Guadalupe Canyon Massacre

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Coordinates: 31°20′22″N 109°05′33″W / 31.339416°N 109.092436°W / 31.339416; -109.092436

The Guadalupe Canyon Massacre was an incident that occurred on August 13, 1881 in the Guadalupe Canyon area of the southern Peloncillo MountainsGuadalupe Mountains. The canyon straddles the modern Arizona and New Mexico state line and connects the Animas Valley of New Mexico with the San Bernardino Valley of Arizona. During the American Old West, the canyon was a key route for smugglers into and out of Mexico. Five men including "Old Man" Clanton, the alleged leader of the group, were killed in the ambush.


A number of outlaw Cowboys had on numerous occasions crossed the border into Mexico where they stole cattle and re-sold them to the booming mining camps. The Mexican government at the time placed high tariffs on goods transported across the border, making smuggling a profitable enterprise.[1][2]

In July 1881, several Mexican smugglers headed for Tucson or Tombstone carrying silver were ambushed and killed in an area called Skeleton Canyon. The killers were never positively identified, but Mexicans just across the border always suspected that those murders were committed by outlaw Cowboys. A ranch owned by "Old Man" Clanton in the Animas Valley in New Mexico was used at times by the smugglers as a way station for selling the stolen cattle. Old Man Clanton was suspected of directly participating in the smuggling. Although his ranch did not own a brand, required for cattle operations, it was one of the most profitable cattle ranches in that part of the country.[3]:193


In August, 1881, Mexican Commandant Felipe Neri dispatched troops to the border.[4]:110 Some researchers[who?] theorize that Mexican Rurales led by Captain Alfredo Carrillo, who had survived the Skeleton Canyon Massacre in 1879,[2] led the ambush of the Cowboys. The Mexicans found "Old Man" Clanton and six others bedded down for the night in Guadalupe Canyon with a herd of cattle. The Mexicans waited until dawn and killed five of the Cowboys.

The dead included Old Man Clanton; Charley Snow, a ranch hand who thought he had heard a bear, went to investigate, and was the first killed; Jim Crane, who was wanted for a March, 1881 stagecoach robbery near Tombstone during which two men had been murdered; Dick Gray, son of Col. Mike Gray; and Billy Lang, a cattle rancher. Crane and Gray were either still in their bedrolls or in the act of getting dressed when killed. Clanton was cooking breakfast for the camp when hit and fell dead into the cookfire. Lang was the only one who had a chance to fight back. Harry Ernshaw, a milk farmer, was grazed by a bullet on the nose; Billy Byers feigned death until the perpetrators left.[4]:97-98[5][6]

Ernshaw found his way to the ranch of John Pleasant Gray (Dick's brother), who enlisted help from a mining camp 20 miles (32 km) away. At Guadalupe Canyon they found the dead men stripped naked and a dazed Billy Byers five miles away. Snow was buried where he fell due to decomposition. The others were taken back by wagon and buried about ten miles east of Cloverdale, New Mexico.[7]:73-74 In 1882 Ike and Phin Clanton exhumed their father's body and moved it to the Boot Hill cemetery in Tombstone, where he was re-interred alongside his son Billy Clanton, who had been killed two months after his father's death, in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Identity of the attackers[edit]

Rumors surfaced later in 1881 that Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp were responsible for Old Man Clanton's death. This was first reported in a letter from William R. McLaury to his brother-in-law, David D. Appelgate on November 19, 1881. McLaury was an attorney who was passionately convinced the Earps and Doc Holliday had murdered his younger brothers Frank and Tom during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was a member of the prosecution team which was presenting evidence during the preliminary hearing before Judge Wells Spicer that month. The rumor of the Earps' involvement has been repeated in a number of publications based solely on William McLaury's assertion.[8]:457

However, Ernshaw, Byers and Dick Gray all said that the attackers were Mexican. The Byers family also received from Ike and Phin a picture of Old Man Clanton on the back of which they had written, "Mr. Clanton killed on Aug 13—81 by Mexicans with 4 other Americans in Guadalupe Canon [sic] New Mexico." Both men signed the inscription. Another photograph of Will G. Lang bears a similar inscription: "Will G. Lang killed by Mexicans—Animas Valley New Mexico Aug 13, 1881 together with Gray, Cranton, Clanton and Snow and Byers wounded."[8] [9]


  1. ^ "History of Old Tombstone". Discover Arizona. Retrieved 2011-02-07. 
  2. ^ a b "Skeleton Canyon". Ghost Towns of Arizona. Retrieved 2011-02-07. 
  3. ^ Barra, Allen (2008). Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 440. ISBN 978-0-8032-2058-4. 
  4. ^ a b Casey Tefertiller (1997). Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-18967-7. 
  5. ^ Paula Mitchell Marks (1989). And Die in the West: the Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-671-70614-4. 
  6. ^ "Doc Holliday". Outlaws & Gunslingers Legends. Retrieved 2011-02-07. 
  7. ^ Traywick, Ben T. (1996). The Clantons of Tombstone. Red Marie's Bookstore. ISBN 0-9631772-7-3. 
  8. ^ a b Roberts, Gary L. (2007). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legenc. New York, NY: Wiley, J. p. 544. ISBN 978-0-470-12822-0. 
  9. ^ "The Life and Times of "Old Man" Clanton 1816 - 1881". Retrieved 3 May 2011.