The incident is shrouded in mystery, and there are few facts about the murders, short of the number of dead. At that time, based on a ranch near Tombstone, Arizona, a loosely knit group of outlaws called the "Cow-boys" was in operation. Although not an organized gang, members of the "Cow-boys" faction often rustled cattle and committed other crimes, to include murder and robbery.
In July 1881, several Mexican Smugglers, carrying silver, had been ambushed and killed in an area called Skeleton Canyon. The killers were never positively identified, but Mexicans just across the border always suspected that those murders were committed by members of the "Cow-boys" faction. Old Man Clanton was always referred to as the leader of the "Cow-boys", due mostly to the fact that they operated off his ranch. At that time, his ranch was one of the most profitable cattle ranches in that part of the country. However, there is no evidence that he ever helped plan or organize any of the rustling or robberies committed by members of the "Cow-boys" faction.
In August, 1881, Old Man Clanton and six others were herding cattle through Guadalupe Canyon. They were ambushed by persons unknown, and five were murdered (Clanton; Charley Snow, a ranchhand who thought he had heard a bear and was the first killed; Jim Crane, who was wanted for the stagecoach robbery near Tombstone that resulted in the death of Bud Philpott and was a source of angst between Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp; Dick Gray, 19, son of Col. Mike Gray; and Billy Lang, a cattle rancher). Clanton, Crane, and Gray were either still in their bedrolls or in the act of getting dressed when killed; Lang was the only one who had a chance to fight back. Harry Ernshaw, a milk farmer, eluded death by fleeing (but not before being grazed by a bullet on the nose); Billy Byers feigned death until the perpetrators left.
Ernshaw made his way to the ranch of John Pleasant Gray (Dick's brother) who enlisted help from a mining camp 20 miles away and set off for Guadalupe Canyon. There they found the dead, stripped naked of their clothing, as well as a dazed Byers five miles away. Snow was buried where he fell due to the state of his body; the others were taken back by wagon and buried about ten miles east of Cloverdale, NM. However, in 1882 two of Old Man Clanton's sons removed his body and moved it to the Boot Hill cemetery in Tombstone, where he was buried beside his son Billy Clanton, who had been killed in the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
There is one suspect in the killings. The theory is that the Mexican Rurales led by Captain Alfredo Carrillo, who had survived an earlier ambush in 1879 in Skeleton Canyon, had ambushed them while sleeping. However there is no evidence to support any of these ideas, and so it will remain a mystery.
Traywick, Ben T. The Clantons of Tombstone (Red Marie's Bookstore, 1996)