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New Mexico Bad Boy - Clay Allison

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Clay AllisonRobert 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 escaped.


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. Allison 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 Allison 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.


While in Texas, Allison was said to have had an altercation over the rights of a water hole with a neighbor by the name of Johnson. The two decided to settle the matter by digging a grave and entering the pit with bowie knives. The loser would be buried in the pit and the winner gaining the rights of the waterhole. Allison had excellent skills with a bowie knife and obviously didn't lose, but whether or not he killed his neighbor is unknown.




Allison On the TrailIn 1870 Coleman and Lacy moved to a spread in Colfax County, New Mexico. The Allison brothers accompanied them and, as payment for their work driving the herd, they received three hundred head of cattle. Clay took his share and homesteaded a ranch at the junction of the Vermejo and Canadian rivers, nine miles north of today's Springer. The two rivers ensured ample water and Allison built his ranch into a profitable business.


The Allison brothers quickly entered the "social scene in Cimarron and Elizabethtown and within only a few weeks the cowboys and ranchers were calling Clay a friend. But law had not yet come to these early settlements and the cowboys' Saturday night visits to town would find them drinking hard, pulling out their six-shooters, and riding up and down the streets yelling and shooting.  They made their rounds to the local saloons and gambling halls where they shot out lamps, lanterns, mirrors, glasses and were said to have particularly enjoyed making newcomers "dance" as shots were fired at their feet.


In the fall of 1870, Clay Allison showed the citizens of Elizabethtown how mean and violent his temper was. Charles Kennedy, who was suspected of killing and robbing overnight guests in his isolated cabin on Palo Fletchado Pass, was being held at the Elizabethtown jail. Clay, along with several others, broke into the jail, threw a rope around his neck and dragged him by a horse up and down Main Street until long after he was dead. Allison then decapitated Kennedy, carrying his head in a sack twenty-nine miles to Cimarron and demanded that it be staked on a fence at the front of Lambert's Inn (later the St. James Hotel.)


Clay Allison, gunfighterOn April 30, 1871, Allison and two others were said to have stolen 12 government mules belonging to the Fort Union Commander, General Gordon Granger. In the fall, he tried the same stunt again, but when military men came running to the corral, Allison accidentally shot himself in the foot during the confusion. The would-be rustlers escaped to a hideout along the Red River, where Allison sent his friend Davy Crockett (a nephew of the American frontiersman) to fetch Dr. Longwell from Cimarron. Though Clay was treated, he spent the rest of his life with a permanent limp.


After recuperating, Clay was on a drinking spree in a local saloon, when suddenly he took a dislike to a man named Wilson. Wilson had the good sense to quickly depart, but left Clay in a foul mood. Clay then happened into the County Clerk's office where he took offence to something that John Lee, the county clerk said and slung a knife at him, stapling his sleeve to the timber of a door. Lee broke free and ran across the street to Dr. Longwell's office.


Next, Clay repeated his knife act with a young lawyer, Melvin W. Mills, who also fled to the doctor's office. Mills described what had happened to the doctor and took up his gun, stating that he would have to kill Allison in self-defense. While the doctor was trying to persuade the lawyer away from such a dangerous act, he noticed that Allison was riding toward the office, at which time the clerk and lawyer promptly fled out of the back door. The doctor stepped out of his office to meet Allison, telling Clay that he had been acting badly. The rancher only laughed, stating that he had nothing against Mills or Lee but wanted Wilson's ear, then rode off in a vain search for Wilson. Mills would carry a grudge against Allison for years, which was later evidenced in the Colfax County War.


Having no fear when it came to other men, Clay was always shy and uncertain when it came to women. But that changed when he met a considerably younger Dora McCullough. When Clay and his brother, John, met Dora and her younger sister, both were smitten. The girls, who were born and raised in Sedalia, Missouri were orphaned during the Civil War and lived with their guardians, Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Young on what is now known as the Vermejo Ranch.


Mrs. Young liked John, but Clay's reputation had preceded him and she looked upon him with disapproval. Not to be deterred, the two couples eloped in 1873 and upon their return begged the forgiveness and their blessing of the Young's. Over time, the Young's forgave Allison when they observed that Clay never went looking for trouble, but didn't shirk it when it came his way.


After his marriage, Allison met the only man who was able to out-draw him, Mace Bowman. Meeting in Lambert's Inn one evening, talk turned to Hickok's fast draw and Allison stated that he thought he was even faster. Bowman begged to differ and wagered a gallon of whisky that he could outdraw Allison. In the center of the room, they paced off the distance to the wall and turned. Before Allison was able to get his gun out of the holster, Maces's six-shooter was pointed at his chest. Allison was amazed and paid Bowman the gallon he owed him. The two took the whiskey to the country where Bowman taught Allison his lightening rapid trick.


Clay Allison shoots Chunk ColbertOn January 7, 1874, Clay killed gunman Chunk Colbert, a known gunslinger. Colbert came to the area looking for a fight with Allison. Some say that Colbert fancied that he could outdraw and outshoot anyone, including Allison. Others say that he wanted revenge for his uncle, Zachary Colbert, the ferryman that Allison had pummeled at the Brazos River 9 years earlier. Reportedly, Colbert had already killed 6 men in Texas and bragged that Allison would be his seventh. Not giving away his motives, Colbert found Allison and the two spent most of the day together drinking and gambling on horse races.


That night Colbert invited Allison to dinner at the Clifton House and Allison accepted. Guessing that there might be trouble, Clay was very cautious but, the talk was friendly as they enjoyed a large meal spread out before them. When they were seated it Colbert laid his gun in his lap and Allison laid his gun on the table. After the meal was finished Colbert suddenly reached for his gun under the table and leveled it towards Allison. The perceptive Allison followed suit and when Colbert's gun nicked the table, the shot was deflected and Allison shot him in the head. Later Allison was asked why He had accepted to have a meal with him and answered, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach." Colbert was buried in an unmarked grave behind the Clifton House.


Charles Cooper, a friend of the late Mr. Colbert, witnessed the shooting. Less than two weeks after Colbert's death, Cooper was seen riding with Allison on January 19, 1874. He was never seen again. People started talking, thinking that Allison had killed him, but others thought that Clay simply intimidated the man into leaving. No evidence was ever found to prove the suspicions that Clay had killed the man, but this event would come back to haunt him during the Colfax War.


The next few years Clay's reputation expanded at the same pace as the booming town of Cimarron. The new owners of the Maxwell Land Grant were aggressively exploiting the resources of the grant and were busy with their attempts at evicting the squatters, settlers, farmers and small ranchers living on the land. 


The power behind the grant was a group of politicians and financers called the "Santa Fe Ring." Melvin W. Mills, the lawyer that Allison had thrown a knife at several years before, and Dr. Longwell, who had treated Clay's bullet wound, jumped on the bandwagon and joined the political forces behind the "Ring." In a bitter 1875 election, Dr. Longwell was made probate judge, while attorney Mills was made a state Legislator.

Clay Allison, 1875As the burgeoning Cimarron settlement was trying to adjust itself to the influx of prospectors, gamblers, and politics, it found itself in the midst of great conflict between the land grant company and the settlers of the area. Sheriffs served eviction notices and retaliation began. Grant pastures were set on fire, cattle rustling increased and officials were threatened at gun point. Grant gang members made nighttime raids of area homes and ranches with threats of violence. The mightily opposed residents formed their own organization which they called the Colfax County Ring, which some said was lead by Clay Allison.


During this time when Cimarron was in the need of salvation, Parson Franklin J. Toby enlisted with the Methodist Circuit Riders, delivering his sermons in Cimarron, Elizabethtown, Ute Park, Ponil and Sugarite. Having always had a respect for men of the cloth, Clay Allison was one of the first to welcome the minister. Tolby loved Cimarron, planning on making it his home, and quickly sided with the settlers in their opposition against the land grant men. He was very open about his opposition, saying that he would do everything that he could to stop the land grant owners. On September 14, 1875 the 33 year-old minister was found shot in the back in Cimarron Canyon, midway between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, near Clear Creek.


Rumors began to circulate that the new Cimarron Constable, Cruz Vega was involved in the murder of the Methodist circuit rider. Tolby's fellow minister and friend, Reverend Oscar Patrick McMains, took up the fight against the "grant men" after Tolby's murder.


Despite a $3,000 reward for the murderer, no progress was being made on finding Tolby's killer and McMains was becoming impatient. The pastor turned to Allison for help, who was more than ready to play judge on horseback.

On the evening of October 30, 1875 a masked mob, who was said to have been lead by Clay Allison and the Minister McMains, confronted Vega. The constable denied having anything to do with the murder, blaming it on a man by the name Manuel Cardenas, who had been hired by his uncle, Francisco Griego and mail contractor Florencio Donaghue. Obviously, the mob did not believe him and he was pummeled and hanged by the neck from a telegraph pole. Unable to stomach the violence, the Reverend McMains panicked and fled midway through the session.


After finding Vega's body later Sunday morning, Francisco "Pancho" Griego, Vega's uncle, claimed the corpse and on Monday morning he and a friend transported the boxed remains to the Cimarron cemetery. Suddenly, Clay rode up with his cowboys and informed Griego that Vega was not to be buried in the same cemetery as his victim, Tolby.


Angry but helpless, Griego, along with several mourners, left and began preparing for a burial outside the graveyard. Following them, Allison further instructed that Vega was not to be buried inside of the city limits. Finally, the remains were placed about a half-mile west of the St. James Hotel.


Allison_Possible_Vega_grave.jpg (309x187 -- 15898 bytes)Later that same day, November 1, 1875, Francisco "Pancho" Griego, along with Cruz's eighteen year-old son and Griego's partner Florencio Donahue began making threats to the townspeople in response to Vega's death. Looking for trouble, they wandered into the St. James Hotel. Allison was in the saloon when Griego accused him of being involved in the hanging of Vega. Griego began fanning himself with his hat in an attempt to distract Allison while he drew his gun. But Allison was not fooled and fired two bullets in killing Griego instantly. The saloon was closed until an inquiry could be held the next morning, and according to local accounts of the day, the saloon closing was the most unfortunate aspect of the whole incident. Allison and his men ran rough-shod over Cimarron all week, spreading general chaos. On Thursday they were said to have paraded into the local newspaper, brandishing a knife at the editor and on Friday night, took over Lambert's Inn, where Allison was said to have stripped naked, and performed a war dance over the spot where he had shot Griego, wearing a red ribbon tied around his private parts. On November 10, Allison faced the charges in the killing Griego, but the charges were dropped when the court ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.


In the meantime, Manuel Cardenas, the man who Vega had implicated prior to his death, was arrested and questioned in Elizabethtown. He claimed that Vega had shot the minister, adding that Santa Fe Ringers Mills and Longwell were also behind the killing. When word of this got out, Mills barely escaped a furious lynch mob in Cimarron as he alighted from a coach Longwell fled in a buggy to Fort Union and safety just ahead of pursuers, Clay and his brother John.


However, during his protracted hearing, Cardenas retracted his earlier accusations against Mills and Longwell, stating that he had been coerced at gunpoint, at which time, Mills and Longwell were cleared. However, the vigilantes obviously didn't believe his testimony and when Cardenas was escorted back to the jail, he was shot to death. Believing that Allison was the head of the vigilantes, this last shooting so enraged the Mexican population of Cimarron that they were determined to have Clay's scalp. Armed Mexican bands roamed the street and the atmosphere was so charged that Sheriff Orson K. Chittenden and Deputy Burleson hid Clay for a time at the Chittenden ranch, 20 miles south of Springer. When Allison again began to go about Cimarron, he was said to be a walking arsenal, accompanied by forty-five cowboys.



Continued Next Page



"His appearance is striking. Tall, straight as an arrow, dark complexioned, carries himself with ease and grace, gentlemanly and courteous in manner, never betraying by word or action the history of his eventful life." 


--  Kinsley Graphic, December 14, 1878. 


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