Archive Search

Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Clay McGonagill —

Steer Roper Extraordinaire”

“I’ll bet you $1,000 I can tie eleven steers down quicker than you can ten!” The challenge was issued to Bob Gentry, World Champion Steer Roper from Oklahoma. The man laying down the challenge was none other than Clay McGonagill. The date, July, 1907.

Henry Clay McGonagill was born at Old Sweet Home, Texas on September 24, 1879 to George and Narcissa McGonagill. When he was just a young boy, the family relocated to Ector County, near Midland, Texas. Clay’s father was said to be quite the character and a raiser of “cain.” He also bred good horses, ranched, and for a time, was the sheriff of Ector County.

Clay grew up on the West Texas Plains where he learned to be a cowboy. A good one. It has been written he was drawing a full “man’s” cowboy wage by the time he was twelve. At about age eighteen, he wandered onto a ranch near Lovington, New Mexico, looking for cowboy work.

Shortly after arriving, Clay observed a bad bronc throw a cowboy in the dirt. He was told this particular horse had unloaded most everybody around. Clay boasted to all present that if they would bet him two-to-one, he would ride the horse backwards!

A cowboy named Bell, who was there that day, later recalled in his memoirs, “After all had put up money, they helped Clay put his saddle on the horse and turned it backwards. Clay walked confidently to the horse, stuck his foot into the stirrup and swung easily into the saddle. The strawberry roan exploded. He rode him until he quit pitching, and stepped off. Now that is what I call a wild cowboy.”

Not only was McGonagill a good bronc rider, but he was one heck of a roper as well. Back in the day (around the turn of the last century) when steer roping competitions were done on thousand-pound Longhorns, Clay stood out as a “cowboy” among cowboys. To this day, he is known as one of the toughest early 1900s ropers. Some legends have him winning anywhere from four to five-hundred roping competitions in his life.

Back then, there were no rodeos as we know them now. It was Wild West Shows, Reunions, Stampedes, and Gatherings, all held for the entertainment of spectators, and as a venue for cowboys to try their skills against one another at these community events. Many other competitions were held in an informal way so cowboys could “match” each other at various events. There were no professional rodeo hands like today. The men competing back then were ranch cowboys on a daily basis and “rodeo” cowboys when they got the chance. Clay quickly made a name for himself as a tough hand to beat in these situations.

Circa 1905, Clay went with none other than cowboy humorist Will Rogers (and others) to Uruguay, for the First International Rodeo. Rogers and McGonagill were reportedly fast friends and Will even credited Clay with showing him a thing or two about roping early in his career. After Clay died, Rogers wrote in his weekly column, “Clay was acknowledged by everyone to be the funniest Cowboy that ever lived.”

Clay was said to have quite the colorful personality, even having a bit of an ornery side. He was always willing to take on anybody who would enter the steer roping competitions. He roped for money throughout the Western United States and even England, Canada, Mexico and South America during his life.

The late historian J. Evetts Haley called him, “One of the greatest cowboys.”

The character “Clay McGonagill even appeared in Elmer Kelton’s The Good Ol’ Boys, which was later made into a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. In the movie, Jones’ character, Huey Calloway, ropes against the champion, “Clay McGonagill,” at San Angelo, Texas.

In 1904, Clay married Annie Johnston. Reportedly, he had met her only four days before marrying her in San Antonio, Texas. She was attending boarding school there. The couple wound up having one son.

And what about the match between Bob Gentry and Clay in 1907? In an interview later, Annie said that Clay had beaten Bob at a ten-head match there in Muskogee, Oklahoma after Gentry had just won the “World Championship Steer Roping” contest.

After Clay won this first match, Gentry was complaining about something or another, so Clay challenged Gentry to another match. Eleven head for Clay, ten for Bob—best time overall wins.

Annie recounted, “Gentry took him up it (the bet for another $1,000), after which I felt sure we’d have to sell everything we had just to hold onto Kelly (Clay’s horse). Without Kelly, Clay would be sunk.”

The next day, the Muskogee Times-Democrat reported, “It is very doubtful whether such a roping as was turned in by McGonagill yesterday has ever been equalled.” Clay roped eleven steers in 451.8 seconds to Gentry’s 458.8 on ten head. Everyone considered Clay McGonagill to be the World Champion Steer Roper.

The McGonagills lived on a ranch near Monument, New Mexico. Besides his roping income, Clay supplemented his earnings by hiring out as a cowboy.

The legendary Clay McGonagill was killed on October 24, 1921, while hauling hay on the Pima Indian Reservation, near Sacaton, Arizona. He had stopped the wagon he was driving to clear the road of a downed power line. As it turns out, the power line was still live and carried about 11,000 volts. Clay was killed instantly. He was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975.