When Robert Findley McLaury Jr left his
father’s Iowa farm at the age of twenty-six
he’d been running it for five years with his
younger brother, Tom, while their father
conducted other business in town. Once the
farm was sold,, the brothers lit out on
their own for neighboring South Dakota, a
break Robert Jr underscored by forevermore
calling himself “Frank.”
Described by nearly all who knew them as “industrious,” Frank and Tom worked at whatever earned them money. Frank trained as a mechanic, but he and Tom found their true calling in handling livestock. They followed the cattle herds into Texas where their older brother, Will, was a successful lawyer. They signed on with rancher John Chisum, who owned spreads all over the Southwest, and after driving a herd to Arizona, the brothers decided to stay.
In 1878, shortly after silver strikes brought a population surge, the McLaurys started a small farming operation in the Babocomari Valley a few miles west of Tombstone. They grew hay and other crops and grazed sheep and cattle all while hiring themselves out as day laborers; their livestock handling skills and Frank’s mechanic background kept them regularly employed. They had their sights set, however, on building a bigger spread in the Sulfur Spring Valley to the east of Tombstone and devoted their greatest energies to that.
Over the course of a year, Frank and Tom erected a ranch house and barn and dug a well and irrigation ditches. Since Arizona was “open range” territory with thousands of acres available for grazing, they formed a legal partnership and registered their brand — an inverted triangle. They’d been in Arizona for close to three years, arriving with little more than energy and ambition, and by virtue of their hard work had established themselves as productive ranchers and landowners. One resident later wrote of them, “These boys were plain, good-hearted, industrious fellows. They may have harbored passing rustlers, but what rancher did not? and it would have been little of a man who would have turned away any traveler in that land of long trails and hard going.”
The McLaurys came to be viewed as reliable in an environment that required reciprocity and accommodation to survive and prosper. On one occasion, Frank readily complied when asked to help track down three recently discharged soldiers who had stolen Army harnesses. Deputy US Marshal Melvin Jones recalled many years later that when he was handed a warrant, he was instructed “to take one good man with me and Frank McLowery [sic] was the man that I took.” He recalled Frank calmly backing him up as he attempted to arrest the ex-soldiers and not flinching when they threatened a shootout. When the rx-soldiers switched tactics and offered a bribe, Frank railed against them, browbeating and humiliating them into submission.
Frank becoming indignant at the bribe offer is in character with his reputation for being quick to take umbrage. “Argumentative,” he was sometimes labeled, but he didn’t swagger or pick fights merely to argue for the sake of argument. He and Tom had labored hard for what they had, and he wasn’t going to part with any of it, especially his good name, without a fight. This became apparent in July of 1880, when an Army detail arrived at the Babocomari looking for stolen mules they thought might have been taken there for re-branding. Since the Army couldn’t arrest civilians, the lieutenant brought with him a Deputy US Marshal — Virgil Earp. And Virgil brought his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, along with the local Wells Fargo agent.
After a brief and by all accounts cordial conversation, the Lieutenant left believing the mules would be turned in the following day. When they weren’t, he put an angry ad in screaming bold face type in the Epitaph accusing the McLaury brothers of the theft. No doubt recalling his time recovering stolen Army harnesses, Frank wrote an irate response for the competing Nugget: “My name is well known in Arizona and thank God this is the first time in my life that the name of dishonesty was ever attached to me,” he railed, and concluded suggesting the lieutenant may have stolen the mules himself. The brothers sold a lot of beef to Army camps and reservation Indians, so to mollify government buyers they made a public show of what was already their practice and put business operations in the name of the more cautious and reserved Tom. When help was needed with something like retrieving stolen harnesses, Frank was the brother summoned.
History hasn’t treated the McLaury brothers any better than did the Earps and Holliday that cold day in the vacant lot. For decades they’ve been casually branded “outlaws” or “Cowboys” and neither appellation is true. Without question, they welcomed cattle rustled out of Mexico on their ranch to fatten before slaughter. In the eyes of their contemporaries, this did not make them “rustlers” since stealing from Mexico wasn’t considered stealing at all. Nor did holding cattle to fattened make them, or any rancher, “fences” — as they are often also labeled.
Only in recent years have we seen anything approaching an even-handed assessment of the McLaurys emerge, but they are still relegated to the rank of “outlaws” or despised “Cowboys” in too many current accounts. For us, the “Gunfight” is now seen as a grand, grotesque irony in which the most decimated of the victim families — the McLaurys — were the least lawless and most productive of all the parties present. They had become, at last and by dint of their own efforts, prosperous young men, their pockets filled with hard earned money on their way out of town to celebrate their sister’s wedding in Iowa.
By Michael Biehn and Jim Anderson