Ike Clanton finally meets his Waterloo
By Marshall Trimble
It was 1887 and Ike and Fin Clanton, a couple of cow thieves who survived the Cochise County War against Wyatt Earp and his brothers five years earlier, moved their operations to the Springerville area. Their ranch, the Cienega Amarilla, was located east of Springerville, near Escudilla Mountain.
The Clantons and their friends were accused of terrorizing local citizens, cattle rustling, train robbery and holding up the Apache County treasurer.
A few years earlier, under the leadership of family patriarch, Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, they created a successful business in Cochise County during the late 1870s and early 1880s brokering stolen livestock from Mexico. The old man was killed in an ambush at Guadalupe Canyon in the summer of 1881, and the youngest, Billy, died a few weeks later in the so-called “Gunfight at OK Corral.”
A story was told around Tombstone that the Clantons often boasted the reason their cattle business was so profitable was that they didn’t have to buy their cows.
Ike was a fairly likeable figure around Tombstone. He had plenty of money to spend around town, and this made him popular among locals. He was also a loudmouthed braggart and, more than anyone else, instigated the fateful showdown with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday in Tombstone on October 26, 1881.
When the shooting started, Ike skedaddled, leaving his younger brother Billy to die. Interestingly, the Earps and Doc Holliday might have been charged with murder had Ike not testified for the prosecution. He got on the stand and, with his outlandish tall tales, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the prosecution. But that’s a story for another time.
No doubt, despite his popularity, Ike had many character flaws. Noted Tombstone historian Ben Traywick described him as “a born loser.”
There was so much litigation over rustling in Apache County that Ike Clanton was probably not a high priority. As he did in Tombstone, Ike passed himself off as a successful businessman. He spent a lot of money and that was good for business.
Other members of the gang included Lee Renfro, G.W. “Kid” Swingle, Longhair Sprague, Billy Evans (who called himself “Ace of Diamonds”) and the Clanton’s brother-in-law, Ebin Stanley.
On Christmas Day 1886 in Springerville, Evans, wanting to see “if a bullet would go through a Mormon,” shot and killed Jim Hale in cold blood. Apparently, Hale incurred the wrath of the outlaws earlier after he helped identify some livestock they’d stolen.
Five days later, the St. Johns Herald wrote of the killing, “During a holiday jollification in Springerville on Christmas Day, the ordinary amusement of pistol shooting was indiscriminately indulged in, and the town ventilated with bullets. Mr. Hale, who was said to have been among the celebrates was shot through the body, from which death ensued.”
The Clantons downfall in Apache County began a few weeks earlier on November 6 with the shooting of a local rancher named Isaac Ellinger at the Clanton ranch. Ellinger and a friend, Pratt Plummer, rode to the ranch and had dinner with the Clanton brothers and Lee Renfro. Afterward, Ellinger, Ike and Renfro went into another cabin and were having a conversation when Renfro suddenly pulled his pistol and shot the rancher.
After the shooting, Ike and Fin assured Renfro they were his friends and there was no need to make a hasty exit.
However, when Plummer jumped on his horse and rode for Springerville, Renfro mounted his horse and fled the scene.
As he lay dying, Ellinger called the shooting “coldblooded murder,” saying he had no idea Renfro was going to shoot him. He died four days later.
William Ellinger, Isaac’s brother, was one of the biggest cattlemen in the West, owning ranches in several states and territories. He was a member of the Apache County Stock Association and had a lot of political clout in the area.
Isaac managed his older brother’s ranch and was also a member of the association. His murder would set in motion a strong effort on the part of the association to eliminate the Clanton gang.
In April 1887, the Apache County Stock Association convened in St. Johns and hired a Pinkerton detective to keep an eye on Andy Cooper’s gang. At the same time, Sheriff Owens dispatched Apache County deputies Albert Miller and Rawhide Jake Brighton to go after the Clantons. Brighton, along with being constable at Springerville, was a range detective enforcing the law with a mail-order detective’s badge.
Originally, on the recommendation of Undersheriff Joe McKinney, Owens had hired the famous ex-Texas lawman Jeff Milton to go after the Clantons, but at the last minute, he accepted a job as customs officer in southern Arizona.
In May and June 1887, several grand jury indictments were brought against the Clantons and their friends. Most of them involved the murder of Isaac Ellinger. One of the warrants charged Lee Renfro with the murder of Ellinger.
Six-gun justice was closing in on the outlaws. The July 9 edition of the Albuquerque Morning Democrat wrote a detailed description of the gunfight at Eagle Creek, stating that Billy Evans, a.k.a. Ace of Diamonds, and Longhair Sprague were believed to have met their deaths at a ranch owned by Charlie Thomas in the Blue River country of eastern Arizona. The two, along with either Lee Renfro or Kid Swingle, rode into the ranch and, after enjoying the rancher’s hospitality, left the following morning, taking with them some of their host’s horses.
Thomas and two friends picked up their trail and caught up with the rustlers at the mouth of Eagle Creek. Evans and Sprague pulled their guns and opened fire on the ranchers, who returned fire, killing both rustlers. The third rustler, probably Renfro, escaped.
The St. Johns Herald had a different take, claiming the story was a hoax conjured up by friends of the outlaws to give them time to escape. Still another twist of the tale claimed the story was made up to protect the posse as to the identity of who was actually gunning down the rustlers.
Soon after the gunfight at Eagle Creek, the law finally caught up with Lee Renfro along the border of Graham and Apache counties. A “secret service” officer, in the employment of a cattlemen’s association, recognized him and attempted to make an arrest. Renfro went for his gun, and the officer shot him down.
“Did you shoot me for money?” the dying outlaw asked.
“No, I shot you because you resisted arrest,” he replied. The mysterious “secret officer” was the ubiquitous Rawhide Jake Brighton.
About that same time, it was reported that the infamous horse thief Kid Swingle was found hanging from the limb of a tree.
According to reports, Brighton and Albert Miller rode south of Springerville into the Blue River country near the Arizona–New Mexico border looking for Ike and his friends. After three days of hard riding, they stopped to rest at the ranch of James “Peg Leg” Wilson on Eagle Creek. They spent the night there, and the next morning while they were having breakfast, Ike Clanton rode in. Brighton recognized him and went to the door.
Suddenly Ike wheeled his horse around and bolted toward a thick stand of trees nearby. At the same time, he jerked his Winchester from its scabbard and threw it across his left arm.
Brighton fired, hitting Ike under his left arm, passing through his body and exiting on the right side. Brighton jacked another cartridge into his rifle and fired again, hitting the cantle of Ike’s saddle, grazing his leg. He fell from the saddle and was dead by the time the officers reached him.
Afterward, Wilson rode to the nearby Double Circle Ranch where he found four of Ike’s friends, who returned with him to identify the body.
Ike’s body, along with his spurs and pistol, was wrapped in a piece of canvas and buried at the Wilson ranch.
Earlier that year, in April, Fin Clanton were arrested for rustling and jailed in St. Johns and was still behind bars when Ike was run to the ground. Otherwise, he might have met the same fate as his brother. Fin was convicted in September and sentenced to 10 years at the territorial prison at Yuma but was released after serving only two years.
Ike and Fin’s brother-in-law, Ebin Stanley, was given 60 days to get out of Arizona. He and his wife packed their belongings and moved to New Mexico.
Whether or not Ike was “resisting arrest” when he was killed is still debated by historians. Despite the official report, there are some today who insist that Brighton was a hired assassin who shot Ike in the back as he was running away. The assassination of known rustlers wasn’t all that uncommon in the Old West, where justice was sometime hard to come by. Ike cleverly managed to elude the law for several years before he was finally driven out of Cochise County.
Shot while resisting arrest was a term often used to justify exterminating an evasive outlaw who’d managed to escape prosecution by legal means. Towns and cities in the West frequently resorted to vigilante justice when they felt the law was unable or unwilling to protect them. Big ranchers and cattlemen’s associations across the West oftentimes hired gunmen to rid their ranges of livestock thieves. The Johnson County War in Wyoming and story of Tom Horn are classic examples. The legendary Cochise County Sheriff John Slaughter acted as judge, jury and executioner more than once.
Author Steve Gatto wrote, “The last man standing gets to tell the tale.” And so it is.