John Clum: Before the Tombstone Epitaph

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
Fascinating article about John Clum, one of the Southwest's unknown heroes.

Submitted: May 29, 2008

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Submitted: May 29, 2008



John Clum: Before the Tombstone Epitaph

By Jeff Egerton


Most people know John Clum as the editor of the infamous Tombstone Epitaph. This is just a thumbnail image of the man who faced several daunting challenges during his lifetime.

His record of staring adversity in the face became well known in Tombstone, when he stood by the Earp brothers through the accusations following the infamous shootout. Also, through his newspaper, he took on Curly Bill and the renegade bunch of cowboys, knowing full well those words might be answered with lead.  He then uncovered a real estate scandal, which led to his election as mayor of the notorious town where blood flowed more plentiful than water.  No lily-liver, this Clum fellow. 

Tombstone was only a couple years old when the presses of the Epitaph started rolling in June of 1880. So where was John Clum prior to printing his first edition? What was his background? It turns out he’d been blazing trails since he was in his teens.


While attending Rutgers, John played in our nation’s first intercollegiate football game.  Unfortunately, knee problems precluded anymore athletics, but John read that the War Department was about to organize a nationwide meteorological service. He applied for a job, passed the entrance exam and was ordered to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where on November 15, 1871, John Clum made the first official weather observation in New Mexico. For two years he served in a dual capacity as weather man and school master, enrolling 15 students in the first English speaking school in Santa Fe.

After his stint in Santa Fe, the Dutch Reform church sent John to Arizona to serve as an Indian agent. When he reported for duty, on August 8, 1874, the first thing he saw was a number of Apache heads lined up on a parade ground.  Not Apaches—Apache heads! 

This grisly sight might turn away a hardened frontiersman, but the 23 year old Clum wasn’t fazed. Over the next two years he’d prove to be as zealous and unfailing in his duties as an Indian agent, as he’d later be at the Epitaph. 

This was time of constant disagreement and controversy between the Department of War and the Indian Bureau. Not surprising since the Indian Bureau wanted to provide a suitable habitat for the Indians, but the War Department had other ideas. They wanted to exterminate the Indians.

Clashes of authority were common occurrences and this confused the Indians. Out of necessity troops were kept near the reservations to maintain control of the savages (only a small number fit that word) and mete out harsh punishment to those that stepped out of line.

At the outset of his tenure, John Clum made it clear that he was going to be the man in charge of the reservation. He realized that a combination of civil and military rule, was detrimental to the welfare of the Indians. He wanted the one thousand Pinal, Arivaipa and Tonto Apaches to know there was just one person administering to their needs. In a very controversial decision, he ordered the military off San Carlos reservation.

On September 3, in a manner not typical of the military, Major J. B. Babcock removed his troops and instructed them to give the new agent their fullest cooperation. Then, befitting of the Apache custom, Clum and the Indian spokesmen had a friendly, ceremonial smoke. With the aid of his interpreter Marijildo Grihalba, he laid out his plans, which included formation of a local government that would preclude the need for armed troops to be on the reservation.  Pleased with the new agent and the plans for their future, the Indians were at once on good terms.

Soon after taking over, Clum hired on M. A. Sweeney, a fifteen year Army veteran who’d resigned and chosen to stay in Arizona. Throughout his tenure Clum would praise the honest and industrious Irishman for his knowledge of the Apache customs and his sympathetic nature in dealing with them.

Clum then chose four Apaches as policemen to patrol and monitor reservation activities.  Outfitted in uniforms and thoroughly drilled by Sweeney, the Apache police met every emergency and situation presented to them with the superb execution. Their stellar performance eventually became well known throughout the West. 

Clum also created an Apache court made up of four chiefs and himself as a presiding judge. This too appealed to the Apache sense of fair dealing and further cemented relations.

Throughout the conflicts with Indians in the west, the white men were continually their own worst enemy because, among other gaffs, they seldom made a plan and stuck to it. Change was the norm although it seldom worked out for the best. In this vein, the Camp Verde Indians had been told that his would be their home for the rest of their lives. They were fine with that. 

Within two years, however, the fifteen hundred inhabitants of CampVerde were moved to the San Carlos reservation. Prior to the move, many of the Indians from the two groups had been at odds with each other. You can imagine how this worked out.

I should explain here that when the concept of relegating Indians to a reservation came to be, the Indians didn’t always stay within the confines of the reservation. It wasn’t uncommon for many of them to steal away and continue their raiding, either locally or across the Mexican border. Then, they’d return to the reservation and when questioned about recent depredations, they’d often dummy up. Because of this, if there were differences between tribes or groups, the segregation afforded by reservations was not a perfect solution.

One of the wests’s most trusted and admired military men, General George Crook, strongly advised against the move. He pointed out that the CampVerde bunch had been some of the worst renegades in Arizona. If the government kept its promise to them, and left them at CampVerde, they would be no problem.

Well, the government didn’t keep their promise and the Indians were upset about the move. So upset that on the move to San Carlos, over a hundred were killed and many more escaped to resume a life of raiding and killing.

When fourteen hundred of them arrived at San Carlos, Clum, ever the disciplinarian, met them head on. The San Carlos Apaches had been denied the use of firearms, whereas the CampVerde crowd had been allowed to bring theirs.

Clum put his foot down and said, “No firearms, period.” The entire group of San Carlos Indians stuck by him. Begrudgingly, the Camp Verde Indians gave up their weapons without bloodshed.


On April 15, 1875, pursuant to government orders, John Clum took control of the Camp Apache Indian agency. Soon afterward, however, the tenants of CampApache, located in the cool, lush and fertile White Mountains, were ordered to move to the more desolate San Carlos reservation. The reason given for the move was economics. The desires and welfare of the Indians were not taken into consideration. 

Later that year, once again in charge of San Carlos, Clum was presented with a very ticklish situation. Disalin, one of the Apache chiefs, was unhappy with one of his wives. He’d been beating her, which was not unusual in the Apache lifestyle. The wife complained to Clum and Clum took Disalin to task.

Needless to say, an Apache husband, especially an Apache chief was not used to being called on the carpet—his wife was his to do with as he pleased. Disalin deeply resented Clum’s breach of etiquette.

The chief brooded over this for an hour, then returned to Clum’s office—armed with a pistol. Disalin shot at Sweeney and missed, then went after Clay Beaufort, the commander of the police force. In the end, the loyal police force did its job. Tauelclyee, an agency policeman, shot the rampaging chief, who was also his brother.


On May 3, 1876, Clum received a telegram ordering him to proceed to ApachePass and bring in the remaining Chiricauhua Apaches to the San Carlos reservation. This was another situation where the Apaches had lived up to their end of a bargain, but the white man was reneging on their end. Cochise and the Chiricauhua Apaches had been told they’d be allowed to stay in their preferred confines of the ChiricauhuaMountains provided they ceased their raiding and depredations, which they did.

Also, there had been a white settler who’d been selling whiskey to the Apaches. In their drunken state some of the Indians had resumed a warring lifestyle and killed a few men, among them they guy who sold them the booze.

Cochise had died, but his well taught son, Taza had risen to chief. Upon hearing about the move, the Indians broke into two factions. One faction led by Skinya put on the war paint and resumed their violent lifestyle. Taza’s group remained peaceful, but in a shootout with Skinya, six Apaches from the warring group were killed.

Clum, with two hundred Indian scouts and fifty-four Apache policemen headed for ApachePass. His group delivered sixty remaining Apaches to the San Carlos reservation. Tom Jeffords, a fellow Indian agent wrote a scathing report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, stating that the events leading up to the transfer of the Apaches were not their fault. He also pointed out that the transfer caused most of the Apaches to defect and they could be expected to go back on the warpath.

The next mission for John Clum was probably his most noteworthy accomplishment as an Indian agent. Geronimo and his band of renegades had been murdering settlers and rustling cattle around Ojo Caliente, New Mexico. Clum was told, “If practicable, take your Apache police and arrest the renegades.” 

Clum wired the militia and military for help. They agreed to lend their assistance and meet him in Silver City, New Mexico. When Clum arrived in SilverCity, one of his scouts reported that Geronimo and one hundred braves were camped about three miles from them.  Clum then received word that his military help was going to be late getting to the area. 

Clum decided not to wait. If Geronimo found out he was being shadowed, he’d disappear into the hills. With only twenty-two of his Apache police, Clum made the bold move of leaving to confront Geronimo and one hundred Apaches. Clum sent word to Geronimo that he wanted to talk. The Apache chief showed up—armed and sporting full war paint.

Clum sat on the porch of the Indian agency with just six of his Apache police.  Some of the militia had shown up and were placed in strategic positions out of sight. They had orders not to shoot unless given the signal. Geronimo, with Gordo, Ponce, and Francisco stood ten feet from the porch, looking menacing, sinister and hostile.

Clum told the Apache chief of the charges against him. He then said he was there to take him back to San Carlos, where he’d await trial for murder.

Geronimo fired back a defiant statement that might have translated to, “Over my dead body, paleface.”

Tension grew in the early morning sunlight. Clum slowly raised his left hand to the brim of his hat—the signal for the militia to appear. The men filed out the door, each with his rifle at the ready.

Clum watched Geronimo. The warrior’s thumb eased toward the hammer on his rifle.  Clum’s hand rested near the butt of his Colt revolver. He slowly moved his hand until it touched his weapon—the second prearranged signal. The remainder of his Apache police converged and covered the renegades.

Geronimo knew he’d been trapped. He said he was ready to, “have a smoke and talk.”

Clum handed his rifle and pistol to a policeman. He told Geronimo, “Tell your men to lay their guns on the ground where we can gather them up and keep them for you.”

Geronimo made no move to comply. Clum motioned to one of his men, who moved toward the chief with his rifle pointed directly at him. Clum walked up to Geronimo and said, “I’ll take your gun myself.” He then lifted the rifle from the Apache chief’s arms.

Thus, John Clum became the only man in history to capture the notorious Geronimo. In his old age, Clum wrote, “I have seen many looks of hate in my long life, but never one so vicious or vengeful. Geronimo’s mouth had a droop on the right side, so even in repose he seemed to sneer. But when I took his rifle, his lips tightened and his sneer accentuated. The scar on his right cheek was livid.”

Clum sent word to Tucson that he was ready to deliver the bloodiest Apache murderer to stand trial. He also said he would testify against the warrior. In another baffling twist, however, Geronimo was eventually released. He and his family were given blankets and provisions. The old chief went on to murder many more white men.

Over a disagreement on inspections of the reservation, John Clum resigned in disgust on July 1, 1877. He left for the quiet life of a newspaper editor. He briefly worked at the Arizona Weekly in Tucson, but one day a thought came to him: Any town named Tombstone needs an Epitaph.

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