Tombstone History Archives

 Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years

Remembering the McLaurys

by Pam Potter


as first published in the Tombstone Times and

then published in NOLA in Dec. of 2006




The legend of Wyatt Earp will be forever woven into the history of Tombstone.  The same energy that is mounted toward understanding the psyche of the Earps could be extended to other players in the Tombstone saga, namely the cowboys.  This isn’t about good guys and bad guy, white hats and black, or law versus evil.  It is about men  with a past, families, hopes and dreams and a desire like most on the frontier, to survive and hopefully succeed in a hostile environment.


I learned to hate Wyatt Earp at my father’s knee. My first remembrance of the OK Corral, was my father telling me how those low down dirty rotten scoundrels, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, murdered his great uncles Tom and Frank McLaury.  My dad always referred to Frank as Rob as that was what the family called him. Robert Findley McLaury was his given name.


The family version of the Tombstone events was fairly black and white.  Tom and Frank were innocent cowboys shot down by the Earps. The Earps were then run out of Arizona.  Based on my father’s stories I always defended Tom and Frank as the “good guys” and portrayed the Earps as the “bad guys.”  Even some of my own relatives would roll their eyes when I would proclaim the McLaury’s innocence. When I reached adulthood and started researching the events, I found there were social and political factors as well as personal issues surrounding the events in Tombstone, and the story was far more complicated than the version on which I had been teethed.


My great grandmother was Sarah Caroline McLaury Reed Henderson, youngest full sister of Tom and Frank.  My dad learned some of the family history from her, and some from her daughter, his mother Lona Reed Fuller.  Family remembrance says that when Stuart Lake’s FRONTIER MARSHAL was published in 1931, the family was incensed and embarrassed by the portrayal of the McLaury brothers as cattle rustlers.  Some family members denied their relationship to the McLaurys, even changing the spelling of the name.  After I seriously started researching the gunfight story, I visited an older relative who lived in Tucson.  She was not ashamed of her relationship to Tom and Frank, but because of her involvement in local organizations, and as a respected member of the community, she did not discuss her family tree.  According to her, as late as 1979, almost 100 years after the gunfight, in the town of Tucson there was still animosity toward the participants of the gunfight and she did not want to get involved in local discourse.  Over the years she corresponded with Earp researchers, but kept a low profile.


The television Wyatt raised the family ire, and discussions would follow about how the evil Wyatt could be canonized to the gullible public.  Few ever stated what their source of opinion on the Tombstone story was.  They loved Wyatt or hated him; they rarely ever spoke of Doc, Morgan and Virgil. Stuart Lake’s Frontier Marshal was the only source I remember hearing.  There was no discussion of Frank Waters Earp Brothers of Tombstone or Ed Bartholomew’s books Wyatt Earp: The Untold Story and Wyatt Earp: The Man and The Myth, the main sources of anti-Wyatt sentiment.


When I questioned some of the stories I had learned as a child, I discovered that not all of what I had been told was family history.  My dad admitted that he probably mixed some secondary sources published over the years with family history.  This juxtaposition is common in remembrances.


My branch of the family has no reticence about proclaiming our relationship to the gunfight.    My uncle’s middle name was McLaughry, one of many spellings of the family name, originally spelled McClaughry. His son carries the same middle name and spelling, as does my son. My grandson also carries the McClaughry middle name.  My sister named her son Tom after Tom McLaury. When I joined the Single Action Shooting Society, and had to choose an alias as is required of all members, I chose “Frankie McLaury.”  Frank may be rolling over in his grave at the fact his name has been bastardized to accommodate a woman.


On my visits to Tombstone I stop at Boot Hill and have often left flowers by the grave markers of Tom and Frank.  Artificial flowers have become my preferred method of showing respect, as real flowers only last a day in the relentless Arizona sun.  A few years ago my cousin Clay Parker and I performed a Celtic tradition of placing dirt from the birthplace onto the graves.  Tom and Frank were born in Kortright NY, and a good friend and relative sent us dirt from the McLaury birthplace.  The Celts say that a soul does not rest in peace unless returned to the soil of their birth.  The best we could do was bring a little NY earth to Arizona, to help make Tom and Frank’s residence in eternity, a little more peaceful.  We cannot be sure of the actual burial site so Clay respectfully threw dirt in different directions in an attempt to help expedite the cowboy soul’s journey on the eternal path of peace.


The family still defends the brothers McLaury, although research into the events of 1881 have moderated the enthusiasm.  Tom and Frank were never arrested or formally charged with any crime in Arizona. There is no proof that they ever stole cattle or money or killed or even shot at anyone, prior to the gunfight. There was an incident with government mules in which Frank firmly denied involvement and no arrests were ever made. I cannot pretend based on the evidence that the McLaurys were ignorant of the situation but for whatever reason they were never arrested.   Tom and Frank did own a ranch, they did deal in cattle and horses, had their own registered brand which was an inverted triangle and were considered by many to be honest ranchers. “Col R. C. Wood, the owner of a fine stock ranch on the lower San Pedro passed through town yesterday. He has been on a trip to the Sulphur Springs Valley to purchase cattle, and bought 450 head from the herds of Major Frink, McLaury Bros., Clanton and others.  The Colonel speaks in the highest terms of the courtesy with which he was treated and the fair business dealing of the gentlemen mentioned.  If they are types of the “cowboy,” he asks no better luck than always to deal with such.”   (Tombstone Daily Nugget, Oct. 1, 1881, p. 3)


Articles can be found to support or criticize the McLaurys.  The fact that contemporary sources support the positive and negative characteristics of the brothers, indicates there were mixed feelings based on a variety of personal experiences.   There was nothing inordinately evil about Tom and Frank.  They had friends and partisans whose memoirs reveal hard-working likeable men.  A campaign for or against them can be waged by selective presentation of sources.  The same is true of the Earps as seen by comparing Stuart Lake’s biography of Wyatt, Frontier Marshal, and Frank Waters' Earp Brothers of Tombstone.  Today we have sources like Casey Tefertiller’s Life Behind the Legend that gives a more balanced view of the events in Arizona in 1881.


What other business involvements the McLaurys had may never be discovered. The source of their cattle will most likely be forever questioned.  They were known to associate with men of dubious character, but so did the Earps.  We will probably never know all of the causes of animosity that existed in Tombstone between the Earps and some of the cowboys.  And, tearing down the character of one element is not the way to build the character of others.  My main goal for the Tombstone story is to remind people who generalize about the Earps and the cowboys is that any historical saga is the sum of its parts.


There were no black hats and white hats in the real west.  The cowboys were not all bad anymore than the Earps were all good.  Few deserved to die.  It is only natural that family members feel the pain of those who met a violent death, two young men with much to live for, who were leaving Arizona to join their brother Will, a lawyer in Texas and then go on to Iowa to their sister Sarah’s wedding.  The incident in Tombstone was a shock to the family, and saddened those who were close to the brothers.  The same family loyalty exists today that was present that cold day in Arizona in 1881. The loyalty Tom, Frank and  Will had for each other should be respected as much as the loyalty of the Earp brothers.  The love of brother for brother is both inherent and earned and should not be dismissed because the two families represent antithetical interests.


The Earps, particularly Wyatt are venerated in Tombstone as can be seen by the number of books, coffee mugs, shot glasses and T shirts that sport their image.  It is much more difficult to find an image of Tom and Frank except reposed in their coffins.  Take each participant in the gunfight and ponder their individual substance.  Next time you are at Boot Hill, wonder what it would be like to feel threatened, angry and suspicious and know that you are all armed. Smell the gunsmoke and the fear.   Look off to the distant hills where the victors rode, then down at your feet where the cowboys slumber.


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