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History Minute: How the Clayton twins built their name in Arkansas

by Dr. Ken Bridges | March 23, 2021 at 7:30 p.m.

Twin brothers John Middleton Clayton and William Henry Harrison Clayton were born on their father’s farm near Philadelphia in October 13, 1840. Their lives were defined, like many men of that generation, by the Civil War and Reconstruction. These two Pennsylvania brothers would play leading roles in the aftermath of the war in Arkansas.

The two were part of a larger family that included eight children. As they grew up, the country fell apart around them. When the Civil War started, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers and the organization of units to serve in the Union Army. William Clayton organized a company of men in his home county in 1862. He was elected first lieutenant, while John Clayton became first sergeant. William saw fighting in the most intense battles of the war, including Antietam and Gettysburg. By the end of the war, he became a teacher and began studying the law. Meanwhile, John Clayton, still not even 25 years old, rose to become a colonel in the Army of the Potomac by the end of the war.

Their older brother, Powell Clayton, had distinguished himself during the Civil War and rose to the rank of brigadier general by 1864, at the age of 31. He commanded a garrison of troops occupying Pine Bluff, where he bought a plantation and settled after the war. His glowing reports about Arkansas inspired his brothers to join him in Pine Bluff in 1867. The three became very active in state politics, with their eldest brother eventually rising to governor by 1868 and U. S. Senator by 1871.

John Clayton was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1870, representing Jefferson County. Once he became involved in state politics, promoting higher education became one of his great passions. He was appointed to the first board of trustees as the University of Arkansas was being established and helped determine its location in Fayetteville. The university would open the next year, with students attending tuition-free. In 1872, he was elected to the state senate. In the 1873 session, the state also established the Branch Normal College as a college for the freedmen, and Clayton worked to ensure it had funding and convinced officials to locate the college in Pine Bluff. Today, the college is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He got caught up in the chaos of Reconstruction in Arkansas, going so far as to recruit men to march to Little Rock in 1874 to support the besieged Gov. Joseph Brooks in the midst of the Brooks-Baxter War.

In spite of his participation in the gunfights in the streets of the capital and voters tossing out everyone in favor of a new state constitution, he was elected Jefferson County Sheriff in 1876 and served in the position for ten years.

In 1877, William Clayton was appointed United States Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, serving the court of Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious “hanging judge.” For 14 of the next 22 years, Clayton served ably as a federal prosecutor, successfully prosecuting nearly 10,000 cases, including convicting 80 murderers. His record of convictions is still unprecedented for any federal prosecutor.

He was almost the victim of an assassin’s bullet. In 1883, he had prosecuted the notorious Belle Starr of Fort Smith on a horse theft charge. Though Starr was involved in many criminal enterprises, this was one of the few for which she was ever convicted. After her release from a federal prison in Michigan the following year, Starr plotted her revenge. Learning that Clayton would attend a Wild West Exhibition at the Sebastian County Fair, she was preparing to shoot him during the loud performance. At the last minute, her plot was discovered, and Clayton was unharmed.

His brother, however, was not so fortunate. In 1888, John Clayton ran for Congress in the sprawling second district, which then ran from Jefferson County, east and north of Little Rock, and back toward Russellville. The election was exceptionally close; but his opponent, incumbent Clifton Breckinridge, seemed to come out ahead by just over 800 votes. Allegations of fraud soon erupted. Contesting the results, Clayton went to Plumerville to investigate one of the most seriously flawed precincts and build his case. On a cold January night in 1889, he was shot. Clayton died that night at age 48.

His brother, with all of his powers as a United States Attorney and funding of private investigations, was never able to identify or prosecute a suspect. More than 130 years later, the murder remains unsolved. A later investigation showed that Clayton had won the disputed election.

In 1897, a new federal district court was created within the Indian Territory, and President William McKinley appointed Clayton as federal judge. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals for the territory in 1901. He stepped down from his judicial service in 1907 and served as a delegate to the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention that year. He retired to a private law practice in Oklahoma where he died in 1920. His home in Fort Smith is now a historic museum.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.

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