Was Ike Clanton Really the Loudmouth Coward of Tombstone?
When the dust settled on the most infamous gunfight in the West, three men lay dying in the streets of Tombstone, including 19-year-old Billy Clanton.
His brother Ike? He was holed up a few blocks away, in a law office on Toughnut street.
Please note the irony.
“Ike sprinted to safety through Fly’s boarding house, leaving his younger brother and two friends to be shot to pieces,” wrote Wm. B. Shillingberg in Tombstone, A.T. “So much for his earlier boast of needing only four feet of ground because fight was his racket.”
Thanks to movies like Tombstone, and books like The Last Gunfight and Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell, Ike Clanton’s self-aggrandizing reputation is pretty well set in stone.
The usual verdict: Ike was all bark and no bite.
You could also say he was all hat and no cattle, except the Clantons did have cattle, and there’s a chance it was rustled from Mexico. Which is where Ike and his crew got into trouble with the Earps and Doc Holliday — or the other way around, depending on who you asked.
If you were to ask Tombstone locals at the time, many didn’t consider rustling cattle from south of the border all that much of a problem. Most of ’em, especially those from Texas, didn’t care for Mexicans — the Mexican–American War was still pretty close in their rearview — and it was easy to adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell kinda policy that made for cheaper beef in town.
Tombstone saloons, soiled doves and card dealers also didn’t mind letting the cowboys do their thing.
“They were a rip-roarin’, fun-lovin’ bunch of boys when they had money to spend, and most of the saloonkeepers wanted the cowboys to spend it at their bars, even if they paid with Mexican pesos and dirty money,” wrote Casey Tefertiller in Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend.
But not everyone was cool with their shenanigans, including “townies” from the Northeast, Republicans who wanted to clean things up in Tombstone and make it a respectable place to live. The Earps were also in that camp, and though they too were in town to improve their financial lots, they didn’t wanna do it on the cowboys’ terms.
“Pima County was heavily Democratic, but many of the new miners and merchants in Tombstone voted Republican. Many Southerners held some sympathy for the displaced Texas cowboys; Northerners tended to see them as unholy scum terrorizing their towns. But business took precedence, and some of the riffraff actually contributed to commerce in their own unruly way.”Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller
Today, you’ll find armchair historians on both sides of the story: those who think the Earps murdered cowboys in cold blood, and those who think the cowboys presented a legit threat that had to be dealt with accordingly.
Related read: Is Tombstone a True Story? Here’s What’s Accurate (and Not)
Ike Clanton’s Place in Old West History
Ike Clanton was one of the more prominent cowboys, along with Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill, Joe Hill and Bob Martin, and plenty of firsthand accounts from Tombstone townies testify to his uncanny — and often drunken — gift of threatening gab.
But the question remains: is Ike Clanton’s cowardly reputation warranted, or was he simply the victim of frontier circumstances beyond his control?
The story of the Earps and the cowboys of Cochise County may be a gray area of Arizona’s past, but Ike Clanton’s actions clearly paint a less-than-courageous picture before, during and after the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
In fact, throughout his life, Ike Clanton routinely came around with that BS and on more than one occasion got called out for it. Here’s how it happened.
Head West, Young Fam
Joseph Isaac Clanton was born in Missouri in 1847, to Mariah Kelso and Newman “Old Man” Clanton, who we can only assume looked like an old grizzled cattle baron from birth.
The family bounced around looking for opportunities, and when Ike was a teenager, his father and brother, John Wesley, joined the Confederate cause. Newman was released for being old and J-Dub’s time with the Rebs was “marred by charges of desertion,” wrote Shillingberg in Tombstone, A.T.
Cue the familial foreshadowing.
After the war, the Clanton clan headed west, passing through southeastern Arizona on their way to California, where they’d run into their first of several legal and ethical clashes in the West.
The Clantons eventually settled in Santa Barbara County, near Port Hueneme, and lived on what they believed to be public land, but which in fact belonged to wealthy, influential folks like Thomas A. Scott, a railroad baron who had been elected U.S. Assistant Secretary of War by Lincoln before the Civil War.
In other words: not the kind of person you want to argue land rights with.
But the Clantons were greenhorns in this part of the country, and Ike learned the hard way how the law of the land worked in the Golden State.
“During the course of this rather intense standoff, Ike Clanton, then employed as a day laborer, made the mistake of threatening the life of surveyor Johnny Stow. The next morning Scott’s agent Thomas R. Bard, later a major figure in the Union Oil Company and a United States senator from California, armed himself with a Winchester rifle and called Ike from his shack. Bard gave the young hothead a quick lesson on the facts of frontier life, warning him rather forcefully not to repeat his mistake.”Tombstone, A.T., Wm. Shillingberg
The Clantons’ sojourn in California didn’t last much longer, and by 1873 they were camped out on the Gila River in Arizona, in the dry desert region they passed through nearly a decade before.
Related read: Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
Setting Up Shop in Arizona
By September 1874, Old Man Clanton had a nice thing going on the Gila. The Arizona Weekly Citizen reported on the early success of his digs, where the fam irrigated and “planted 120 acres with wheat, corn, barley and all kinds of vegetables,” with hundreds of acres awaiting future crops.
They also raised cattle and hauled cargo to surrounding communities, doing just about anything needed to survive in the harsh desert environment. It also didn’t take long for Old Man Clanton to grasp the fruitful economics of borderland cattle rustling.
“He didn’t stop at legal activities, however; just about every source agrees that he and his sons rustled and bought rustled stock, participating in the free and easy raiding conducted both by Arizona bands and by Mexican bands criss-crossing the Mexican border,” wrote Paula Marks in And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight.
Clantonville never really took off, and by 1878 — a year after Ed Schieffelin filed for his Tombstone claim — the Clantons were down in the San Pedro Valley, ready to capitalize on a potential southern Arizona silver boom.
“Houses, shanties and jacals are going up rapidly, and several families are now on the ground,” the Weekly Republican reported. “A restaurant has been opened by Mr. Ike Clanton.”
In 1880, as the potential growth of Tombstone became clear, the Pima County sheriff election between Democrat Charlie Shibell and Republican candidate Bob Paul included two unlikely poll officials in the San Simon area: Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo. Unsurprisingly, the poll results for the precinct were largely in favor of Shibell, who was aligned with ranchers of the area.
Ballot-stuffing was about as cool back then as it is now, so Paul sued for election fraud and eventually won the office, which he took over in April 1881. Ike Clanton’s allegiances had always been to the ranchers and rustlers of the region, but it was now clear that he and his partners would do whatever was necessary to keep things business as usual for local cattle rustling rings.
Related read: 9 Tall but True Tales About Luke Short, Western Gunfighter
Trouble with the Earps
After leaving Dodge City in late 1879, Wyatt Earp and Mattie mosied down to Prescott, where Virgil Earp was town constable. Then, with James Earp and his wife Bessie, the group headed to Tombstone in December of that year. The following year, Warren and Morgan Earp arrived, as did Doc Holliday.
By 1880, the Earps were more than familiar with the cowboys’ antics. That summer, rustlers had stolen Army mules that ended up on the ranch of Frank and Tom McLaury, and Wyatt had a horse stolen and later found on the Clanton ranch.
When Wyatt confronted Billy Clanton in Charleston, near Tombstone, the Cowboy made it clear he knew the horse belonged to the no-nonsense Earp.
“After the papers came he gave the horse up without any service of papers and asked me if I had any more horses to lose,” Wyatt later claimed. “I told him I would keep them in the stable after this and give him no chance to steal them.”
In Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Stuart Lake paints an even more dramatic scene, though Lake’s account is fraught with exaggeration and made-for-books drama. After disarming Billy Clanton, Wyatt says he’ll throw his guns on “the other side of the bridge,” prompting a threat that wouldn’t seem out of place from the Clantons.
“‘Next time it won’t be your horse we’ll get,’ Billy Clanton called after Wyatt in highly colored allusion; ‘it’ll be you.'”
By the end of 1880, there had been enough run-ins between the Clantons, McLaurys and Earps to set the stage for their epic standoff in October 1881.
Related read: The Wives of Wyatt Earp, from Aurilla Sutherland to Sadie Marcus
Deal with the Devils
In March 1881, a stagecoach between Tombstone and Benson was held up, and two people — driver Bud Philpot and a passenger — were killed, though Pima County sheriff (and shotgun messenger) Bob Paul managed to get to Benson with the coach’s $26,000 Wells Fargo lockbox intact.
As Wyatt recounted in the San Francisco Examiner in 1896:
“The moment the first shots were fired and Philpott fell, the horses plunged ahead so viciously that nothing could have stopped them. In missing the messenger and killing the driver the robbers had defeated their own plans.”
A posse — including Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan, Johnny Behan, Bob Paul, Bat Masterson and Wells Fargo agent Marshall Williams — tracked the outlaws’ trail toward a small ranch outside Benson, where they found Luther King, who admitted that he, Jim Crane, Harry Head and Billy Leonard were responsible for the hold-up.
King would later escape from Tombstone’s jail, and despite unfounded rumors that the Earps and Doc Holliday were also involved in the holdup, Wells Fargo issued $1,200 rewards each for Crane, Head and Leonard.
By June 1881, the three outlaws were still on the lam, so Wyatt concocted a plan that would kill a bunch of birds with one stone: he would try to convince Ike Clanton, Joe Hill and Frank McLaury to lure the murderers into town, and when Wyatt captured them, he would offer the combined $3,600 reward to his three informants.
He would also position himself to win the Cochise County sheriff’s office at the following election, an opportunity that was worth much more than the reward money.
That all sounded good on paper, and Ike Clanton agreed to turn on his fellow cowboys, but the plan soon fell apart when it was discovered that Leonard and Head had already been killed by rustlers in the Animas Valley of New Mexico.
This is why the cowboys couldn’t have nice things.
With the deal dissolved, Ike Clanton faced a new problem: if word got out that he colluded with Wyatt Earp to turn in other outlaws, however that deal ended, his reputation — and his life — was in danger.
Related read: 6 Tombstone Filming Locations You Can Still Visit Today
Leading Up to the Showdown
For Ike Clanton, the rest of 1881 only got worse. In August, Old Man Clanton and four other men — including Jim Crane, the only living Benson stagecoach suspect — were killed by Mexican smugglers in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre.
In the interest of local politics and connections, the Clanton patriarch generally kept his kin in check, but his death signaled a changing family dynamic.
“With Old Man Clanton in the grave, Ike was finally free to act however he pleased without worrying about how his father might respond afterward,” wrote Jeff Guinn in The Last Gunfight. “It was now a matter of which foolish, potentially lethal thing Ike might do first.”
Ike spent the next few months accusing Wyatt of telling others about their deal, perhaps not understanding that Wyatt didn’t really want the arrangement publicized either. It wouldn’t look good to voters if he was known to collude with cowboys, much the same way current sheriff Johnny Behan had.
By late October, Ike’s grumblings had reached a breaking point. On October 25, he and Doc Holliday got into a heated, drunken argument in the Alhambra saloon. There are about as many accounts of the encounter as there were witnesses, but the gist of it was that Doc called Ike a liar and told him to get his gun, which he didn’t have.
Morgan Earp soon joined the fracas, and Virgil eventually separated the men to cool things down. Again, accounts of the night vary depending on the source, but Wyatt claimed Ike didn’t let the argument go, seeing it as an affront to his ego.
“Ike approached him [Wyatt] in the street and asked to talk. He was still steaming about his confrontation with Doc, and informed Wyatt that he was about to go and get his guns from wherever he had checked them earlier in the day. Since this ‘fighting talk’ had gone on so long, Ike blustered, he guessed ‘it was about time to fetch it to a close.'”The Last Gunfight, Jeff Guinn
However the night played out, Ike’s threats stand out as a turning point.
Have you ever heard the concept of SMART goals? They’re goals that are:
- Specific (I’m gonna shoot you!)
- Measurable (I’m gonna shoot all four of you!)
- Achievable (I am physically capable of shooting you!)
- Relevant (everyone’s wondering if I’m gonna shoot you!)
- Time-bound (I’m probably going to shoot you in the morning!)
Those are the best kinds of goals! And those are the threats Ike allegedly made the night of the 25th, and into the next morning. According to The Last Gunfight, over the course of his drunken bender, Ike made these alleged threats to the Earps and Doc Holliday:
- “I will be ready for all of you in the morning.”
- “You must not think I won’t be after you all in the morning.”
- “The damned son of a bitch has got to fight.”
- “You may have to fight before you know it.”
The bar scene in Tombstone was no stranger to Ike’s drunken threats, but on the morning of October 26, he was spotted armed, drunk and rambling by Ned Boyle, a barkeep at the Oriental.
“Ned was alarmed to see that Ike was not only drunk, but also armed with a pistol ‘in sight,’ which probably meant that the gun was jammed into the waistband of Ike’s pants,” wrote Guinn in The Last Gunfight.
Ike’s reputation was also to not follow through on threats, so it was no surprise that Wyatt and Virgil both slept in that morning, even after hearing of Ike’s antics. Eventually, the brothers hit the streets of Tombstone, where they found and buffaloed a drunk and armed Ike Clanton, dragging him to court to pay a fine for carrying a firearm in town.
But Ike’s time in court included more threats, and a heated argument with Wyatt, who claimed he “would be justified in shooting you down any place I would meet you” thanks to Ike’s many threats to the Earp clan.
“Fight is my racket, and I only want four feet of ground to fight on,” was Ike’s response, reported one account.
If the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the main event, this was the foreplay.
The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
Eventually, Ike paid his $25 fine, had his weapons checked into the Grand Hotel by Virgil, and wandered away to nurse his wounds. Later in the afternoon, Ike met up with his brother Billy, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, an outlaw and friend of the cowboys. They hit up Spangenberg’s, an ammuniton store, and loaded up their gun belts as the town, including Wyatt, looked on.
The group soon congregated near the O.K. Corral, at an “eighteen-foot-wide empty lot on the south side of Fremont between C.S. Fly’s boardinghouse and a frame residence owned by William Hardwood, who had been Tombstone’s first mayor.”
Editor’s note: for weeks now I’ve petitioned to have the fight renamed the “Gunfight on the South Side of Fremont Between C.S. Fly’s Boardinghouse and A Frame Residence Owned by William Hardwood,” but the response has been lackluster at best. Will update later.
Around three in the afternoon, Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan and Doc Holliday began their walk down to the lot, past Johnny Behan, who falsely claimed to have already disarmed the cowboys. When they got there, a tense standoff left all the men’s nerves frayed.
Accounts of the gunfight vary, but it’s believed Wyatt and Billy Clanton shot first and at the same time; the Earps later claimed they heard several guns being cocked right before the fight started.
What’s not up for debate, however, is the fact that Ike Clanton, who had been buffaloed and disarmed hours earlier, did not have a weapon. So he threw himself at Wyatt’s mercy, affirming that fight was actually not his racket.
“In the strangest moment of the affair, Ike Clanton lurched forward and grabbed one of Wyatt Earp’s arms. Wyatt saw Clanton had no gun and shoved him aside as he coolly told him, ‘The fight has commenced. Go to fighting or get away.’ Ike Clanton took flight, racing through the Fly house, into a vacant lot, through Kellogg’s saloon, and finished his sprint two blocks away on Toughnut Street, where he was later arrested.”Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller
Some thirty seconds after the fight started, it was over. Billy Clanton had been shot several times, and was carried into a nearby home, where he died soon after. Tom McLaury was also carried inside, and died silently near Billy. Frank McLaury didn’t make it that far, having died in the street after multiple shots from Wyatt, Morgan and Doc.
Morgan and Virgil were also shot, Doc Holliday was grazed by a bullet, and Wyatt came away unharmed. Ike was the only cowboy to survive, and he was nowhere near the scene when it ended.
Now here’s where it gets tricky. Ike was unarmed — as he should have been, due to Tombstone’s in-town firearm policy — so he technically wasn’t doing anything illegal. And if the Earps were armed, he could’ve thought it was a fool’s errand to stay in the fight if he wasn’t “heeled.”
Still, Ike Clanton left his much younger brother to die in the streets as Ike fled the consequences of his late-night trash talking session.
He also tried to buy a gun in Spangenberg’s before the fight, though the shopkeep read the room wisely and refused to sell Ike a weapon. And had Ike not been buffaloed earlier in the day, he would’ve likely been armed and ready.
Ike would later claim the whole gunfight was a setup to kill Ike, which judge Wells Spicer disproved since the Earps didn’t actually kill him when they had several opportunities to do so.
Cambridge Dictionary defines a coward as a “person who is not brave and is too eager to avoid danger, difficulty, or pain,” and in this scenario it’s not a stretch to say Ike’s actions were cowardly. They may have been justified — he didn’t want to get shot to ribbons after talking that BS all night — but it’d be difficult to argue they weren’t cowardly.
A long string of events led to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but it was Ike’s specific threats and actions the night before and in the morning of October 26 that led to that day’s events.
And when it mattered, Ike had deserted the “four feet” he requested.
Related read: 29 Most Iconic Quotes from Tombstone
Immediately after the fight, Ike Clanton was kept in the Tombstone jail as rumors swirled that he’d be lynched by the town’s growing vigilante mob, townsfolk who tired of dealing with the cowboys and their violence.
Several days after his release, he filed first-degree murder charges against Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Doc, and a hearing under judge Wells Spicer began on Monday, October 31.
Public sentiment of the fight was relatively split: some folks thought the cowboys were murdered outright, especially when two of them (Tom and Ike) were allegedly not armed. Others, totally over the cowboys threats, believed the Earps acted in good faith to protect the town and its citizens from further bloodshed.
Throughout November, the hearing included witnesses and testimony from both sides. Ike Clanton’s testimony and the diverging stories he included eventually swung the verdict toward the Earp side, and on November 30, Spicer reported that he “cannot resist the conclusion that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides,” according to The Last Gunfight.
Although Spicer noted that Virgil’s action to include Wyatt, Morgan and Doc in the confrontation was “injudicious and censurable,” it wasn’t enough to convince him that the Earps acted in the wrong. Spicer ordered the release of the defendants, and in December, a grand jury decided not to pursue murder indictments against them.
Even if the Earps had overstepped their legal bounds, Spicer knew a jury wouldn’t likely find them guilty of murder. That was just how the A.T. rolled back then.
Later that month, the cowboys took frontier justice into their own hands with the attempted assassination of Virgil Earp on December 28, 1881. Ike Clanton’s hat was found at the scene of the shooting, though the suspects ran through the night and were never clearly seen. If Ike wasn’t involved, he likely played an indirect role in the attempt, and if he was one of the would-be assassins, it further strengthened his gutless reputation.
In March 1882, Morgan was shot and killed in Campbell & Hatch Saloon and Billiard Parlor, and the Earp Vendetta Ride was officially on. Within days, Wyatt would kill Frank Stilwell and Curly Bill, though Ike escaped his vengeful grasp. Wyatt claimed that Ike was present when Stilwell was killed at the Tucson train station, but that he ran to escape when he saw the Vendetta posse. Can you sense a theme yet?
Ike did admit to being in Tucson, but claimed he and Stilwell split up earlier in the night, before the Earps arrived. Either way, he conveniently dodged more bullets.
Related read: I’m Your Huckleberry: The Real Meaning of Doc Holliday’s Iconic Line
Death on the Saddle
By April 1882, Wyatt’s vendetta ride had reached its end, and the Earps split up into the next chapters of their lives, with Wyatt and his crew traveling up to Colorado. In late 1882, Ike and his brother Phin moved their operations north of Springerville, in Apache County, far from their troubles in Tombstone.
But some things don’t change, and in the following years the Clantons faced multiple charges, from stealing cattle to outright robbery. Lack of evidence or falsified alibis in nearly every instance helped them avoid jail time, but in November 1886, a well-known rancher from New Mexico was killed by cowboy Lee Renfro on the Clanton ranch.
Ike and Phin helped Renfro escape, and by the end of year, range detective Jonas V. Brighton was hired by local ranchers to help rid the territory of Renfro and his accomplices for good.
Phin was caught and jailed in April 1887, and in May, Ike arrived at a cabin on Eagle Creek, south of Springerville, only to run into J.V. Brighton and Deputy Sheriff Albert Miller. Depending on the account, Ike either turned to flee, reached for his rifle, or both, but in any case, Brighton shot him when he refused to surrender.
“A local journalist provided the forty-year-old Cowboy’s most fitting epitaph: ‘Thus ended the wild career of poor, deluded, misguided Ike Clanton,'” John Boessenecker wrote in Ride the Devil’s Herd.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
Ike Clanton’s Track Record
Ike’s storied career in the west included threatening land owners, smuggling rustled cattle, stuffing ballots, potential assassination attempts, aiding known murderers, and running from a historic gunfight he himself brought to fruition. It’s not hard to see why history paints Ike’s character so poorly.
Some argue the Earps extended far beyond their legal reach in Tombstone, or that J.V. Brighton was himself a known criminal and hardly a legit range detective. Or that rustling cattle in that time and landscape was simply the way things were done.
While there may be some truth to those statements, it doesn’t change the fact that Ike Clanton often acted on less-than-heroic principles. He left his younger brother to die alone in a gunfight, and later, allowed a ruthless murderer to escape his property instead of facing the letter of the law.
If fight was his racket, it’s fitting that more than 100 years later, a fight — however small or one-sided — still endures to determine Ike Clanton’s rightful reputation in American West history.
Related read: The Invisibly Adventurous Life of Josephine Marcus Earp
Explore the Old West
- Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp: 7 Differences in the Dueling Movies
- The Real Story of Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate
- The Short, Tragic Life of Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt Earp’s Second Wife
- 8 Wells Fargo Stagecoach History Facts You Might Not Know
- 9 Tall but True Tales About Luke Short, Western Gunfighter
Sources & Further Reading
- Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem, Wm. B. Shillingberg
- The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — And How It Changed the American West, Jeff Guinn
- Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell, Tom Clavin
- Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller
- Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang, John Boessenecker
- And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, Paula Mitchell Marks
- O.K. Corral Postscript: The Death of Ike Clanton, Rita Ackerman
D.T. Christensen is the founder and managing editor at OldWest.org, a history webiste committed to sharing and preserving stories and figures of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and also writes for Territory Supply.