By:Thomas Fleming | March 26, 2013
Arrayed against the Earps in Tombstone was a loose and constantly shifting set of alliances known as “The Cowboys.” Eastern journalists, looking for sensational material, followed the Cowboys’ enemies and rivals in describing them as an organized gang, but no one could quite figure out who the gang’s leader was—Ike Clanton, Bill Brocius, or John Ringold.
“The Cowboys” was not a term of respect or even a neutral term for ranch hands, who were known then as herders. Cowboys were wild men, none too careful—it was alleged—whose horse they rode or whose cattle they sold. They were certainly dangerous customers, too fond of their liquor and much too prone to shooting off guns in saloons, theaters, and even in church. They were generally said to be Texans, though some of the Cowboys had never been to Texas and more had only visited the Lone Star State.
These were unsettled times, and it was hard to distinguish between a law-abiding rancher who tried to lead a peaceful life and the rowdier types who may have occasionally bought cattle that had been stolen in Mexico. After all, the Mexicans were regarded as "greasers" who had frequently crossed the border to steal Texas beef, a criminal enterprise in which they were not infrequently aided and abetted by Mexican officials and army units. Cattle then, drugs today—the pattern does not change. The US Army did little or nothing to protect Texas ranchers, who were after all ex-Confederates. In 1875 Texas Ranger Captain Leander McNelly with 30 men defied the Union army and crossed the Rio Bravo, demanded and received a herd of stolen cattle, while standing off a Mexican army detachment of several hundred! Even then McNelly was dying of tuberculosis.
Many Arizona ranchers bought Mexican cattle, no questions asked, but two families seemed to specialize in the business. Newman “Old Man” Clanton and his sons Isaac, Phineas, and William, and the McLaury brothers, Robert Findley (Frank), and Thomas. The Clantons were, in general, hard-luck cases. Like the Earps, they traveled the West looking for easy money. The Old Man and Ike had both been in and out of the Confederate militias—Ike was a deserter but he reenlisted with the old man, probably to get the enlistment bounty. Ike was an excitable big-talking loudmouth who rarely had the guts to back his play, once his explosive temper had a chance to cool down, and his brothers Phin and Billy, though less aggressive, never amounted to much.
The McLaurys were by no means so no-account. They were “plain, good-hearted industrious fellows,” as John Pleasant Gray described them. Gray was a respectable rancher whose relatives occasionally ran with the cowboys, whose crimes Gray acknowledged while praising them for their courage and for “the strain of honor in their hearts.” More impartial critics regarded the Cowboys as indispensable warriors in the struggles against Indians and Mexicans.
The McLaurys came from a decent family—their father was a successful attorney in NY State (somewhere in the Catskills), and brother Will would take up the same profession. Tom and Frank McLaury were hardworking ranchers, known for being well-dressed. They had a decent reputation, for the most part, in Tombstone. Both could handle a gun, and Frank was esteemed as a good shot, which is why Wyatt shot him and not Billy Clanton, when Billy drew his gun.
At the hearing, Will McClaury seems to have firmly believed that his brothers were completely honorable men who had been murdered by outlaws who put on badges to shield their criminal activities. Will was probably misled by his brother’s friends—they were certainly no angels—but neither were they demons. They were simply young men who had gone West and found a risky and exciting way to make money. Essentially, they acted as fences for the Cowboys who rustled cattle in Mexico, and Frank and Tom and probably Billy Clanton joined the Cowboys on some of their raids. As the Mexicans cracked down on the border, some of the Cowboys, it is believed took to raiding Texas ranches and even, so it is said, robbing stage coaches. It is unlikely, however, that the McLaurys were guilty of anything more serious than receiving stolen merchandise and of sticking by their friends and neighbors, when Wyatt Earp was out for blood. Frank and Tom had become tough customers, but their legal brother Will was cut from the same cloth, and he probably commissioned the shooting of Morgan and perhaps Virgil Earp.
The McClaurys came from York state by way of Iowa, but the Clantons were men of the Southwest—Missouri, Illinois (Adams Co, West of Springfield, is very Southern), and Texas. John Ringold and Curley Bill Brocious were both viewed as Texans.
Ringo was born in Indiana (1850), but the family moved to Missouri and then San Jose, California, where a relative had married Coleman Younger the uncle of the Confederate guerilla of the same name. By 1874 Ringo was in Burnet Texas where he was arrested for discharging a pistol. A year later he got involved in one of the great Texas blood feuds, the Mason County War, also known as the Hoodoo War. He was arrested and held in Austin during a trial and retrial. It was there he made friends with John Wesley Hardin, the most celebrated killer of the Southwest. (Hardin's memoirs are well worth reading). In the end charges were dismissed for lack of evidence: No one was willing to testify. By the end of 1878, Ringo was known to be in Arizona, where he resumed his lifetime shooting spree, shooting a man in a saloon for refusing to drink whiskey (an understandable if not entirely pardonable response to a boor). In Tombstone, he became known as one of the most dangerous Cowboys, though there is little or no evidence that Johnny Ringo ever engaged in a regular showdown in the street. There is a curious legend that Ringo was fond of quoting Latin poetry, making him the ancestor of TV’s Palladin.
Curley Bill Brocius (1845-72) was best known for his excellence with a pistol and for a bizarre sense of humor: On one occasion he once made an entire Mexican party dance naked and on another he made preacher dance in church. He probably got in trouble with law in Texas and discretely moved to Arizona in 1878. Bill killed Tombstone town marshal Fred White by accident—Earp was witness and his testimony eventually got Curley bill released. Nonetheless, Brocius held a grudge against Wyatt, who buffaloed him while taking him into custody. In 1881 Sheriff Johnny Behan employed Curley Bill among other cowboys as tax collectors. When Old Man Clanton—along with Dick Gray (brother of John P and son of Mike, one of Tombstone’s founders) and several others--was killed by Mexicans in Guadalupe Canyone Massacre, Bill emerged as one of the dominant figures in the group.
Brocius not always an enemy of the Earps. In 1881 Brocius joined Behan and the Earps in chasing after the Apaches who threatened Arizona. Curley Bill is often accused of taking part in the shooting of Virgil Earp, but there is no hard evidence. He was deputized by Behan to pursue and arrest the Earps during their famous vendetta ride, but it was Brocius who ended up dead. There are several versions of the story. In one, Earp and Holliday, came across Brocius at his campfire in March 22, 1884. Wyatt killed him with a shotgun blast—apparently a cold-blooded murder, though Curley Bill was armed and his shot narrowly missed killing Wyatt. In Earp's story the cowboys had ridden up shooting, and while Holiday and the others fled the scene, Wyatt started shooting, killed Brocius but, though his clothes were torn up by bullets, emerged unscathed. Believe what you will, but I have no doubt that Wyatt would have murdered anyone, armed or not, whom he believed to have shot one of his brothers.
There is a political dimension to the feud: there often is. The Earps were Republicans, supporting the reforming editor of the Epitaph, John Clum, who became mayor, while Johnny Behan and the cowboys were Democrats. Although both groups were Anglo-Celtic whites from mostly poor rural backgrounds, the Earps had gravitated toward the Midwest, while the Cowboys were dominated by Texans. Two Earps had been Union soldiers, while several of the Cowboys were Confederates or at least sons and brothers of Confederates. Wyatt had already got a reputation in Dodge City for roughing up good old Texas cowboys on a spree.
It is easy to look at Curley Bill and Johnny Ringo as desperados, and their enemies were always sure to describe them as outlaws, but Curley Bill, in particular, had many admirers among respectable men and women. He was reckless, too, and sometimes ruthless, but he was a man of courage and honor. The harsh and criminal Reconstruction regime in Texas had caused something like a civil war between decent southerners and the Carpetbagger/Scalawag coalition that exploited the state and oppressed the ex-Confederates. Decent men of good families soon found themselves forced to defend their property, their families, and their lives by the gun. According to Wes Hardin, his string of homicides was provoked by a bullying negro, whose killing even in self-defense was sure to bring Hardin to the scaffold. On the other hand, it is also true that bad habits harden the character, and many a bold youth ends his days as a robber or even contract killer. As the beautiful Frances Dee tells Joel McCrae in Four Faces West (based on Eugene Manlove Rhodes’ fine novella, Paso Por Aqui), a hunted man will eventually steal to live and end up killing someone. This is not to excuse the cowboys and the McLaurys, but some of the Texans must have been disgusted by the sanctimony of these Yankee gamblers and flesh-peddlers, even if one of them did eat ice cream.
Then, too, while the cowboys were mostly country boys, the Earps were backed by the town folks—merchants, bankers, mine-owners--who did not like the violent irruptions of the cowboys into Tombstone, but the lines were not so clearly drawn between town and country: The Earps, while they had learned to detest farm work, were nonetheless tough frontiersman who had spent their childhood milking cows, pitching hay, and mending fences. And, some of the town merchants, while they disliked violence, depended heavily on the free-spending cowboys for their livelihood.
Some events pass into legend because they typify a way of life, a time and a place—Cato’s suicide at Utica, Travis, Crockett, and Bowie’s stand at the Alamo, Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak over a puddle for the Virgin Queen. But, the Gunfight at the OK Corral has been mythologized, not because it was a typical event on the frontier but because it was so unusual—unique--for so many men to shoot it out on the street. Perhaps it was its very uniqueness that made this shootout part of the American myth, but the treatment of the conflict also flattered the American sense of superiority. Here were bold Northern men, officers of the law, who put down a violent conspiracy of anarchic Southerners who did not appreciate the Glorious Union. Death be to all such men, whether they are ex-rebels, Irish Catholics, plains Indians, Filipinos, Nazi Krauts, or Ragheads who never lifted a finger against the United States but cannot be made to understand the advantages of US occupation.
The newspapermen, teachers, and professors who turned the Earp brothers into knights in shining armor, defending the American Way of Life from the Cowboys, were liars in a patriotic cause. Today we can see their mirror image—though it is a distorted funhouse mirror—in the journalists and academics today who vilify anyone who stands up for western civilization, the Christian Church, or the straight white Anglo-Celtic male. If we have to print the legend, I’ll take the old legend any day.