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The Man Who Captured Geronimo

Updated on June 30, 2015

Frontier Legend

Perhaps you never heard of him. He was best friends with Wyatt Earp, witnessed the gunfight at the O.K Corral, a mayor of Tombstone, Arizona and captured Geronimo without firing a single shot. He was John Phillip Clum and these were just a few of his American frontier day exploits!

Clum was born to William Henry and Elizabeth Clum on September 1, 1851, in New York. In 1870 he attended Rutgers College but due to financial problems he was he was forced to drop out and seek employment. Shortly after he was hired by the weather department, and sent west to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

About two years later, Clum received an official letter from the Indian Bureau in Washington offering him a position as Indian Agent. Responsibility for Apache Indians at San Carlos Reservation had been turned over to the Dutch Reformed Church. His former classmates at Rutgers, knowing he was a member of that church and also in New Mexico, had volunteered him for the job.

Although two of the last three agents had been killed and the other resigned after numerous attempts on his life, he accepted the responsibility of several hundred angry Apaches anyway.

As Clum began to investigate the governments’ handling of the Apaches, he discovered they had ample reason to be angry. He had inherited a situation where the Indians had been abused and exploited by self-serving Indian Agents who took their position only to line their pockets at the expense of the Apache. He decided they would be treated fairly while he was in charge.

Mayor Clum

John Clum, Center
John Clum, Center

Indian Agent

His first action was to disarm all Indians on the reservation. He then ordered all soldiers off the reservation and let the Apaches form their own police force and government council. Everyone predicted doom. They were all wrong. Clum succeeded in earning the trust and respect of every Apache on the reservation by giving them control of their own affairs.

Clum had been bald since the age of 20. When he was made a full brother of the Apache nation, he was given the name of Nantan-betunnykahyeh, which means "Boss with-the-high-forehead." In November of 1876 he married Mary Dennison Ware.

By 1877 every Apache in Arizona was on the San Carlos Reservation. Except for renegade bands of Apaches led by Geronimo. They would come out of old Mexico, raid, burn, and murder in Arizona, and then disappear into the Sonora Mountains.

Clum took 40 Apache police and marched, on foot, 400 miles to Silver City. After a month they located Geronimo at Ojo Caliente. The young agent called Geronimo a thief, murderer, liar, and a treaty breaker, then told him that he was there to take all of them back to San Carlos. Geronimo replied he had no intentions of going back to San Carlos and neither would they, as he would leave their bodies for the vultures.

At this point twenty-two, Apache police rifles, centered on Geronimo. He surrendered. That was the only time Geronimo was ever captured. He had surrendered several times to obtain supplies, but was never captured except by Clum and his Apache police.

Unable to accept the governmental policies Clum resigned in July 1877 and he and his wife headed for Tombstone to take a look at the new silver boomtown. There he published the “Tombstone Epitaph” newspaper still in existence today.

Clum published a series of editorials exposing the sheriff's relationship with outlaws and the crimes committed by Clantons and McLowrys.

Clum also knew the sheriff, John Behan was on friendly terms with the outlaws, so he announced his candidacy for mayor. Backed by the Law and Order League, he won by a landslide.

The current town marshal, Ben Sippy, had already had enough of the cowboys and conveniently disappeared. Mayor Clum called a meeting of the city council and made Virgil Earp town marshal.

The Earps and the Clanton-McLowry gang had already had several minor clashes. And Curly Bill, Ringo, Ike Clanton, and the McLowry brothers made it well known they intended to run the Earps out of town. Then on October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the O.K. Corral leaving Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLowry dead, and Virgil and Morgan Earp seriously wounded.

Retaliation from the cowboy faction was inevitable. Several leading citizens were immediately marked for death. These were the Earps, Doc Holliday, John Clum, Judge Wells Spicer, E. B. Gage, and others of the Law and Order League.

Judge Spicer was sent a note threatening him with death if he did not leave Town immediately. A few days later the stage, in which Clum was riding, was riddled with bullets by night riders. Then near midnight on December 28, 1881, bushwhackers ambushed Virgil Earp.

Their next target was Morgan Earp. He was playing pool at Campbell & Hatch's saloon when a shot fired from the dark of an alley struck him in the back and killing him. Legend says Wyatt accounted for most of his brother's killers. Several of them simply disappeared while others were found dead under mysterious circumstances.

Clum's wife died while in Tombstone and was buried in Boot hill. Clum sold his newspaper and moved away. From there he moved from one camp to another…California, Nevada, and the Yukon. He joined the gold rush to the Yukon and was commissioned by the government to establish a territorial postal service there. While he was working at this job he met a number of his old Tombstone acquaintances, including Wyatt Earp and Nellie Cashman.

Eventually Clum returned to Arizona, settling in Tucson. He even became friends with Johnny Behan, who also had settled there. John P. Clum lived long enough to bury all his old friends, even Wyatt Earp.

In later years, Clum traveled the lecture circuit speaking about the American old west. He retired in 1920 to a quiet farm life in California. Clum kept in touch with surviving old friends, including Wyatt Earp, and recorded the history he had experienced firsthand. He also began his autobiography but had not finished it by the time of his death in 1932 at age 80.

Woodworth Clum published his father's recollections of the San Carlos years in a book, Apache Agent, published in 1936.


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    • profile image

      john clum 

      6 years ago

      Hey john clum is my uncle i never met him but that's cool i think:) my name is also john clum i guess the 2nd

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      9 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I have written quite a few accounts on western history, and more coming. Stay tuned.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent ! Love the western history , and the real leaders in a hell of a time in our history.


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