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Johnny Ringo, Outlaw…The truth, not Hollywood fiction…..


There has been much false information disseminated concerning Johnny Ringo. Much of the mis-information came from writers such as Stuart Lake (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal), Walter Noble Burns ( Tombstone), and William M. “Billy” Breakenridge ( Helldorado).

These authors make claims of killings and of deadly accuracy with a pistol. Claims were also made by some, such as former Cochise County Deputy William M. “Billy” Breakenridge, that Ringo was an educated man and had an extensive collection of books, the light classics, that he read in the original Latin and Greek they were written in.

But do the facts prove the suppositions presented by any of these men or other “old timers” of the Tombstone era?

One author, John Myers, went on to state in his book Doc Holliday, that “John Ringgold, more commonly called Johnny Ringo…left Missouri for other parts. In Texas, according to some authorities, he had taken part in the Mason County war…”
and then went on to say, “Johnny attended college in a day when only young men of good background normally did so…”

First, Johnny Ringo was never associated with name Ringgold. His family a lways spelled the name Ringo. This myth continues
up to today. Second, as we now know from relatives of John Ringo, he never attended college. He dropped out of grade school to be exact. Of course William Breakenridge, who basically created a rival to upstage Wyatt Earp, a man he detested, also claimed Ringo was a college graduate. However, as history shows, Breakenridge is a very unreliable, if not a completely dishonest source of information. His hatred of Wyatt Earp overrode all honesty and integrity in anything he stated. His book, Helldorado, is more fiction than fact.

John Peters Ringo, named for his mother, was born May 3, 1850, in Greenfork, Wayne County, Indiana. As far as documented records go, We can accurately pick up the story of John Ringo at the age of 14.

His family joined a wagon train west from Liberty, Missouri, in 1864. Through family documentation, their story begins here. Johnny’s father, Martin Albert Ringo, was born October 1, 1819, in Kentucky. On June 7, 1846, Martin enlisted in the Army at Liberty, Missouri, to fight in the war with Mexico. On September 5, 1848, Martin married Mary Peters in Clay County, Missouri, the place of her birth on November 23, 1826.

Mary Peters Ringo kept a diary of sorts while the family joined the wagon train. If one can draw any conclusions at all from her Journal, Mary Ringo was not given to thoughtful observations or to expressing herself very much. Her journal, covering nearly five months, consists of about 36 pages.

In the journal she worries about being “attacted” by Indians, wishes for a “good sermon,” and worries about traveling on the Sabbath. A deeply religious woman, she was quite and reserved with her thoughts and feelings.

On July 30, 1864, Mary Ringo records an event that may very well have helped to shape the person Johnny Ringo was to become. “And now Oh God comes the saddest record of my life for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking, if I had no children how gladly would I lay me down with my dead…”.

An eyewitness account of Martin Ringo’s death carried in the Liberty [Missouri] Tribune reveals it to have been a horrible one for the family. The account, from “W. Davidson” addressed to “Mr. R.H. Will—–,”reads as follows:

“Just after daylight on the morning of the 30th July Mr. Ringo stepped out…of the wagons as, I suppose, for the purpose of looking around to see if Indians were in sight and his shotgun went off accidentally in his own hands, the load entering at his right eye and coming out at the top of his head. At the report of his gun I saw his hat blow up 20 feet in the air and his brains were scattered in all directions. To see the agony and distress of his wife and children was painful in the extreme…” ( Liberty [Missouri] Tribune, August 26, 1864, and September 18, 1864 )

We do know that the entire family witnessed this awful tragedy. The sisters of Johnny were younger at seven, four, and two and would not recall much later. Johnny, at 14, would remember the event all to well. One can only imagine the trauma this event caused in his life.

In 1869, 19 year old Johnny Ringo headed for Texas. There he would get caught up in the Hoodoo war. The war was an appellation used to describe the vigilantism of what was really the Mason County Range War. It was both complex and confusing.On one side were the Germans opposing the outlaws, on the other was the Americans, who were supporters of the south in the civil war while the Germans were more Republican and had supported the North especially in a moral sense. Becuase of the German Republican leaning, they were hardest hit by outlaws and decided to take matters into their own hands.They elected a Sheriff to stand guard over themselves and their herds of cattle that were being rustled by the outlaws.
On Feburary 18, 1875, a mob forced their way into a jail and removed five rustlers that had been arrested. Only two of the rustlers were rescued.

Tim Williamson, a well-known and well-liked American, was arrested in May of 1875 on an old charge of having stolen a yearling. The arresting officer, Deputy John Wohrle, seems to have led Williamson into a nest of German bushwhackers, where he was murdered by Peter Bader, a German farmer.
The killing of Williamson brought the Scott Cooley gang————–and with it, Johnny Ringo-into the Hoodoo War. During this time, Ringo puts in an appearance as one of the killers of a man named Cheyney, a Mason gambler. The story goes that Ringo and a man named Williams, rode up to Cheyney’s house early one morning and said “hello”. Cheyney came out
and they asked him for breakfast. Cheyney complied and while covering his face with a towel after washing it, Ringo and Williams shot him down and rode back and caught up with the other members of the Cooley gang.

Two newspapers, The San Antonio Express of Oct. 6, 1875, and the Austin Daily Statesman of Oct. 17, 1875, carried the same general story. A year later, a Texas grand jury indicted John Ringo and George Gladden for the murder of “James Chaney”; Williams was not mentioned in the indictment.

Shortly after the killing of Cheyney, Ringo and Cooley killed Charley Bader, the innocent brother of Peter, by mistake. In 1877, Ringo was in a Travis County, Texas jail with gunman John Wesley Hardin. Hardin a well known brutal outlaw and murderer complained of being jailed with someone as mean and vicious as John Ringo. Ringo is said to have broke jail and fled. He of course would end up in Tombstone by 1879.

In 1879, the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan and James would arrive in Tombstone along with John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Younger brother Warren Earp would make the trip to Tombstone later on. The Earps, were seeking fortune in the boom town. They were generally in law enforcement and were from the North. As such, they were Republicans while Ringo and other rustlers were staunch Democrats.

Ringo paired up with known rustlers such as Curley Bill Brocius, Ike Clanton and Pony Deal. The rustlers became known in Tombstone as “cowboys”. They were a loosely banded group of rustlers/ranch hands and ranch owners who rustled cattle through the Arizona territory.

The cowboys generally kept law and order advocates rattled and the town in general feared the cowboys. The business owners of Tombstone and the large ranch owners such as Henry Clay Hooker, called for the heads of the rustlers. The Sheriff of Cochise County, John Behan, was considered a friend and ally of Ringo and the cowboys. Wyatt Earp, former deputy sheriff
prior to Behan’s arrival in 1880, and U.S. Marshal was at odds with the weak version of law enforcement practiced by John Behan.

Tombstone city marshal Fred White was shot and killed by Curley Bill Brocius. Within moments of the shooting, Wyatt arrived and smashed Curley Bill over the head with his six shooter and arrested him. The brutal treatment of Curley by Wyatt is what basically sparked the hostilities between the Earps and the cowboy gang.

Following the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which cowboy gang members, Billy Clanton,and Tom and Frank McLaury were killed in October of 1881, Johnny Ringo confronted Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday on the street around Fifth and Allen Street. This event occured on January 17, 1882.

Ringo is said to have been drunk and challenged Doc Holliday and Wyatt to a shoot-out. Some reports have Doc, ever ready to quarrel, stating, ” I’m your huckleberry”, a popular phrase in the 1800’s generally meaning I’m your champion. Officer James Flynn, however, grabbed Ringo from behind and ended the hostility. On March 18, 1882, two months after this near shoot-out, Morgan Earp was shot in the back and killed. Thus began Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone vendetta and Johnny’s world would never be the same.

Ringo had rustled cattle with Ike Clanton, the McLaury’s, Pony Deal and Curley Bill Brocius will in Tombstone. He was involved in the killing of at least two men in the Hoodoo War in Texas while riding with the Cooley gang, and attempted to kill Louis Hancock, after Hancock turned down Ringo’s invitation for whiskey saying he prefered beer. There is enough documented evidence to suggest that Ringo was a cold blooded killer.

Following the killing of Moragn Earp, many of Ringo’s associates in the cowboy faction, Curley Bill, Frank Stillwell, Florentino Cruz, a.k.a. Indian Charlie, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers had all been killed By Wyatt Earp and his associates and another rustler, Johnny Barnes lay dying from gunshot wounds received at the hands of Wyatt at the same battle in Sulpher Springs were Wyatt killed Curley Bill.

Just as it was when he was 14, Johnny Ringo was vulnerable. He attempted to return home in 1882 but his sisters refused to allow him in their homes. A devout Methodist family, they were very ashamed of John Ringo and did everything possible to hide him and to deny he was kin to them for a long time. Upon this rejection by his family, Ringo would return to Tombstone.

Ringo is said to have been generally drunk and suicidal at most times. On July 14, 1882, Ringo was found shot through the head in Sulpher Springs, near Turkey Creek. His body was found sitting against a tree with his head flung to the right, his .45 gripped in his right hand, and was shot through the right temple. To add to the mystery, he appeared to have been partially scalped. He was buried behind the tree. His cartridge belt was on upside down and his shirt had been ripped off and was tied around his feet. His boots were later found strung across his horse.
The men who found his body wrote out the following details concerning his death:

“There was found by the undersigned John Yoast the body of a man in a clump of Oak trees 20 yards north from the road leading to Morse’s mill and about a quarter of a mile west of the house of B. F. Smith. The undersigned viewed the body and found it in a sitting posture, facing west, the head inclined to the right. There was a bullet hole in the right temple, the bullet coming out the top of the left side. There is apparently a part of the scalp gone including a small portion of the forehead and part of the hair, this looks as if cut by a knife. These are the only marks of violence visible to the body. Several of the undersigned identify the body as that of John Ringo, well known in Tombstone. He was dressed in light hat, blue shirt, vest, pants and drawers, on his feet were a pair of hose and undershirt torn up so as to protect his feet. He had evidentially traveled but a short distance in this footgear. His revolver he grasps in his right hand, his rifle rested against the tree close to him. He had on two cartridge belts. The belt for the revolver cartridges being buckled upside on down.”

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On Oct. 26, 1881, four men met at the corner of Fifth and Allen Streets in the bustling silver mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. They walked north on Fifth, turned left on Fremont Street and headed toward a vacant lot next to the OK Corral.

Minutes later, three men would be dead, and the four men who had walked to the corral and killed them – Tombstone marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday – had unknowingly secured their places in history.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral is arguably the single most famous incident in the Old West. But what was it about? And why has it, above all the many other gunfights that took place in the era of frontier justice, achieved such infamy?

To understand the gunfight, you have to first understand the town. Tombstone in 1881 was a thriving, bustling silver mining community.
“There’s a huge misconception about Tombstone in the 1880s: that it was a violent, dangerous place,” says local author and historian Don Taylor. “It was extremely sophisticated and massively wealthy. Thirty-seven million dollars in 1880s dollars of silver was mined here; that’s $8.25 billion today. They had everything.

“They had fresh seafood every day. They would catch it in Baja California; pack it in barrels of salt, ice and seaweed at dusk; freight it by train to Benson or Contention City, immediately pack it on to wagons and bring it here by dawn every day. It was a very opulent town. But again, people don’t understand – especially if they come today – Tombstone was open 24 hours a day.

The miners worked rotating 10 hour shifts; everything had to be open when they got off, including banks. They were also pumping 2.5 million gallons of water out of the mines every day to keep them dry; so you had all the mining activity, all the milling activity, all the water rushing down Toughnut Street, and the town open 24 hours a day. It must have been noisy as hell.
As the mines thrived, so did all manner of supporting businesses: banks, bars, restaurants, hotels – and prostitutes, many of whom worked out of small ‘cribs’ that lined Sixth Street. The riches to be, had attracted plenty of would-be entrepreneurs — among them Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, James and Warren Earp, and Doc Holliday.

Both Virgil and Wyatt had been lawmen; Virgil had recently been appointed deputy marshal for the part of the Arizona Territory that included Tombstone, and although some record-keeping at the time was poor, it is possible that Wyatt may have been a deputy marshal as well.

Certainly, it appears as if all the brothers were anxious to join the list of those profiting from Tombstone’s booming business: they invested in one of the mines, James tended bar, Wyatt rode as a stagecoach guard and dealt faro – the popular card game of the time – in a local saloon.

But Tombstone’s growth and growing sophistication grated with one segment of society: the ‘cowboys’, a loose confederation of ranchers and cattle rustlers. The cowboys – who were predominantly rural, southern Confederates – eyed the primarily Yankee mercantile class that was dominating Tombstone, and which the Earps typified, with suspicion. And the feeling was mutual.

It didn’t take long after the Earps’ arrival in late 1879 for tensions between them and the cowboys to develop, particularly with Virgil and Wyatt spending time in law enforcement positions. That tension reached boiling point when Wyatt helped in the identification and arrest of some cowboy members in a pair of stagecoach robberies, and the cowboys in turn asserted that Wyatt and Holliday had in fact been the ones responsible for the holdups.
On the night of Oct. 25, 1881, one of the cowboy leaders, Ike Clanton, got into a heated, drunken argument with Holliday, and the next morning he wandered drunkenly up and down Allen Street, threatening to kill him and the Earps. A series of confrontations steadily escalated until Virgil was informed that a group of armed cowboys had gathered outside Fly’s Boarding House – where Holliday was living – in a vacant lot close to the OK Corral.

Carrying guns inside city limits was a violation of a town ordinance, and it provided Virgil, who was now town marshal, with an opportunity to arrest the cowboys. But there may also have been other considerations at play.

As the self-identified Dr. Jay, who leads historical tours of Tombstone, explains: “Ike Clanton had openly threatened to kill the Earps. And why are they in that alley? Because it’s right outside Fly’s Boarding House. So if you’re Doc Holliday, you show up and here’s a bunch of guys with guns outside your house. You might want to think about, ‘Are they going to get me tomorrow if I don’t get them today?’”
Virgil deputized his brothers and Holliday and they set off for the vacant lot.

“Throw up your hands,” shouted Virgil as they reached the alleyway’s entrance. “I mean to disarm you.”

There was a pause, and the click-click of a gun – or guns – being cocked.

“Hold on, I don’t want that!” shouted Virgil, but it was too late.

There were two shots fired simultaneously – it is uncertain by whom – and then, as Wyatt later testified, “the fight then became general.”
Ironically, Ike Clanton, who had instigated the confrontation, fled the scene, grabbing Wyatt and screaming that he was unarmed.

“The fight has commenced,” snarled Earp. “Get to fighting or get away.” Clanton promptly took off, as did another cowboy, Billy Claiborne.

Within seconds, two of the cowboys – Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton – lay mortally wounded, Virgil Earp had been shot in the calf, and Morgan Earp shot through the shoulder blades. A third cowboy, Frank McLaury, shot in the stomach, staggered into Fremont Street and leveled his gun at Holliday.

“I’ve got you now,” he said, mistakenly believing Holliday was out of ammo.

“Blaze away,” taunted Holliday. “You’re a daisy if you do.”

At that point both Holliday and Morgan Earp fired almost simultaneously; bullets from one or both of their guns struck McLaury in the head, killing him.

The entire gunfight lasted approximately 30 seconds.
The following day, the headline in the ‘Tombstone Epitaph’ newspaper read, “Three Men Hurled into Eternity in the Duration of a Moment.” The cowboys’ supporters insisted their men had been killed in cold blood. The Earps and Holliday stood trial for murder, but were cleared.

A hundred and thirty years later, the gunfight has been the focus of numerous motion pictures, and a part of many more – and was even pivotal to an episode in the original series of Star Trek. So we ask again: why has the slaying of three men on a misdemeanor firearms violation endured through history?
Don Taylor offers one explanation. “In January 1881, (Tombstone mayor) John Clum joined the brand new Associated Press,” he explains. “So everything he wrote went to San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Everybody knew what was going on here.”

There was also, explains Tim Fattig, who works as a tourist guide at the OK Corral and has written a voluminous biography of Wyatt Earp, another factor: the fact that the gunfight did not mark the end of the Earp-cowboy feud.

On Dec. 28, 1881, Virgil Earp survived an assassination attempt, but lost the use of his left arm. The following March, Morgan was gunned down and killed while playing billiards.

In revenge, Wyatt, Warren Earp, Holliday and others set out on a “vendetta ride” for justice, in which they killed at least three cowboys, including the faction’s de facto leader, Curly Bill Brocius.

“It was the vendetta ride that truly elevated the gunfight in public perception,” Fattig says. “The idea of a brother gaining revenge for one brother’s murder and another being wounded is compelling.”

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