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Joseph Isaac (Ike) Clanton (1847June 1, 1887) was born in Callaway County, Missourimarker, and grew up to be one of the pivotal players in the gunfight at the O.K.marker Corralmarker, one of the most famous events of the American Old West.

Early life

Ike Clanton was one of seven children born to Newman Haynes Clanton (known as Old Man Clanton, 1816–1881) and his wife Maria Sexton (Kelso) Clanton. His father worked at times as a day laborer, a gold miner, a farmer, and by the late 1870s, a cattleman in Arizona Territory.

Clanton's mother died in 1866. Ike stayed with the family when they moved to Tombstonemarker, Arizona Territory, about 1877 (before Tombstone became a town or even a mining center). At that time, Newman Clanton was living with his sons Phineas ("Fin"), Ike, and Billy. By 1878 Ike was running a small "lunch counter" at the Tombstone Mill site (now Millville on the San Pedro River—not in modern Tombstone). By 1881, however, he was working on his father's ranch at Lewis Springs, about 12 miles (19 km) west of Tombstone and 5 miles (8 km) from Charlestonmarker.

The Clantons and their ranch hands and associates were known as the "Cowboys", and they had a reputation for reckless behavior. They were accused of cattle rustling from across the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as other acts of banditry and murder.

Notoriety, clashes with the Earp faction

Ike Clanton's notoriety is based largely on his conflict with the Earp brothers, especially Wyatt Earp and Wyatt's friend Doc Holliday. The Earps and the Clantons had several political, economic, and philosophical reasons to hate each other, and the animosity grew throughout 1881. Helping to fuel this conflict was Ike Clanton's reputation as loudly boasting in public, drinking heavily, and having a quick temper. He was well known for talking too much.

In November 1879, shortly after arriving in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp had a horse stolen. More than a year later, probably sometime in December 1880, Wyatt was told the horse was being used near Charleston, and Wyatt and Holliday were forced to ride to the Clanton's ranch near Charleston to await ownership papers in order to legally recover it. According to Wyatt's testimony later, 18 year-old Billy Clanton asked him insolently if he had any more horses to "lose," but he gave the horse up without first being shown the ownership papers, demonstrating to Wyatt that Billy knew to whom the horse belonged. Sheriff Johnny Behan later testified that the incident had angered Ike Clanton. It also angered Wyatt Earp.

In October 1880, outlaw and gunman William Brocius, known as "Curly Bill" and a member of the Cowboys, was arrested for the murder of Tombstone marshall Fred White. Wyatt Earp had arrested him, further fueling hostilities between the Clanton and Earp factions. Later, when Brocius was found not guilty, the tensions intensified.

In March 1881, a bungled stagecoach robbery near Benson, Arizonamarker, that resulted in the killing of two men on the stage divided the two factions, with the Earps believing the Cowboys were involved, but with Ike Clanton later publicly claiming Doc Holliday was one of the robbers and that Holliday had fired the shot that killed the stage driver.Wyatt testified that both Frank McLaury and Ike Clanton had agreed to provide information on the capture of the three supposed robbers, named Leonard, Head, and Crane. Later, after the last of these men had died in separate incidents, Wyatt claimed that word of this secret deal began leaking out. Ike Clanton, in contrast, claimed that word of Doc Holliday's involvement, as well as the rest of the Earps' involvement in the robbery, was what was beginning to leak out.

In July 1881, "Curly Bill" Brocius and gunfighter Johnny Ringo were said to have gone to Hauchita, New Mexico to kill two brothers, William and Isaac Haslett, in revenge for the deaths of Clanton Cow-boy members Bill Leonard and Harry Head, who had attempted to rob the Haslett brothers' general store weeks earlier. Later, also in July, Brocius led an ambush attacking a Mexican trail herd in the San Luis Pass, killing six vaqueros and torturing the remaining eight men. All of these combined events fueled the reputation of the Cowboy gang and added to the tensions around the town of Tombstone.

"Old Man" Clanton was the leader of the group since their base of operation was on his ranch, but he was killed in the Guadalupe Canyon Massacre in August 1881, probably by Mexicans in retaliation for an earlier ambush committed by rustlers associated with the Clantons. Following Old Man Clanton's death, Curly Bill took over as the new leader of the Cowboys. However, the Cowboys faction was not a close knit group, and even when Old Man Clanton was alive, acts of violence, rustling or robbery were not usually committed as an organized plan but in a random manner. Old Man Clanton, as later discovered, was never the leader in the sense that he organized crimes. He simply operated his ranch and allowed the Cowboys to live and work there. Although history has often portrayed the Cowboys as being ruthless and the town of Tombstone living in fear of them, this was not the case. In fact, with the exception of Ike Clanton who was widely disliked because of his boasting, most of the Cowboys were seen as harmless or merely a small nuisance. They also, generally, got along quite well with the town marshal, Fred White, who was respected and well liked by most of the Cowboys, despite later film portrayals, and much to this credit, they rarely committed crimes inside the town limits, and usually when White was forced to arrest Cowboys he had the support of other members of the gang in doing so, to include Brocius, who liked White.

Gunfight in Tombstone

By October 25, 1881, Ike Clanton was reported in Tombstone, drunken and very loud, after Holliday accused him of lying about the whole stagecoach robbery matter. A fight between Ike and Holliday was averted at first only because Clanton was either not armed (Wyatt said he had a concealed pistol) or not yet prepared to fight. After Morgan and Virgil threatened to arrest both Doc and Ike if they did not stop arguing, Clanton left and Wyatt and Holliday left to sleep.

Ike, however, did not go home, but instead stayed up all night in a card game with Tom McLaury and Virgil Earp. After the game broke up at dawn and Virgil went to bed, Ike kept drinking, and by many reports of witnesses at trial, by noon of the next day was seen about town with a Winchester rifle and sidearm, allegedly looking for Holliday or one of the Earps.

By this time, all of the Earps had gotten out of bed and started looking for Ike. Virgil and Morgan Earp, as city police officers, caught Ike unaware and "buffaloed" him (knocking him unconscious with the butt or barrel of a pistol). Ike was held at the recorder's office until a judge appeared to fine him for disorderly conduct and carrying of a concealed weapon in the city.

At the courtroom on Fifth Street, Ike Clanton and the Earps traded deadly threats as Ike was leaving. Tom McLaury had arrived to get Ike, after which Wyatt and McLaury had a heated exchange outside the courtroom that led to Wyatt hitting Tom over the head with his pistol as Tom stepped towards him. A short while later, Tom was found to have left a pistol in a nearby saloon, showing he was indeed carrying it in violation of city law at the time of his altercation with Wyatt.

At nearly the same time Tom was getting rid of his firearms, Tom's older brother Frank McLaury and Ike's younger brother Billy Clanton arrived in town fully-armed, on horseback, to do final business before heading to Fort Worth, Texasmarker, to visit with Judge William McLaury, the older brother to the McLaury brothers. They soon learned of their brothers' beatings at the hands of the Earps. Billy Clanton attempted to calm his brother. That afternoon Wyatt saw the Cowboys were loading up on ammunition, and later, witnesses reported to the Earps that the Cowboys were gathering at a vacant lot on Fremont street, through the block and in back of the O.K. Corral. This location was next to the boarding house where Holliday was staying. Several witnesses told the Earps that the men gathered in the vacant lot were overheard making threatening comments regarding the Earps.

Hearing that, the three Earp brothers, now joined by Doc Holliday, marched down the streets of Tombstone to the vacant lot for the purpose of disarming their armed opponents. A few minutes later, the most famous gunfight in American history took place at the O.K. Corral. Although the McLaurys and Billy Clanton were armed, it has been disputed as to whether their "disarming" was necessary, as they were near the corral, and possibly leaving town soon afterward. By the town ordinance, when enroute to a corral the possession of firearms was legal. They were technically not at the corral, though, which can be a claim in the favor of the Earps.

Whether the men were preparing to leave town is another point of dispute; the wagon and horses driven into town by Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury was at the West End Corral, one and a half blocks west of the vacant lot. They would not have had reason to go to the OK Corral that day. However, they were standing right next door to his boarding house under the window to his rented room, if Ike (and possibly the other men) were waiting for Doc Holliday to show up to ambush him. (Holliday's "lady friend," Big Nose Kate, was waiting in Holliday's room, and reportedly saw the entire gunfight.) Holliday had reason to fear that the gang would kill him that day or soon after, and so was motivated to join the Earps on their way to the vacant lot to confront the Clantons and McLaurys. It is even said that Holliday fired the first shot in the confrontation.

Based on testimony from the pro-Earp eyewitnesses, Ike Clanton had spent all day, even after his arrest and disarming, threatening to gun down the Earps. However, when the gunfight began, Ike was unarmed and managed to flee the shooting unscathed. And he was not present during the actual shootout; he fled as soon as the first shots were fired. In the days prior to the gunfight, Ike had enlisted the help of fellow Cow-boy Billy Claiborne, who was reputed to be good with a gun, to help even the odds when the inevitable fight came. Claiborne, when the gunfight finally came, also fled the scene, stating later that he too was unarmed. Ike's boasting and threats had left his younger brother Billy Clanton, and his two friends the McLaurys, dead, victims of gunfire from the Earps and Holliday. There are no known documents claiming that the McLaurys and Billy Clanton had any clashes with the Earps prior to that day.

Spicer hearing

Afterwards, Ike testified in a preliminary hearing (the Spicer hearing) to his behavior before and during the gunfight, trying to paint the Earps and Holliday as calculating murderers. Murder charges were brought against Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp at Clanton's instigation.

Ike Clanton proved a better witness for the defense than the prosecution. Clanton claimed in his testimony that Holliday had "piped off" money from the stagecoach which was supposed to have been robbed, and had told Ike about it. Ike claimed Holliday had also directly told him of shooting the stage driver (two men on the stage were killed). However, no money was reported missing from the stage since the stage had not stopped and the robbery in fact had not succeeded. Thus, Ike's story regarding the money was not credible. Moreover, Ike testified that Doc Holliday, Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp had all separately confessed to him their roles in the stage robbery incident. Since the attempted-robbery-murders were hanging offenses, Clanton further hurt his credibility in claiming that the three Earps and Holliday—none of them friends of Clanton—had jeopardized themselves telling him about their roles in the crime.

Later in the hearing, the Earps were able to provide a strong defense, pointing out that Ike had not been harmed in his initial confrontation with Holliday when Ike was unwilling to fight, and he had not even been shot by Virgil and Morgan when he was fully-armed, the next day, and they had had a perfect opportunity and excuse to shoot him down. Also, Ike had escaped during the gunfight without harm because he was thought to be unarmed. With these facts—along with at least two unbiased eyewitnesses to the beginning of the fight (H.F. Sills and A. Bauer) who backed up the Earp claims that the Cowboys had not been shot while trying to surrender—the murder charges were dismissed.

Afterward, Ike Clanton was accused, along with his brother Phin Clanton and friend Pony Diehl, of being involved in an attempted assassination of Virgil Earp in December 1881, which crippled the lawman for life. Though Ike's hat was found at the scene where the ambushers waited, his friends provided an alibi, and the case was dismissed. This incident taught Wyatt Earp that no help would likely be coming from the law on matters where gangs could always provide alibis for any act at which they were not caught red-handed.

A second assassination attempt in March, 1882 against Wyatt and Morgan Earp left Morgan dead, and soon afterwards the Earp faction left Tombstone in order to get Virgil Earp to safety. Wyatt later said that Ike Clanton, along with Frank Stilwell and other Cowboys, attempted another ambush, this time in Tucson, Arizonamarker, where Virgil would be passing though on the train to his father's home in Colton, Californiamarker. However, the Earps were prepared, and Wyatt killed Stilwell. Clanton and the others fled and soon found themselves targeted by the Earp Vendetta Ride, led by Wyatt against those he blamed for Morgan's death. Although most likely a prime target for Wyatt's vengeance, Ike survived the vendetta, with Wyatt, Holliday and their associates leaving Arizona Territory for good by April, 1882.


Ike Clanton's run-ins with the law were not over, however. Charged with cattle-rustling, Ike and his brother Phineas (Fin/Phin) were cornered by detective Jonas V. Brighton on June 1, 1887, in Springerville, Arizonamarker. Fin Clanton surrendered, but Ike resisted and was shot dead.

Here is the detailed story of Brighton’s killing of Ike as retold by a reporter who corresponded with him in late June 1887:

In late June 1996 one of Ike’s remaining relatives, Terry “Ike” Clanton, along with former Citadelmarker professor and grave expert James A. Browning, began a search of the area where Ike was reportedly buried. This area is near Eagle Creek in what is now Greenlee County, Arizona. They quickly discovered a shallow grave under a large tree, that they believed contains the remains of Ike Clanton.

Since their discovery, Terry has repeatedly contacted the city officials of Tombstone in an attempt to interest the town in exhuming the remains and re-burying them in Tombstone’s famous Boothill Graveyard. So far, he has met with much resistance from town officials who believe it is best to "let the dead rest where they lie". Ike’s remains, if that is really what was found, remain where they were first discovered in 1996.

Portrayals in film

Ike Clanton is portrayed by Grant Withers in the 1946 John Ford classic "My Darling Clementine". Lyle Bettger portrayed Clanton as a brutal thug in John Sturges' 1957 film Gunfight at the OK Corral. In Sturges' 1967 sequel, Hour of the Gun, he is portrayed very differently as a highly sophisticated figure by Robert Ryan. Although the film is a generally accurate depiction of the events surrounding the gunfight at OK Corral and the subsequent Earp Vendetta, it errs in showing Ike as having been tracked down in Mexico and shot by Wyatt. Later films correctly show Wyatt allowing Ike to live.

Clanton is played by Stephen Lang in the 1993 movie Tombstone (1993) starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. This movie draws heavily on the Breakenridge book Helldorado. He is played by Jeff Fahey in the 1994 movie Wyatt Earp (1994) starring Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp. Christopher Fulford played him in 2007 in the BBC drama-documentary Gunfight at the OK Corral. In The Original Star Trek Third Season (1969) episode entitled 'Spectre of the Gun,' Captain James T. Kirk played by William Shatner, plays the part of Ike Clanton throughout the episode as part of an alien illusion test.


  1. Traywick, B., Wyatt Earp's 13 Dead Men, pg. 15)

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