Robert Clay Allison, known as "Clay", was born September 2, 1840, with a clubfoot. He was the fourth of nine children of John and Nancy (Lemmond) Allison. His father, a Presbyterian minister, also worked in the cattle and sheep business, and died when Clay was only five. Clay was said to have been restless from birth and as he grew into manhood, he became feared for his wild mood swings and easy anger. Clay worked on the family farm near Waynesboro, Tennessee until 21. When the war broke out he enlisted in the Tennessee Light Artillery division on Oct. 15, 1861.
He was eager to fight, even threatening to kill his superiors, because they would not pursue Union troops when they were running away from the battle. However, just a few short months later on January 15, 1862, he received a medical discharge from the service. His discharge papers described the nameless illness as such: "Emotional or physical excitement produces paroxysmal of a mixed character, partly epileptic and partly maniacal." The discharge documents further suggested that the condition might have been the result of "a blow received many years ago, producing no doubt a depression of the skull". That head injury has been the usual explanation for Allison's psychotic behavior when drinking, perhaps explaining some of his later violent activities.
On September 22, 1862, Clay reenlisted to the 9th Tennessee Cavalry and remained with them until the war's end. Apparently, he suffered no further medical complications and became a scout and a spy for General Nathan Bedford Forrest. On May 4, 1865 Allison surrendered with his company at Gainesville, Alabama. He was held as a prisoner of war until May 10, 1865, having been convicted of spying and sentenced to be shot. But the night before he was to face the firing squad he killed the guard and escaped.
Allison became a member of the local Ku Klux Klan, whose dislike for the Freedmen's Bureau of Wayne County nearly led to armed conflict. Allison was involved in several confrontations before he left for Texas. When a corporal with the Union Cavalry arrived at the family farm, intending to seize the contents of the property, Clay retrieved his gun from the closet and calmly killed the Union soldier.
Allison, his brothers Monroe and John, sister Mary and her husband, Lewis Coleman moved to the Brazos River Country in Texas. Attempting to cross a wide river on their way, Zachary Colbert, the ferryman, got into an argument over the fare. Colbert lost.
This incident might have led to the ferryman's nephew, named Chunk Colbert, being killed by Allison some nine years later. In the meantime, the Allisons rode across the river free of charge. Settling down for a while, Clay learned the ways of ranching and became an excellent cowhand. He signed on with Goodnight and Loving in 1866 and accompanied them on their famous Trail through Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Around 1867 Clay worked as a trail boss for M.L. Dalton. He then worked for his brother-in-law, Lewis Coleman and Irwin W. Lacy, two cattle ranchers who were also legends in their own time.
Clay had an altercation over the rights of a water hole with a neighbor. The two decided to settle the matter by digging a grave and entering the pit with bowie knives. The loser would be buried in the pit and the winner gaining the rights of the waterhole. Allison had excellent skills with a bowie knife and obviously didn't lose, but whether or not he killed his neighbor is unknown.
In 1870 Coleman and Lacy moved to a spread in Colfax County of New Mexico. The Allison brothers accompanied them and, as payment for their work driving the herd, they received three hundred head of cattle. Clay took his share and homesteaded a ranch at the junction of the Vermejo and Canadian rivers, nine miles north of today's Springer. The two rivers ensured ample water and Allison built his ranch into a profitable business.
In the fall of 1870, He showed the citizens of Elizabeth, how mean and violent his temper was. Charles Kennedy, who was suspected of killing and robbing overnight guests in his isolated cabin on Palo Fletchado Pass, was being held at the local jail. Allison, along with several others, broke into the jail, threw a rope around his neck and dragged him by a horse up and down Main Street until long after he was dead. Clay then decapitated Kennedy, carrying his head in a sack to Cimmaron and demanded that it be staked on a fence at the front of Lambert's Inn.
After his marriage, he met the only man who was able to out-draw him, Mace Bowman. Meeting in a tavern, one evening, talk turned to Wild Bill’s fast draw and Clay stated that he thought he was even faster. Bowman begged to differ and wagered a gallon of whisky that he could outdraw Clay. In the center of the room, they paced off the distance to the wall and turned. Before Allison was able to get his gun out of the holster, Maces's six-shooter was pointed at his chest. Amazed, he paid Bowman the gallon he owed him. The two took the whiskey to the country where Bowman taught Allison his lightening rapid trick.
On January 7, 1874, Allison killed a gunman by the name of Colbert, who sought revenge for his uncle. Allison had beat him senseless at the Brazos River 9 years prior. The two men sat at a table opposite each other for a meal. Colbert reached for his revolver and hit the table on the way up. Allison drilled him in the head. Later when he was asked why he had accepted to have a meal with him and answered, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach."
Charles Cooper, a friend of the late Mr. Colbert, witnessed the shooting. Less than two weeks after Colbert's death, Cooper was seen riding with Allison on January 19, 1874. He was never seen again.
The next few years Allison’s reputation expanded at the same pace as the booming town of Cimmaron. The new owners of the land grant were aggressively exploiting the resources of the grant and were busy with their attempts at evicting the squatters, settlers, farmers and small ranchers living on the land. The power behind the grant was a group of politicians and financers called the "Santa Fe Ring." As the burgeoning settlement was trying to adjust itself to the influx of prospectors, gamblers, and politics, it found itself in the midst of great conflict between the land grant company and the settlers of the area. Sheriffs served eviction notices and retaliation began. Grant pastures were set on fire, cattle rustling increased and officials were threatened at gun point. Grant gang members made nighttime raids of area homes and ranches with threats of violence. The mightily opposed residents formed their own organization which they called the Colfax County Ring, which some said was lead by Clay Allison.
The numerous stories of Allison’s exploits made him a feared western legend by the time he arrived in Dodge City in September, 1878. The local newspapers would note his visits to the city, often describing his daring deeds. He was described by the Kinsley Graphic (Kinsley is 36 miles northeast of Dodge) on December 14, 1878 as: "His appearance is striking. Tall, straight as an arrow, dark complexioned, carries himself with ease and grace, gentlemanly and courteous in manner, never betraying by word or action the history of his eventful life."
By 1880 Allison had moved to a ranch in Hemphill County, Texas, next door his to brother-in-law, Lewis Coleman. While in Texas, his reputation was kept alive by reports of his unusual antics. Once he was said to have ridden nude through the streets whooping and hollering and declaring that drinks were on him at the local saloon. When the shocked ladies called upon the sheriff to intervene, the officer demanded that Clay get down from his horse. Instead, he spurred his horse to full speed up and down main street, then got off his horse, leveled his gun at the sheriff and marched him into the bar. He then forced the sheriff to drink until he couldn't stand up, and satisfied, went back to the horse.
On July 1, 1887, Allison was hauling a load of supplies to his ranch from Pecos when a sack of grain fell from the wagon. Trying to halt it's fall,he fell under the wagon and in the next instant the wagon wheels rolled across him, breaking his neck. As the horses reared and lurched forward, his neck was further crushed by the heavy buckboard, almost decapitating him. Unlike most gunfighters of the time, the 47 year-old didn't die in a blaze of gunfire or at the end of a hangman's noose, but rather stuck under his own wagon forty miles from town. He was buried in the Pecos Cemetery the day after his death, where hundreds of people were said to have attended his funeral.
The life of Clay Allison was certainly an adventure, from cattle rustling, to lynching, to coining the term "shootist." But his life was also marked by much success as a rancher. Whether he was a gentleman or a villain is a question that many have never settled in their own minds. Robert Andrew "Clay" Allison was once asked what he did for a living and he replied "I am a shootist." It is simply not possible to verify the multiple accounts of his numerous outrageous activities with "news" being what it was at the time and a century intervening. Though many of the tales were highly exaggerated, if even half of them were true, people were right to be afraid of him.