Robert Andrew "Clay" Allison was once asked what he did for a living and he replied "I am a shootist." It is simply not possible to verify the multiple accounts of his numerous outrageous activities with "news" being what it was at the time and a century intervening. Though many of the tales were highly exaggerated, if
even half of them were true, people were right to be afraid of him.
Born with a clubfoot, Robert Clay Allison, known as "Clay", was born September 2, 1840, the fourth of nine children of John and Nancy (Lemmond)
Allison. His father, a Presbyterian minister, also worked in the cattle and sheep business, and died when Clay was only five. Clay was said to have been restless from birth and as he grew into manhood, he became feared for his wild mood swings and easy anger.
Clay worked on the family farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee until the age of 21 when the Civil War broke out and he immediately signed up to fight for the Confederacy, enlisting in the Tennessee Light Artillery division on October 15, 1861.
His clubfoot did not seem to hamper his ability to perform active duty in the Confederate Army, in fact he was eager to fight sometimes threatening to kill his superiors because they would not pursue Union troops when they were running away from the battle. However, just a few short months later on January 15, 1862, he received a medical discharge from the service. His discharge papers described the nameless illness as such: "Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmal of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal." The discharge documents further suggested that the condition might have been the result of "a blow received many years ago, producing no doubt a depression of the skull". That head injury has been the usual explanation for
Allison's psychotic behavior when drinking, perhaps explaining some of his later violent activities. His brother Monroe, also in the Confederate army, was reported in the same year as having deserted.
But, on September 22, 1862, Clay reenlisted to the 9th Tennessee Cavalry and remained with them until the war's end. Apparently, he suffered no further medical complications and became a scout and a spy for General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He began sporting the Vandyke beard he wore the rest of his life in imitation of the flamboyant cavalry commander. On May 4, 1865
Allison surrendered with his company at Gainesville, Alabama. He was held as a prisoner of war until May 10, 1865, having been convicted of spying and sentenced to be shot.
But the night before he was to face the firing squad he killed the guard and
Upon his return to civilian life,
Allison became a member of the local Ku Klux Klan, whose dislike for the Freedmen's Bureau of Wayne County nearly led to armed conflict.
AAllison was involved in several confrontations before he left Tennessee for
Texas. It was said that when a corporal with the Union Third Illinois Cavalry arrived at the family farm, intending to seize the contents of the property, Clay retrieved his gun from the closet and calmly killed the Union soldier.
Allison, his brothers Monroe and John, sister Mary and her husband, Lewis Coleman moved to the Brazos River Country in Texas. Clay and Coleman never returned to Tennessee. Attempting to cross a wide river on their way to Texas, Zachary Colbert, the ferryman, presented the price of crossing. Clay accused the ferryman of overcharging and an argument ensued, whereby Colbert was left unconscious.
It is said that this incident might have led to the ferryman's desperado nephew, Chunk Colbert, being killed by
Allison some nine years later. In the meantime, the Allisons rode across the river free of charge. Settling down for a while, Clay learned the ways of ranching and became an excellent cowhand while in
Texas. He signed on with
Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in 1866 and accompanied them on their famous
Goodnight-Loving Trail through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Around 1867 Clay worked as a trail boss for M.L. Dalton. He then worked for his brother-in-law, Lewis Coleman and Irwin W. Lacy, two cattle ranchers who were also legends in their own time.