Ringo were said to have killed the Haslett brothers while avenging the shooting of two friends during a hold-up; other sources say Curly Bill was still recovering from the injury to his face and could not have participated. Rumors abound about violence in 1881.

After the shootout in Tombstone, Brocius robbed the Tombstone-Bisbee and Tombstone-Benson stages and was pursued by a posse led by Wyatt Earp. He was named by Pete Spence’s wife as a participant in the murder of Morgan Earp in March 1882 but charges were dropped when the judge said her testimony would not be allowed as it was hearsay and the wife of one of the defendants. He was among those killed by Wyatt and his posse on March 24, 1882, at Iron Springs.

John Peters (Johnny) Ringo was born in Indiana in 1850 and moved to Missouri at age six. There are indications his extended family may have had connections through marriage to the Younger brothers. The family was en route to California when his father was killed in Wyoming. By the mid-1870s, he had migrated to Texas where he was arrested for murder during the Mason County War between two rival factions following the lynching of accused cattle rustlers. Ringo was arrested in September 1875 but escaped. A second arrest followed in 1876 but Ringo was acquitted. He served briefly as a town constable in Texas before moving to the Tombstone area.


By 1879, Ringo shot an unarmed man while drunk but the man survived. Ringo was known for his bad temper and likely participated in robberies and killings with the Cowboys. Among those he argued with when drunk was Doc Holliday, who also had a temper. He was arrested in January 1882 for carrying weapons in town and re-arrested two days later on robbery charges. The Earps suspected him of being involved in the ambush of Virgil Earp in December 1881. He was also accused of taking part in the murder of Morgan Earp. He was among those pursued on Wyatt’s Vendetta Ride and likely witnessed the death of his friend Curly Bill. In July 1882, Ringo’s body was found next to a true in Wet turkey Creek Valley, a single gunshot to his right temple. A knife wound suggests he may have been about to be scalped. There are multiple theories regarding who killed him. Among those suggested are Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, gambler Michael O’Rourke, and Buckskin Frank Leslie.

Ringo’s friend William (Billy) Claiborne first worked as a cowhand in Texas then took up mining in the Tombstone area. In 1881, while drinking, he argued with James Hickey in a Charleston saloon and killed him. Only four jurors showed up on the trial date; three the second day. When a full jury showed, they disagreed on sentencing and a mistrial was declared. Claiborne was said to have wanted others to call him the “Kid” after William (Billy the Kid) Bonney was killed and some sources say he killed several men for refusing to do so. He was a heavy drinker and had a temper and quickly became involved with the Cowboys. Billy Claiborne was unarmed during the shootout at the O.K.Corral and fled. He was killed a year later when he confronted gunfighter Buckskin Frank Leslie while drunk.  The shooting was ruled self-defense and Leslie was not charged. Claiborne’s dying words linked Leslie to Johnny Ringo’s murder but no proof ever surfaced.

Another of the Cowboys was Frank Stilwell. Stilwell was born in Iowa around 1856 and moved to Kansas where his parents later divorced, his mother taking the two daughters with her and his father taking the three sons. Frank and his brother Simpson moved to Arizona Territory around 1877. In Prescott, he worked at a ranch and shot the cook for bringing hm tea rather than coffee. Stilwell claimed self-defense and was acquitted. Simpson left for Texas while Frank remained, later jumping a mining claim and brutally beating John Van Houten in the face when the two clashed over the incident. Frank and James Cassidy were charged with murder but released for lack of evidence. He them relocated to Charleston, near Tombstone. He owned interests in several mines and business and co-owned a Bisbee area saloon with Pete Spence.

Stilwell was hired as assistant deputy sheriff by Johnny Behan in 1881 but was fired four months later for accounting irregularities. He was a known associate of the Cowboys. In September 1881, when the Bisbee stage was held up, the driver reported hearing a phrase often used by Spence and Stilwell and Wells Fargo agent Fred Dodge discovered a boot print which he tracked to Frank Stilwell. Stilwell was arrested by Virgil Earp but their alibis were supported and charges were dropped. Two weeks later, Virgil Earp filed federal charges related to interference with mail and Stilwell was re-arrested. Stilwell’s fellow Cowboys claimed harassment and threatened retaliation. Public arguments occurred as well as threats in the weeks preceding the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

Stilwell was accused by Pete Spence’s wife of having participated in the murder of Morgan Earp in March 1882. Maria reported over-hearing Pete, Frank, and others returning to the house after the shooting. She also reported that Frank and others were planning to ambush the train the Earps were taking to California in order to finish off Virgil Earp, who had been seriously wounded three months before. Wyatt and others heard the rumor and traveled with Virgil, all heavily armed. They confronted Stilwell and his fellow Cowboys at the train station in Tucson. Stilwell was killed; Ike Clanton escaped. The coroner reported Stilwell had been shot with at least five different weapons, including rifles, shotguns, and pistols. Murder warrants were issued for Earp and four others (including Holliday and Warren Earp) but the group fled.

Pete Spence was born as Elliot Ferguson in 1852. He was a small-time criminal associated with the Cowboys. Little is known about his youth though he claimed he was born in Texas and in Louisiana. He enlisted in the Texas Rangers in 1874. As Ferguson, in 1878, he was wanted to robbery in Goliad County, Texas and began using the name Peter Spencer when he arrived in the Bisbee and Tombstone areas.

Spence held interest in a saloon with Frank Stilwell and was married to Maria (Marietta) Duarte in August 1881 (Marietta was a friend of Josie Marcus). They lived across the street from the Earps (who had houses next door to one another). Spence was accused of stage robbery along with Frank Stilwell in September 1881but charges were dropped when Cowboys supported their alibis. When re-arrested on federal mail charges by Virgil Earp, the Cowboys claimed harassment and openly threatened the Earps during October 1881. In March 1882, Marietta Spence reported to authorities that she’d overheard her husband talking about killing Morgan Earp but her later court testimony was ruled inadmissible and Spence and Stilwell were both released. Spence turned himself into Cochise County Sheriff rather than risking becoming a victim during the Earp Vendetta Ride. He never served time for the Earp murder but in 1883, while working as a deputy sheriff, he pistol whipped a man and was sentenced to five years for manslaughter; the governor pardoned him after eighteen months. He later operated a goat farm with Phin Clanton and married Phin’s widow in 1910 under his original name. He died in 1914.

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