Miami was only a few years old when Danny Clay, an Ottawa Indian, was shot. Founded in 1891, 588 acres was carved out of Ottawa territory in what was or had been part of an allotment in Indian Territory preserved for small tribes since 1831. Miami was just as rugged as any frontier town that included a combination of Indian and white citizens. A large number of both opposed the site claiming it was unhealthy, too close to the Neosho River. Also there were other complications, the surrounding area lay within the jurisdiction of the Quapaw Indian Agency but the town site was owned by the Ottawa. So there were questions of jurisdiction, how well the law could be enforced and the town’s image. Many of the more pious citizens called it “Whiskey Town,” because of the numerous saloons located there. One preacher referred to Miami’s main street as “Sin Street,” proclaiming that the town should really be called “Outlaw.” There also may have been some prejudice or jealousy among other tribesmen and white settlers. Miami had been planned by three Indians, W. C Lykins, a Peoria, Thomas Richardville, Chief of the Miami Tribe and Mannford Pooler, Chief of the Ottawa Tribe. In sum, given its origin and the general climate, maintaining law and order in this fledgling community was a problem.
Was Danny Clay a criminal or not? Residents of Miami in Ottawa County debated that point before he died and long afterward. Everyone knew Danny could be unmanageable if he drank too much. He was handy with a gun, on his most recent binge he shot up the main street and shot out the kerosene lights in the town’s three saloons. A few days earlier down at the railroad yard, the town marshal turned and ran when he faced a real gun. The marshal had grabbed Danny’s arm under the pretext of shaking hands, then yelled, “you’re under arrest.” That was a mistake. Danny twisted out of his grasp, grabbed the marshal’s pistol and whipped him with his own gun.
The Ottawa Indian reservation where Danny lived comprised approximately 15,000 acres of reservation land southeast of Miami, out of the jurisdiction of local law enforcement. So, prevailed upon by local authorities, the Indian agent made an attempt to find Danny, but upon inquiring of his whereabouts, he was collectively met with blank stares. Consequently, Miami town folk became increasingly incensed that nothing was being done to apprehend this menace to society.
In a last effort to resolve his dilemma, the town marshal contacted two of Judge Isaac Parker’s deputy marshals stationed at Vinita to come and help locate Danny. Several days later he received their communication advising him to find someone to spy on Danny and find out when he would be coming to town and they would lay a trap for him.
Meanwhile, Danny Clay, tiring of this game of cat and mouse, told his sweetheart that he had decided to leave the territory and would go to Kansas where he had relatives. This would give time for the situation in town to cool down. The couple also decided that, in the next few weeks, she would join him and they would marry. Now, just how the sheriff learned of their plans is uncertain. Some say he intercepted a note describing the plan, while others believe the girl friend inadvertently gave their secret away while shopping for a wedding dress. Regardless, Danny was betrayed.
It is important at this time to explain the difference between the “Hollywood version” of what might have occurred and reality in Northeastern Oklahoma in the late 19th century. The Hollywood version would eventually have one of Parker’s deputies and Danny Clay facing off on Miami’s “Sin Street,” labeled by the local preacher. Both would draw and the deputy’s lightning move would result in Danny’s death. But, in fact that did not happen. As history confirms, not all of Parker’s deputies were so inclined toward frontal confrontation.
On the night of Danny’s departure he groomed his horse, loaded his saddlebacks and headed for Miami. It was a warm, moonlit night and Danny Clay had no thought of trouble because he was still on the reservation and there had been no reward posted for his arrest. The two marshals, hidden in the grass by the side of the road allowed him to pass, then stood and shot him in the back with their Winchester rifles. Danny slipped from the saddle dead. Even then, the marshals were afraid to approach him until an Indian boy, hearing the shots, came running down the road. When he confirmed Danny was dead, they loaded the corpse into the wagon and took it to Miami where he was displayed in the back of the local pharmacy. Danny was buried in the Ottawa Tribal Cemetery in an unmarked grave.
Judge Isaac Parker employed over 200 deputy marshals, some themselves recent converts from a life of crime, but all protected by their badge, even when shooting a man in the back. Danny Clay never robbed a bank or killed anyone. No Hollywood ending here, just reality in 19th century Northeastern Oklahoma.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.