Old West historian Paul Cool says that the phrase “good-natured holy terror” fits several Wild West characters. William “Curly Bill” Brocius and John Henry “Doc” Holliday come to mind. One character who definitely fills the bill is Robert Clay Allison, who reportedly considered himself a “shootist” rather than a gunman.
From 1956, when Franciscan friar Stanley Francis Louis Crocchiola wrote the first biography of Allison, until the early 2000s, when onsite and electronic research was easier, Clay Allison was portrayed as an unglued Southerner who poured his bitterness and vile onto former Union soldiers and anyone else who crossed him. Unfortunately this is how most people still view Allison. Early research on the man was iffy at best, and subsequent writers—and readers—have paid the price. In fact, disregarding the myths laid at his feet by modern writers, Clay in his early Texas years was a young man matured by four years of war and evidently trustworthy enough that two prominent Texas cattleman made him foreman of a 700-mile trail drive.
‘Until Clay Allison arrived in New Mexico Territory, his reputation as a hell-raiser was mythical, with no supportive documentation’
He then tried to make his mark ranching in New Mexico Territory but got wrapped up in the Colfax County War. He was essentially on his way out of New Mexico when he ran into some serious difficulty in Colorado. Once free of that problem, he returned to Texas and became something of a family man and a model citizen.
At the end of the Civil War thousands of Southern men headed west for new beginnings and to seek healing for their uprooted and fractured lives. Clay Allison, who was born in Tennessee’s Wayne County on September 2, 1840 (some sources say 1841), was one of those men. He had served two terms of enlistment in the Confederate Army. After the war, in either late 1865 or early 1866, he landed in Texas’ Palo Pinto County. Circa 1867–68 Allison was foreman of a trail drive from Stephenville, Erath County, Texas, to Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, with a herd of cattle thrown together for convenience and safety by Irwin W. Lacy and Lewis G. Coleman. In Colfax County the drovers split the cattle between the two owners, Coleman settling north of Lacy, both along the Vermejo River. Allison, in payment for his work as foreman, took 300 head (one in every 10) of the combined herd and moved them onto a small piece of land on the Poñil Creek, a northwest offshoot of the Vermejo. Unknown to the men at the time, they were “squatting” on the 1.7-million-acre Maxwell Land Grant.
Until Clay Allison arrived in New Mexico Territory, his reputation as a hell-raiser was mythical, with no supportive documentation, and it has since been embellished with further yarns and legends and used as a literary vehicle. Examples of Allison’s fairy-tale derring-do include the oft-quoted story of his bare-assed horseback ride though Canadian, Texas, and the rehashed anecdote of his knife fight in a grave with a Texas neighbor who, if one is to believe the tale, obviously lost that scrap.
Allison’s time in New Mexico Territory is somewhat better documented. In an August 9, 1878, deposition taken by Federal investigator Frank Warner Angel, Colfax County attorney Frank Springer stated, “There had been some troubles in Colfax County…growing out of controversies between the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Co. and settlers in regard to title and possession of portions of a large Mexican grant claimed by the company.” Subsequent to the 1869–70 sale by Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell of his multimillion-acre tract, the English-owned grant company tried to move squatting ranchers and families off the land. Many of those people were Mexican families who had lived there since the days of the Beaubien and Miranda families, original recipients of the 1841 Mexican grant. The more the grant company pushed, the more the settlers staunchly dug in their heels, and violence begat violence. Cattlemen Lacy and Coleman managed to keep pretty much to themselves, but Allison got caught up in the conflict now known as the Colfax County War.
In the late 19th century New Mexico was a federal territory, with a governor appointed by the president of the United States. From 1875 through 1878 Samuel Beach Axtell assumed the governor’s chair in Santa Fe and was the tool of a political cadre—the Santa Fe Ring—with considerable power and control of various sections of the territory.
Members included U.S. District Attorney Stephen B. Elkins (alleged founder and leader of the ring), New Mexico Territory Attorney General Thomas B. Catron and Judge Joseph G. Palen, territorial chief justice and district judge for the judicial constituency that included Cimarron, the Colfax County seat. The leading members in Colfax County itself were Dr. Robert H. Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills; in Las Vegas, south of Colfax County, the ring power was held by Benjamin Stevens, district attorney of the 2nd Judicial District, whose court was in San Miguel County. For a time Clay Allison was in league with the ring, lending a hand to powerful men who did not hesitate to use threats and coercion to protect or expand their interests.
Calvin Horn, in New Mexico’s Troubled Years: The Story of the Early Territorial Governors, writes, “The worst of the violence came after the September 1875 murder of the Rev. F.J. Tolby, whom many Colfax County residents believed was killed for interfering with attempts by the Santa Fe Ring to control the Maxwell Land Grant Co. and the county.” Before the murder of Tolby, Allison had been an at-large tool of the ring, but with Tolby’s death, laid at the feet of the men from New Mexico’s territorial capital, Allison switched sides and took a fierce part in the rebellion of the settler-citizens of Colfax County against the Santa Fe Ring.
In October 1875, according to the November 9, 1875, issue of the Weekly New Mexican in Santa Fe:
Friends of [Tolby], particularly his fellow preacher Oscar P. McMains, were convinced Cruz Vega, a part-time postal delivery man who had been seen in the vicinity of [Tolby’s] murder, had actually killed the [Methodist] minister. McMains led a masked mob, which allegedly included Allison, grabbed Vega and strung him up to a telegraph pole near the Poñil Creek. [The mob] lifted and lowered Vega until he accused Manuel Cardenas as having killed Tolby.
This mob action in the fall was most likely the first of Allison’s turnabout adventures against the Santa Fe Ring. Clay was a man who went to extreme lengths to extract retribution when he felt he had been slighted or wronged. His Bible Belt upbringing demanded a settling of scores for the death of a Methodist minister.
A relative of Vega, Francisco “Pancho” Griego, a minion of the Santa Fe Ring, let it be known around Cimarron that he blamed Clay Allison for the death of his kinsman and was gunning for the cattleman. On November 1 Griego confronted Allison at Lambert’s Saloon in the St. James Hotel, and Clay left him dead, lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood. “Francisco Griego was shot and killed by R.C. Allison,” the Daily New Mexican stated in its November 5, 1875, issue. “Both parties met at the door of the St. James, took a drink and…walked to the corner of the room and had some conversation.” At some point Griego reportedly fanned his sombrero in an effort to distract Clay. It didn’t work. “Allison,” the paper continued, “drew his revolver and shot three times.…Griego has killed a great many men and was considered a dangerous man; few regret his loss.” Griego’s body was laid to rest in Cimarron, but in 1877, according to the Daily New Mexican of March 5 of that year, it was reinterred at Santa Fe, where his mother and family lived.
On November 10, 1875, 10 days after Allison killed Griego, the authorities arrested Manuel Cardenas and confined him to the hoosegow in Cimarron. But the Rev. McMains and his merry men grabbed the prisoner from the jail and beat him until he confessed that he and Vega had ambushed and murdered the Rev. Tolby. Cardenas disclosed that Griego, Florencio Donoghue of Santa Fe, and the Cimarron duo of attorney Mills and Dr. Longwill had paid for that killing. The gang decided to turn Cardenas loose, but by evening he was back in jail, having been rearrested by local officials based on his confession of murder. That same night a Cimarron mob again dragged him from the jail, and this time the angry citizens shot and killed him. Allison was fingered as a member of the group that coerced Cardenas’ confession and/or the vigilantes who killed him. Not that anyone publicly expressed disapproval over the fate of the short-lived prisoner. “Cardenas had a bad reputation,” one territorial newspaper reported the next day. “At one time he had been sentenced for murder and only a short time before he was killed had been publicly whipped in the Plaza of Taos.”
After Cardenas’ death, Longwill and Mills assumed Allison was a member of the vigilantes who killed him, and both made the mistake of stating in public that it was he who needed killing. They also knew that Allison, said to have “a flair for getting his man,” would likely try to get them first. Longwill and Mills fled Cimarron to Fort Union and, reportedly with the aid of officers from the fort, eventually arrived in Santa Fe.
In early January 1876 Allison took umbrage at editor William D. Dawson of The Cimarron News and Press for publishing items with leanings toward the Santa Fe Ring. On January 21, according to one account, “Clay Allison and some of his cohorts, angered by an item in the newspaper, battered in the door of the building, smashed the press with a sledgehammer and finally dumped the type cases and office equipment into the Cimarron River.”
That ended Dawson’s stint as editor. On January 28 editors William R. Morley and Frank W. Springer took control of the newspaper. “Having obtained another press, they put out a four-page paper,” writes David L. Caffey in his 2006 book about Springer. “Under the headline RICHARD IS HIMSELF AGAIN, the new management published a lengthy article stating the paper’s [new] editorial philosophy.” The article concludes, “The News and Press [will be] the recognized organ of the people, the exponent of their rights, as against the abuses and outrageous laws and practices inflicted upon a long suffering territory by a servile and corrupt legislature.” Indeed, Morley and Springer began to actively oppose the ring politically and to attack all other parties connected with Governor Axtell’s decision earlier that month to remove the judiciary of Colfax County to Taos County. The move meant that Colfax citizens had to travel some 60 miles over a high mountain pass to attend court, and that the ring would probably try to control the selection of juries in Taos.
Clay Allison, with his self-proclaimed fight against the Santa Fe Ring and its underlings, had become a thorn in the side of the politicos, one too big to ignore. Springer, the newspaperman and lawyer who had arrived in Cimarron in 1873 and quickly become a Colfax County leader, addressed the ring’s solution to the Allison problem in his August 1878 deposition with Department of Interior special investigator Frank Angel, whom the feds had sent to the territory to get to the bottom of Axtell’s shenanigans. “What was done, if anything, by the governor in regard to Colfax County after passage of the act [attaching Colfax County to Taos for judicial purposes]?” Angel asked Springer, who replied: “After my interview with Gov. Axtell…I returned to Cimarron and had a meeting with a number of citizens, at which an invitation was prepared, directed to the governor…requesting him to visit Colfax County.…This was signed by…some 10 or 12 [citizens]. I mailed it to the governor, who received it, as I afterwards learned, but he never made any direct reply.”
In early March 1876 in Albuquerque, Springer ran into Ben Stevens, a ring member in Las Vegas and district attorney of the 2nd Judicial District. Stevens told Springer he was “going to Cimarron and…perhaps locate there [although it was not of his district].” Stevens did reach Cimarron and told citizens he would try to induce the governor to visit Colfax County. Instead of going to Santa Fe, though, Stevens went to Fort Union and returned to Cimarron with 30 members of L Company of the 9th Cavalry under Captain Francis Moore. Stevens showed townspeople a telegram from Axtell, reading, “Do not let it be known that I will be at Cimarron on Saturday’s coach.”
“[Stevens] said it was proof his efforts with the governor had been successful,” Springer later told Angel, “and that the governor was coming to visit…and would expect to meet those who had signed the invitation.…He especially mentioned Allison as one that ought to be on hand. He also urged on Mr. [William] Morley, with whom he was talking, to keep the matter quiet, as the governor did not want a crowd.…The governor did not intend to be present to visit Colfax at the time and did not in fact arrive on Saturday’s coach, but the telegram and the action of Stevens was in furtherance of a plot of which the details are set forth in a letter which the governor wrote to Ben Stevens.”
Axtell’s “Dear Ben” letter, which probably came into Springer’s possession in early April 1878, exposed the conspiracy to kill Colfax County’s leading citizens if necessary. The letter also revealed the extent of the Santa Fe Ring’s power and influence over others in positions of authority in New Mexico Territory, most notably Stevens. Although the district attorney evidently later opted out of the plot to kill those on Axtell’s hit list, he was the instrument of its initiation. The infamous letter follows:
Dear Ben—I do not think your definite business is suspected.…[Colonel Edward] Hatch [commander of the military department] says their opinion is that you weakened and do not want to arrest the man. Have your men placed to arrest him and to kill all the men who resist you or stand with those who do [not] resist you. Our man signed the invitation with others who were at that meeting for me to visit Colfax—Porter, Morley, Springer, et al.…Do not hesitate at extreme measures. Your honor is at stake now, and a failure is fatal. —Yours, etc., S.B. Axtell
Springer talked about the letter in his federal deposition:
The person referred to as “our man,” as I afterwards learned from the commander of the troops—was Mr. R.C. Allison. He was not under indictment for anything, nor was there any charge known to be pending against him. He occupied a prominent place in the eyes of the public on account of his well-known desperate courage and resolute character.…He was one of the signers of the invitation to the governor and was a perfect guaranty of courteous treatment on his part, as Allison was known to be keenly scrupulous in such matters.…If he had come to the coach upon the invitation of the governor…and had found himself beset with soldiers seeking to arrest him, his first motion would have been one of resistance; in that case, according to the instructions of Gov. Axtell, not only he, but those who stood with him, were to be killed.…
[I was convinced] that the arrest of Allison was not the real object of the expedition. If it had been, it could easily have been done in a straightforward manner…and there would have been no necessity for the significant coupling of the names of Messrs. Porter, Morley and myself, with suggestions to kill…those who resisted.
Having smelled a rat in Governor Axtell’s plans, the Cimarron men did not show up for the arrival of Saturday’s coach, nor did the governor travel to Cimarron. After the failure of the governor’s plan to kill Colfax County’s leaders, the Fort Union soldiers remained in Cimarron for several weeks. At the end of the first week they marched out into the country, surrounded Clay Allison’s house and arrested him. Surprisingly, he went quietly in custody to Cimarron. After several hours he was released and went about his business. Such was Allison’s reputation with the military and local officials, the posse sent to arrest him included a sheriff, a captain and lieutenant with 45 U.S. cavalrymen.
In December 1876 as the Colfax County War wound down—at least Clay Allison’s part in it—Clay was ready for a break from that troubled county in New Mexico Territory. He and youngest brother John William went on a cattle-selling trip to neighboring Las Animas, Bent County, Colorado, but then became embroiled in a fatal shooting in a local dance hall.
On December 21, coming off the trail and ready to celebrate the upcoming Christmas season, Clay and John entered the Olympic dance hall and, true to their unrestrained natures, began to run roughshod over the other patrons. Informed of the ruckus, Bent County Deputy Sheriff Charles Faber strode into the dance hall armed with a double-barreled shotgun and accompanied by two armed special deputies appointed on the spot. Without warning, Faber fired at John Allison, who was on the dance floor. Clay, standing at the bar, whirled, drew his revolver and fired four shots at the deputy. One bullet struck Faber in the chest, and as he fell, mortally wounded, the jolt accidentally triggered the second barrel of his shotgun, the charge again striking John Allison.
Meanwhile, Sheriff John Spiers heard the shooting and arrived in time to arrest the Allison brothers. Although John had not fired a shot, a coroner’s jury brought murder charges against both Allison brothers in the death of Charles Faber. Prosecutors later dropped the murder charge against John, while Clay faced a lesser charge of manslaughter. However, witnesses testified that Faber had fired into the crowded dance hall without warning, and by the end of March 1877 prosecutors had not located any witnesses who could/would testify against Clay Allison. The court released Allison on a $10,000 bond.
Earlier that month, perhaps anticipating a long jail sentence, Clay sold his interest in the Allison ranch on the Vermejo River in Colfax County to brother John, and in 1878 he left New Mexico Territory. After a cattle-selling trip to St. Louis and a stint in Kansas, Clay settled at the junction of Gageby Creek and the Washita River in Wheeler County (present-day Hemphill County), Texas. The Cimmaron News and Press ran the following item on October 31, 1878:
We learn from a correspondent in Texas that R.C. Allison has been the hero of a brilliant encounter with Indians. The scene of the fight was somewhere near Fort Elliott. Allison and a number of ranchmen were with a company of soldiers, as volunteers. When they came in sight of the Indians, they found that the red devils had surrounded the house of an American settler and were about to massacre the family. The officer commanding the troops, thinking there was an ambush laid for his party, refused to attack.
Allison, with his usual courage and daring, asked permission to lead 25 soldiers to the rescue. This was refused, and he then called for volunteers from the ranchmen. Fourteen responded to his call and, with Allison at the head, charged the Indians. They succeeded after a hot engagement, in which they had one man killed, in rescuing the family.
Allison, though his horse was shot, escaped any injury. It was a heroic affair and reflects great credit upon the gallant man who led the charge.
In spring 1880 Allison registered the new brand “ACE” in Wheeler County. The next year, on February 15, Clay married America Medora McCulloch, whom he called “Dora.” John and another brother, Jeremiah Monroe (who had arrived in Colfax County circa 1877), also left the ranch in northern New Mexico Territory to follow Clay to the Texas Panhandle.
Clay Allison left his Gageby Creek ranch in Hemphill County in 1883 and moved with Dora into a two-room rock ranch house near Pope’s Wells in southwest Texas on the Texas–New Mexico border. Clay bought supplies in Pecos, about 40 miles south. It was on one of these buying trips that Allison, who had lived through two Civil War enlistments and several Western gunplay actions, died on July 3, 1887, in a freak accident that still has Old West historians scratching their heads. As Clay was crossing the Pecos River, his wagon evidently hit a large clump of salt grass, which pitched him off onto the ground, where a rear wagon wheel ran over his neck. Later that afternoon a cowboy came upon the driverless wagon and backtracked it until he found Allison lying dead with a broken neck.
With his marriage Clay Allison had become an ideal family man and father, stopped drinking and settled down to serious cattle ranching without the violence of land wars and political assassinations that had taken up his time in New Mexico Territory. He was one of the signers of a petition to form Reeves County, Texas, and according to those who personally knew him in the late 1880s, he was a man respected by his neighbors.
Tennessee author Sharon Cunningham has long been interested in the life and legend of Clay Allison. She is the retired editor of Pioneer Press (Dixie Gun Works’ publishing division) and the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association’s Muzzle Blasts magazine. For further reading Cunningham suggests: Maxwell Land Grant, by William A. Keleher; O.P. McMains and the Maxwell Land Grant Conflict, by Morris F. Taylor; The Morleys: Young Upstarts on the Southwest Frontier, by Norman Cleveland and George Fitzpatrick; and Frank Springer and New Mexico: From the Colfax County War to the Emergence of Modern Santa Fe, by David L. Caffey.