Robert Clay Allison (September 2, 1841 – July 3, 1887) was a cattle rancher, cattle broker, and sometimes gunfighter of the American Old West. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Allison had a reputation for violence, having survived several one-on-one knife and gunfights (some with lawmen), as well as being implicated in a number of vigilante jail break-ins and lynchings. He is posthumously known as the man who "...never killed a man that did not need killing." A drunken Allison once rode his horse through town nearly naked—wearing only his gunbelt.
Robert Allison was born on September 2, 1841. He was the fourth of the nine children of Jeremiah Scotland Allison and his wife, Mariah Ruth [nee Brown] Allison. His father was a Presbyterian minister who raised cattle and sheep to support the family. Allison helped on the family farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee, until the American Civil War began when he was 21.
American Civil War
On October 15, 1861, he enlisted with the Confederate States Army in Captain W. H. Jackson's artillery battery. Three months later, however, he was medically discharged due to an old head injury hindering his ability to serve. On September 22, 1862, Allison re-enlisted, this time in the 9th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment, where he served under the Confederate "Wizard of the Saddle," General Bedford Forrest. He surrendered at Gainesville, Alabama—along with Forrest's men—on May 4, 1865 (at the war's end). After briefly being held as a prisoner of war, Allison and the others were paroled on May 10, and allowed to return home.
Post civil war
Once back home, Allison was involved in several violent confrontations. A popular – possibly apocryphal – story relates that a corporal from the 3rd Illinois Cavalry arrived at the Allison family's farm with the intention to seize it. After a confrontation and the breaking of his mother's vase (which had been an anniversary present to her from his father), Allison took a rifle from the house and killed the man. Whatever the reason, Clay Allison, along with his brothers Monroe and John; and sister Mary and her husband (Lewis Coleman); soon moved west.
In the New Mexico towns of Cimarron and Elizabethtown, Allison began to develop a reputation as a dangerous man during the Colfax County War. In the fall of 1870, a man named Charles Kennedy was being held in the local jail in Elizabethtown, accused of going mad and suspected in the disappearance of several strangers and his own daughter. A mob, led by Allison, broke into the jail, took Kennedy from his cell, and hanged him. When Kennedy's house was later searched, the bodies of those missing (including his daughter), were found. Allegedly, Allison cut off the man's head and carried it in a sack for 29 miles (47 km) to Cimarron, where he placed it on display on a pole in front of the St. James Inn. He believed himself fast with a gun, but this changed when he was outdrawn in a friendly competition with Mason Bowman. Bowman and Allison became friends, and Bowman helped Allison to improve his 'fast-draw' skills.
Notoriety as a gunfighter
On January 7, 1874, Allison killed a gunman named Chunk Colbert, who was known to have already fought and killed seven men by this time. After first racing their horses, Colbert and Allison entered the Clifton House, an inn located in Colfax County, New Mexico, where they sat down together for dinner. Colbert had quarreled with Allison years earlier, as Allison had physically beaten Colbert's uncle, Zachary Colbert, when he tried to overcharge Allison for a ferry ride across the Brazos River.[dead link] During their meal, Colbert suddenly drew his pistol and attempted to shoot Allison; however, the barrel of his gun struck the dinner table, allowing Allison to quickly draw his own revolver. He fired one shot, which struck Colbert in the head. Asked afterward why he had accepted a dinner invitation from a man likely to try to kill him, Allison replied, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach." Allison's reputation as a gunman grew, as did his notoriety.
On October 30, 1875, Allison is alleged to have led a lynch-mob to kill Cruz Vega, who was suspected of murdering the Reverend F.J. Tolby, a Methodist circuit-rider. The mob hanged the man from a telegraph pole near Cimarron. On November 1, Vega's family members, led by his uncle Francisco Griego, began making threats of revenge. They went to the Lambert Inn (now the St. James Hotel), where they confronted Allison and accused him of taking part in the lynching. Griego reached for his revolver but Allison was faster and shot Griego twice, killing him. On November 10, Allison was charged with the murder of Francisco Griego, but after an inquiry, the charge was dropped and the shooting was ruled self-defense.
In December 1876, Allison and his brother, John, rode into Las Animas, Colorado, where they stopped at a local saloon. Constable Charles Faber of Bent County told the Allisons they needed to surrender their pistols, as an ordinance made it illegal to carry weapons inside the town limits. When the Allisons refused, Constable Faber left. He deputized two men and returned with them to the saloon. When the posse stepped inside, someone yelled, "Look out!" The sheriff and his men promptly opened fire. John Allison was hit three times (in the chest, arm, and leg). Clay Allison fired four shots, one of which killed Faber. The two deputized men fled. Both Allison brothers were arrested and charged with manslaughter, but the charges were dismissed as the constable had initiated the gunfight.
Alleged confrontation with Wyatt Earp
In March 1877, Allison sold his ranch to his brother, John. He relocated to Sedalia, Missouri. Allison eventually moved to Hays City, Kansas, where he established himself as a cattle broker. When he first arrived in Dodge City, Kansas on business, his reputation had preceded him.
Dodge City was a cattle town, and laws were upheld by force. Wyatt Earp was the deputy marshal at the time. One time, several cowboys working for Allison were purportedly mistreated by the local marshal's office. Earp's biographer (and Earp himself), claimed that he and his friend Bat Masterson confronted Allison and his men in a saloon, and that Allison backed down before them. However, Masterson was not in town at the time and there is no evidence the encounter ever took place. Wyatt Earp did not make his claim until after Allison's death. According to contemporaneous accounts, a cattleman named Dick McNulty and Chalk Beeson (owner of the Long Branch Saloon), convinced Allison and his cowboys to surrender their guns. Charlie Siringo, a cowboy at the time, but later a well known Pinkerton Detective, had witnessed the incident and left a written account. Siringo's account relates that it was McNulty and Beeson who ended the incident; He further wrote that Earp had not even approached Clay Allison that day.
Allison maintained his ranch from 1880 to 1883 with his brothers, John and Jeremiah. Their ranch was 12 miles northeast of Mobeetie, Texas at the junction of the Washita River and Gageby Creek in what was then Wheeler County, Texas (now Hemphill County, Texas). One story of the time tells of an intoxicated Allison riding through Mobeetie in the nude, wearing only his holster and revolver.
In Mobeetie, on February 15, 1881, Allison married America Medora "Dora" McCulloch (of Sedalia, Missouri).
By 1883, Allison had sold his ranch and moved to Pope's Wells (a landmark along the Goodnight–Loving Trail), purchasing a ranch near the Pecos River crossing of the Texas-New Mexico line (50 miles northwest of Pecos, Texas). Clay and his wife, "Dora," had two daughters: Patti Dora Allison (born on August 9, 1885; Cimarron, New Mexico), and Clay Pearl Allison (born February 10, 1888; Pecos, Texas—seven months after her father's death).
Clay Allison died on July 3, 1887. He was hauling a wagon load of supplies when the load shifted, and a sack of grain fell from the wagon. Allison fell from the wagon as he tried to catch it, and a wagon wheel rolled over him, breaking his neck. He was 46 years old. Allison was buried the next day in Pecos Cemetery.
In a special ceremony held on August 28, 1975, Clay Allison's remains were re-interred at Pecos Park, just west of the Pecos Museum. His grave marker (which has the incorrect birth date of 1840), reads:
ROBERT C ALLISON
9th TENN CAV
SEP 2 1840
JUL 3 1887
A second marker was later placed at the foot of the grave (see above); with the added phrase: "He never killed a man that did not need killing".
In popular culture
On September 25, 1956, Myron Healey played Clay Allison in an episode of the same name of the ABC/Desilu western series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, with Hugh O'Brian in the title role. In another episode in the same series, Mike Ragan played Allison
- Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist – a Biography; Parsons, Chuck; 1983; p. 2; Quote: "It is frequently reported that Clay Allison was born in 1840. A family Bible says, however, that 'Robert C. Allison was born on September 2nd, A.D. 1841.' "
- 1860 US Census; Wayne County; Tennessee; p. 197; family #1347
- Crypt Mag; NOTE: According to the text of his discharge, he was "uncapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of a blow received many years ago. Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxymals of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal." [sic] Archived July 12, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Illinois Civil War; Note: this report may be simply a legend, as the 3rd Illinois Cavalry officially had one officer killed in action (1863 at Vicksburg) and seven other officers who died from non-combat causes. Also, although the regiment was in Tennessee in 1864-65, the only enlisted men killed were from skirmishing. The regiment was not in Tennessee postwar – as it was mustered out in October 1865.
- Crypt mag Archived July 12, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Clay Allison; Legends of America online; accessed December 2015; p. 2
- Allison from the Handbook of Texas Online
- Robert Clay Allison
- Chunk Colbert; Legends of America online; accessed December 2015
- Episode: Revenge Tech; on Wild West Tech; retrieved December 2015
- Oliva; Santa Fe Trail Research; text: In June 1875 Griego had killed a soldier and wounded two others
- Clay Allison; Legends of America; accessed December 2015; p.4
- Clay Allison; Legends of America online; accessed December 2015; p.1
- U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Gageby Creek, Texas
- Cunningham, Sharon; The Allison Clan – A Visit; format: Adobe Acrobat *.PDF document; Western Outlaw online; retrieved December 2015
- Clay Allison; Legends of America; accessed December 2015; p.5
- John Pope from the Handbook of Texas Online
- The Second Marker
- "The Time for All Good Men; June 4, 1957". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved April 18, 2014.
- "Clay Allison, Tales of Wells Fargo, June 15, 1959". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 18, 2013.
- Clark, O.S., Clay Allison of the Washita: First a Cowman and then an Extinguisher of Bad Men. Attica, Indiana: G.M. Williams, 1922.
- DeMattos, Jack, "Gunfighters of the Real West: Clay Allison," Real West, March 1979.
- Hogan, Ray, The Life and Death of Clay Allison, New York: New American Library, 1961.
- Kelsey, Harry E., Jr. "Clay Allison: Western Gunman," Brand Book of the Denver Westerners, 1957.
- Parsons, Chuck, Clay Allison: Portrait of a Shootist, Seagraves, Texas: Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983.
- Parsons, Chuck, "Clay Allison, Vigilante," Real West, August 1982.
- Rasch, Philip J., "Chunk Colbert, Clay Allison Dined, Chunk Died." NOLA Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, Winter 1976.
- Rasch, Philip J., "Sudden Death in Cimarron." NOLA Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 4, Spring 1986.