On a sunny day in mid-October with Helldorado Days in full swing, Ms. Rosemary and Ms. Karen, headed for the San Pedro River to learn about the Clanton Ranch. Helldorado Days has occurred every year in Tombstone at this time for over 85 years, with parties and parades. Still, it was a nice surprise when several cowboys showed up for the tour. Included in this motley crew was an hombre from Great Britain. (Brits love Tombstone).
It’s a short hike .58 miles from a parking lot on Escapule Road, not far from Charleston Road, leading from Sierra Vista to Tombstone. There are many other historic sites along Charleston Road, all of them with the San Pedro River as common ground. Back in Tombstone’s boomtown days, the San Pedro was the only nearby water for processing ore from the mines. Thus, here is were you would have found the mills, Millville and Gird and their related rowdy towns, such as Charleston.
On this day we were interested in exploring the Clanton Ranch ruins, learning about the pioneer Clanton family, and visualizing what life was like almost 140 years ago in this part of the country.
This tour was sponsored by the Friends of the San Pedro River, who, with the help of the BLM maintain and support 56,000 acres of the San Pedro River Natural Conservation Area, (SPRNCA) and conduct tours of several of the historic spots along this unique river evneironment.
Bette Ford, our docent, indicated several times that historians have found references to this spot as being the site of the Clanton Ranch, given its position on the high ground, as defense against intruders as well as flooding. Bette also spoke a length about the Clanton’s lucrative cattle rustling business and the network of watering holes leading to the stockades.
Historical Background of the Clantons
Ike Clanton is well known to Western history buffs for his part in the feud between the “Cowboys” and the Earp faction that exploded near the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ on October 26, 1881. But there is far more to this story.
Poor Isaac. His mom died when he was nine. His father, Newman, known widely as “Old Man” Clanton, had been a slaveholder in Tennessee long before he was a rancher/rustler at the time he was killed by other outlaws on August 13, 1881. This occurred five weeks before THE GUNFIGHT in Tombstone that killed his youngest son William “Billy” Clanton. The old man’s eldest son, Phin, was a rustler but not directly involved in the gunfight and its violent aftermath.
Joseph Isaac Clanton was a member in good standing with a loose association of ranchers / rustlers called “cowboys” in 1879 when Tombstone became the Next Big Thing: a silver mining boomtown of astonishing riches. Bette, our docent and trailguide, told us a story of the “pipeline” of ranches involved in getting these cattle to slaughter.
A party to this ranchers’ association were such notables as: Ike and Billy Clanton; Frank and Tom McLaury; Johnny Ringo; Bill “the Kid” Claiborne; Frank Stilwell; “Curly Bill” Brocius; Pony Deal; and perhaps a hundred other outlaws masquerading as legitimate ranchers or drovers.
We at Southern Arizona Guide have written extensively about this period in Western history and have noted one peculiar tangent diverting from the traditional narrative adequately supported by the historical record. For reasons we cannot yet explain, a cottage industry has evolved creating an alternate universe whereby the “cowboys” are the good guys and the Earps are the villains.
No one, not even the Earps’ staunchest supporters, claim they were angels. Eldest brother James was a saloonkeeper, and over time, operated whorehouses from Texas to Arizona. Virgil Earp had seen the utter brutality of warfare in the Civil War and was no stranger to killing. Along with his brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren, the Earps were gamblers who came to Tombstone, like everyone else, to make their fortune. The Earps were opportunists. Their ambition was to become respected “capitalists”.
Virgil mainly, but occasionally Wyatt and Morgan, took to law enforcement to have a source of somewhat steady income while their Tombstone investments matured. They were hard men doing an unbelievably dangerous job in a lawless territory. They were not killers. On many occasions, when their badges would have allowed them to kill in the line of duty, they used non-lethal means to subdue those who were in violation of the law. Consequently, no one questioned their bravery.
Moreover, Tombstone’s most upstanding citizens supported the Earps and befriended them, even unto death. If the Earps were such villains as historical revisionists claim, why did good men such as Reverend Endicott Peabody, George Parsons, John Clum, Ed and Al Schieffelin and Richard Gird side with them?
Even during and after the Earp Vendetta Ride, powerful civilizing institutions protected them for what the Earps had done to try to rid the territory of outlaws and uphold the law, such as it was. Not just New York and San Francisco investors in the Tombstone mines, but also Wells Fargo and Southern Pacific Railroad; not to mention the governors of Colorado and New Mexico who refused to extradite them to Arizona for prosecution.
Ike Clanton, his younger brother Billy, and the other cowboys were white southern trash: rustlers, stagecoach robbers and murderers. Ike, in particular, was a mean, cowardly drunk. Not to mention a liar under oath in Judge Spicer’s court in which the Earps and Doc Holliday were defending themselves against Ike’s murder accusations. In fact, that court transcript clearly reveals Ike as both corrupt and dumber than a rock. The Earps could not have asked for a better witness for their defense.
No one was more responsible for the gunfight on Fremont Street (aka OK Corral) than Ike. In the days and nights leading to the most famous gunfight in Western history, Ike threatened the Earps and Doc Holliday on several occasions. The Earps blew him off as a harmless drunken braggart. They shouldn’t have.
Ike was most likely involved in the ambush of Virgil Earp that left the Tombstone Marshal crippled for life in December 1881. Ike was probably involved in the attempted murder of Wyatt Earp and the murder of Morgan Earp at Hatch’s Billiard Parlor in March 1882. Ike was definitely involved in another attempted murder of Virgil Earp at the Tucson Train Depot. When confronted by the Earps near the OK Corral on September 26, 1881, Ike ran. When confronted by Wyatt Earp at the Tucson Train Depot, he ran. Ike’s accomplice, Frank Stilwell, was not so fortunate that night.
Thus is was, as Ms. Karen and I were traveling through Springerville, AZ one fine December day, we were somewhat gratified to discover that here Joseph Isaac Clanton met his Maker on June 1, 1887 at the hands of a law officer who caught him rustling cattle. Just desserts, only a few years too late.
Directions to the Clanton Ranch Ruins
To get to likely site of the Clanton Ranch, you will find a parking lot on Escapule Road, West of the San Pedro River, and south of Charleston Road, between Sierra Vista and Tombstone.
The parking lot to the Clanton Ranch is marked with teenie weenie signs on a post on the right, about a mile south of Charleston Rd. You will be turning east (left) into it. From the parking lot you will find an interpretive sign and a trail which leads straight .58 miles to the top of a rise. there you will see an opening on the left, two fence posts marking that opening. There is no sign. Make a left and head to the end. Make another left and head up a short hill. there you will find the remains of two separate structures from two different periods. The adobe one is widely believed to be a structure from the Clanton Ranch.
You do not need a tour guide to get to the Clanton Ranch, but the historic hike is more worthwhile if you get the chance. Find out more about the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area (SPRNCA) and the San Pedro River Environment here.
You can find out more about the tours from the Friends of the San Pedro here. Please join as a member. It is a legacy worth keeping.
Visit the Friends of the San Pedro River on Facebook here.
If you go, be sure to bring plenty of water, a hat, wear long pants and sturdy shoes. Watch out for rattlesnakes.