The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O. K. Corral Obituary

The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O. K. Corral Obituary

by Paul Lee Johnson

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On a chilly October afternoon in 1881, two brothers named Tom and Frank McLaury were gunned down on the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. The deadly event became known as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and in a quirk of fate, the brothers’ names became well-known, but only as bad men and outlaws. Did they deserve that

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On a chilly October afternoon in 1881, two brothers named Tom and Frank McLaury were gunned down on the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. The deadly event became known as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and in a quirk of fate, the brothers’ names became well-known, but only as bad men and outlaws. Did they deserve that reputation?

The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona: An O.K. Corral Obituary explores this question, revealing details of their family background and the context of their lives on the frontier. Paul Lee Johnson begins their story with the McLaury brothers’ decision to go into the cattle business with an ambition to have their own ranch. When they moved to Arizona, they finally achieved that goal, but along the way they became enmeshed with the cross-border black market that was thriving there. As “honest ranchers” they were in business with both the criminal element as well as the legitimate businesses in Tombstone.
Another principal in this story was an older brother, William, who set aside his law practice in Fort Worth to settle his brothers’ affairs, and associated himself with the prosecution of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. Despite his efforts, the Earps and Holliday were exonerated, and the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” became the opening salvo of a feud that took several more lives.

Johnson has interviewed family descendants and mined their sources, government correspondence, and letters that have never before been published to reveal the human lives behind the storied events. For the first time the events of the O.K. Corral gunfight are presented from the viewpoint of the McLaurys, two brothers who lost their lives and reputations, and a family who tried in vain to find restitution.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This important work provides new insight into the two brothers who died on that fateful day, and to the family that carried the scar. This book is essential for any student of Tombstone and the gunfight.”—Casey Tefertiller, author of Wyatt Earp: The Life behind the Legend

“A major benefit of this work is the inclusion of previously unpublished letters from within the McLaury family. For the first time we have an inner look at how the McLaurys viewed some of the significant events presented by Paul Lee Johnson.”—Roy B. Young, editor of the Wild West History Association Journal

“Given the limited personal material to work with, Johnson has done a masterful job of the lives and times of important figures in the Tombstone story. It comes together as a very human story. Even the unanswered questions are more tantalizing because of the story he tells. Johnson has written a book indispensable to the story of Tombstone and the Cow-Boy troubles.”—Gary L. Roberts, author of Doc Holliday

"Until now little reliable has been written on the McLaurys, but this has been substantially remedied with the publication of The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona, which attempts to bring their lives, careers and motivations into the light of historical fidelity. Years of patient and extensive research by author Paul Lee Johnson has produced a carefully-crafted volume, replete with much contemporaneous documentation."--True West

"Make no mistake--Paul Lee Johnson is one exceptional researcher. His work on the McLaurys in Tombstone, in addition to providing a meticulous chronicle of these two young men and their family, is the best compendium available of events in that boomtown during the apex of its brief, notorious arc, 1879-1882. . . . Johnson has produced a needed counterweight to bring the Tombstone story into balance, speaking for those who did not survive to speak for themselves."--Wild West History Association Journal

"In piecing together the narrative of the three McLaury brothers, Paul Lee Johnson has filled a major gap in an oft-told tale. He skillfully recounts the familiar background story with clarity and freshness, and he has produced a volume that is a notable addition to the literature of Tombstone's most compelling drama."--Journal of Arizona History

"The Earp brothers and even the dashing Doc Holliday cannot escape the author's attempt at leveling the playing field of historical memory. . . . [T]his entertaining book will serve to remind its readers that victors cannot lay total claim to history."--Southwestern Historical Quarterly

"Paul Lee Johnson’s more nuanced approach to the O.K. Corral drama presents a far more complicated picture of the McLaury brothers. The author has painstakingly pieced together the McLaurys’ backstory through secondary works and primary sources that include newspaper articles, private letters, unpublished manuscripts, public records, and interviews with McLaury descendants. Johnson shows that Frank and Tom were not the black-hearted desperados that history has made them out to be. In many ways, they were just like other settlers who headed West hoping for a better life."--New Mexico Historical Review

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University of North Texas Press
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The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona

An O.K. Corral Obituary
By paul lee johnson

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2012 Paul Lee Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57441-450-9

Chapter One

The Clan McClaughry

Although of Scottish descent, this branch of the McClaughry family spent a few generations living in central Ireland, in the county of Longford (west of Dublin), in Cleghill Parish of the township of Clonbroney. In May of 1729, Matthew McClaughry attempted to emigrate and establish a new life in the American colonies. Along with members of his family, brothers, sisters and cousins, he boarded the George and Ann, a vessel chartered by Charles Clinton and his fellow passengers, known collectively as the Clinton Colony, bound for Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Matthew, accompanied by his son, Thomas, was forced to abandon the ship before it had cleared the shores of Ireland.

Many years later, Thomas, with his wife and seven children, attempted the trip again. This time, the inspiration came from a small group of Protestants under the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Thomas Clark. They set sail from Ireland in September 1765, landing in New York City two months later. From there McClaughry hired a sloop to sail up the Hudson in order that he and his family could join the remnant of the Clinton Colony, who had established themselves in a settlement called Littlebritain, purchasing farmland in the area of Salem, New York.

Years later, two of Thomas' grown sons, Thomas Jr. and his brother Richard, settled 80 miles south and west in an area known as Delaware County. Nestled in the steeply rolling hills of New York's Catskill Mountains, Delaware County is situated at the headwaters of the great Delaware River. It was land purchased by Europeans from native tribes of the Five Nations through hard bargaining. The European landowners laid claim to the land in patents, which they divided into lots for development by farmers and woodsmen. Many of the first Anglo settlers in this area were people of Scottish descent, who not only farmed the land, but also shared values in common including the importance of education and the church.

The settlement of Kortright was on the route of the Catskill Turnpike, a major route for trade and traffic going east and west through the State of New York. Thomas McClaughry became a civic leader, at one time holding the position of town clerk. As some citizens served to maintain and repair roads that bordered or traversed their own property, Thomas was one of Kortright's "Pathmasters," enlisted annually at the town meeting. He also acted as an agent for the landlords. Typically, a settler would agree to clear and develop a 160-acre lot, and after an initial period such as five years, would pay an annual rent to the landlord. The majority of leases were held in perpetuity.

The village church overlooked Kortright Center from a hill to the west. Half a mile away, the McClaughry farmhouse was also within sight of the church. Thomas was one of the founding elders of the Associated Reform Church of Kortright (a branch of the Presbyterian denomination). Not only did he help establish the earliest church in the community, he became one of only four laymen allowed to preach from its pulpit on Sundays when the circuit preacher was elsewhere.

By his wife, Agnes (Harsha) McClaughry, Thomas had ten children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. He named his third-born son John Reid McClaughry.

J. R. McClaughry was married in 1803 to Miss Margary Rose and as a mature man he, like his father, served as a ruling elder of the church and attended the meetings of Session consistently from 1828 through 1841. He served his community several times on juries and as pathmaster. John and Margary McClaughry had twelve children, two of whom died either at birth or in infancy. Their fifth and sixth children were boys, identical twins named Joseph Hamilton and Robert Houston McClaughry. Born August 3, 1810, these boys, like their brothers and McClaughry cousins, and indeed, like most of the men of the community, grew up to become farmers.

Alongside farming, and their involvement in the church, the McClaughry family placed a high value on education. One of the village's earliest schoolhouses was built next to Thomas McClaughry's farm on land he donated. To the extent that the records exist, all the McClaughry daughters were educated the same as the sons. Many members of the extended family became professionals, for the most part, lawyers, while the women became teachers.

Although John R. McClaughry did not practice law, he did take part in civil actions in the courts. In one civil suit, he was accused of false testimony on behalf of "Robert McClaughry" who was probably his son. In June 1832, Robert would have been twenty-one.

A characteristic of the family was illustrated in a letter Thomas McClaughry, Jr. left to his grandchildren. In it he recalled a daredevil youth that grew to maturity and responsible citizenship. His purpose was to admonish his grandsons to likewise grow into responsible men and citizens. Another trait in the McClaughry clan can be documented generations back: hard-headed stubbornness.

The obstinacy of John R. McClaughry arose when he challenged a debt, a loan made to his oldest son, James. When the men came to collect the debt, John interposed himself by invoking the law against usury. Not only was he hauled into court, but the elders of the church also took a dim view of what they judged to be a dishonest maneuver. John was asked to withdraw from being a communicant member of the church, and both his membership and his eldership were taken away. The Session failed to prove their suspicions; therefore John felt "pre-judged." Even years later, when the civil suit was settled and the church forgave him, John refused to rejoin that church. He and his wife became members of a "Covenanter" church and remained there until they died.

The wealthiest farmer in Kortright township was Ebenezer Rowland. He owned pasture land and livestock, orchards and woodlots that surpassed his neighbors'. Ebenezer was born in Ireland of Scottish parentage. His wife, Margaret (Finlay) Rowland, was born in Scotland and emigrated with her parents to this part of New York around 1800. Rowland was an energetic farmer, a good business man, and an elder of the Associated Reform Church of Kortright.

It is likely that Robert Houston McClaughry and the Rowlands' second oldest daughter, Margaret, met while they were quite young. It is certain that they attended the same church with their families. When they were eligible, Robert and Margaret were married in January 1833. That summer, Robert bought property from his father that lay at the northernmost portion of Kortright Township. Its location was upon a hill overlooking the small village of East Meredith and Kortright Creek that flowed north on its way to the Susquehanna River.

In the following decade they had four children: Ebenezer, Margaret Finlay (same name as her mother and mother's mother); Hugh (a name from the Rose family); and Edmund (also from the Rose family). Over this same period of time, variations in the spelling of the family name began to appear. Robert H. McClaughry adopted "McClaury," while some of his siblings and cousins used other variations such as "McLaughry" and ultimately, "McLaury."

Robert sold his farm and moved to a larger lot little more than two miles away, in the township of East Meredith, on a lot that contained 156 acres. The farmland lay along the east-facing slope of a broad hillside. In 1841, the McLaurys built a log cabin at a "break" in the hill, along the banks of Mine Creek, near where the creek crossed the Meridale Road. It was a good location, with a sawmill upstream from the McClaury home and a tannery operated in the village of East Meredith. Robert's older brother, James R. McLaury, had a farm just under a mile up the Meridale Road to the west, beyond the saw mill.

Shortly after the birth of their fifth child, Mary Elizabeth, a tragedy followed that cost the life of their son, Hugh. Their log house caught fire in the winter of 1843. All that is known is that the family evacuated the house, only to discover that Hugh, age four-and-a-half, was trapped inside. No one could do anything until the following morning, when a neighbor collected the boy's bones from amidst the ashes of the house and took them to a small burying ground in East Meredith. House fires were a constant hazard of this time, and such tragedies were not rare. To the family enduring such a loss, however, it was a singular and monumental event.

The McClaurys built their new house on the opposite bank of Mine Creek. The new house was neither a log house nor a frame house. It was made of stone. Into this new house their younger six children were born.

From the evidence of land records, Robert didn't own the land he occupied in East Meredith. He was a tenant farmer on land owned by his brother-in-law. Tenant farming was the basis on which the towns of Delaware County were settled since the 1760s. By the 1840s, the country was rapidly expanding westward toward the Mississippi River and beyond. The Catskill Turnpike was supplanted in the 1830s by the Erie Canal, and in the following decade railroad construction gave the promise of even greater expansion. Land speculation in the Western territories created new opportunities, and created a few personal fortunes as well. The railroads engaged in land speculation, as their practice was to buy land on either side of the land granted, entice people to move west, offer land (cheap), then keep them dependent upon the railroad for shipments from the manufacturing centers of the East. In turn, farmers and manufacturers establishing themselves in the West were dependent upon the rails to ship their products to Eastern markets. It was a go-ahead, get-ahead opportunity for those who could get the equity and take the risk. By comparison, tenant farming was simply a relic of the past.

The Anti-Rent Rebellion of central New York blossomed in the 1840s. The smoldering resentments of tenant farmers against their absentee landlords eventually took the form of open protest and finally, violence. Local farmers vandalized the homes of those who stood loyal to the landlords, dressing themselves in elaborate costumes of animal skins and masks. Reminiscent of the "Sons of Liberty" who dressed as Indians and dumped tea in Boston Harbor, the disguises hinted at Indian costume, but their purpose was more than anything else, to keep the wearer from being identified.

The Anti-Rent Rebellion climaxed in 1845, when a mob shot and killed a deputy sheriff in Delhi. The resulting cases weighed down the courts and dragged out for the next two years. None of the cases involved a McClaughry as a defendant, nor did any of the McClaughrys who were lawyers take part either to prosecute or defend. They stayed neutral until the whole business was nearly at an end. What finally put an end to the Rebellion was the action of the New York legislature itself, which enabled the tenants to buy out their lease and purchase the land. At the same time, a law was enacted banning the use of disguises and masks in any public gathering.

Robert was sued in 1845 for non-payment of a debt. He was found guilty, yet took more than three years to repay it. Whether it was financial hardship or stiff-necked stubbornness, there is too little evidence to know. In the meantime, he was elected a justice of the peace in East Meredith. This was the beginning of what he would claim later in his life: that he had practiced law while in New York State. Whatever the requirements for becoming a justice of the peace in a small, rural farming community, Robert McClaury knew at least enough of the law to qualify.

The family kept growing, adding another child about every second year. After the birth of Mary Elizabeth, William Rowland was born on December 6, 1844, followed by Margary Agnes. Robert Finlay McLaury was the eighth child of this family, born March 3, 1849.

All the children were baptized at the Associated Reform Church in Kortright. In the year that Robert Finlay McLaury was baptized, the church hired an assistant for the aging Reverend McAuley who had already been there more than 50 years. Not only was the minister getting old, but the church membership had been steadily growing along with the community and the individual families in it. When the church building burned to the ground that December, the congregation wasted no time in rebuilding, but instead of simply replacing the one structure, they built three: one in the same place, one in North Kortright and another in West Kortright. The West Kortright Church was much closer to Robert McClaury and his family. It cut a trip of almost six miles down to two; and in the cold, snowy Catskill winters, that was a significant distance. They attended there along with the Rowland family, for it was Ebenezer Rowland, Sr., who donated the land upon which the church structure was built.

Christiana was the next child, born at a time of general prosperity for the farms of Kortright and Meredith. The main product of the area was dairy, after which were grains and livestock. Robert McClaury fared well during these years of plenty. But years of lean were soon to follow.

"Thomas Clark" was a name the family handed down from a time when the Reverend Dr. Thomas Clark brought Thomas McClaughry and his family to America in the 1760s. In the winter of 1853, when Margaret was pregnant with their tenth child, Robert's older brother, The Reverend Thomas Clark McClaury, died. He was the first of Robert's siblings to pass on, so when Margaret gave birth to a boy on June 30, 1853, they named him Thomas Clark, in memory of the dead uncle.

That summer, hail storms in the area ruined many crops. "It done [sic] great damages to all kinds of crops, carried away dams and bridges, tore up roads making them almost impassible." The hail flattened crops on farms farther west in Meredith, rendering them "not worth ten dollars." Mine Creek had a tendency to overflow its banks. The bridge crossing the Meridale Road by McClaury's farm washed out. But if the weather that summer was bad, the following summer was only worse.

From the time of a solar eclipse in May 1854, little rain came to the farms of Delaware County. By August, the Bloomville Mirror was crying, "Everything is drying up. All kinds of crops are suffering for the want of rain. There has not been rain enough to raise the brook over an inche [sic] since the eclipse. The potato, oat and buckwheat crops will be almost an entire failure." By the end of August, there was not enough water in the creeks and streams to run the mills. Flour cost $11.50 per barrel, and still it was scarce. Wood lots caught fire in many of the surrounding towns and the local newspaper reported, "corn, oats and buckwheat crops not worth harvesting."

In early September the drought broke, but the damage had been done. Grain harvests were at a third of their previous production. Even prosperous farmers like Ebenezer Rowland were affected. Robert's father, John R. Mc- Claughry and his wife, now in their mid-seventies, turned management of their farm over to their youngest son, Frederick Edward. Frederick continued to live with them until their deaths in the 1860s.

The drought was painful, but not as devastating to the local farms as the newspapers portrayed. Still, the enticement to find "greener pastures" elsewhere became more pronounced. The gold rush of 1849 pulled away many easterners. Railroads, their land grants stretching far into the prairie alongside their proposed routes, reached as far west as Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. If the local newspaper exaggerated the effects of the drought, it may have similarly exaggerated the glories of Western farmland.

Letter From Iowa

I started west with but little idea of the country, and think I am fortunate in locating in the best portion of the Great West. I am informed by numerous travelers who have traveled extensively that Iowa is decidedly the most desirable State west, and that Nebraska and Kansas are no comparison to Iowa for richness of soil, healthful climate, timber or water.


Excerpted from The McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona by paul lee johnson Copyright © 2012 by Paul Lee Johnson. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

 PAUL LEE JOHNSON is the author of several articles on the famous gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona, and a featured speaker at the annual Tombstone Territory Rendezvous. He is director of the Nightwatch program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He and his wife, Mary, have two grown children.

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