(Used with permission)
Henry Clay McGonagill was born on September 24, 1879 to George M. McGonagill (1841 – 1921) and Narcissa Josephine “Grandma” Haynes McGonagill (1839 – 1935) in Sweet Home, Texas. George was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1841. By the time he was nineteen, his family had moved to Lavaca County, Texas where George was working on his father’s farm. George then served in the Civil War after which he returned to Texas. By 1870, he had married Narcissa and two of their children were born. Narcissa had been born in Tennessee. At the time the 1870 federal census was taken, George was working on his own stock farm. By 1880 their family was complete. They had six children that lived to adulthood, of which Clay was the youngest, and they were still residing in Lavaca County. By 1900, they had moved to West Texas and were living in Midland. Sometime within the next ten years, they had moved to what was then Eddy County in the New Mexico Territory where George was raising horses.
Clay’s parents were ranchers. Born in 1879, he grew up in West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Clay learned to ride and rope while he lived and worked on the family ranches. Later he did some “cowboying” for other ranchers as he ventured into rodeo.
For many years, Clay was a championship rodeo contestant and supported himself with his rodeo winnings, primarily as a steer roper. In the day, many such rodeos were local affairs and some were known as “fairgroundings.” McGonagill still developed a wide reputation in the rodeo world competing in the United States, Canada, Mexico and at least one time in South America.
Clay was often mentioned in national newspaper accounts. The August 30, 1901 issue of the El Paso Herald profiled him after a local rodeo, referring to him as the world record holder in steer roping after an earlier event in Tucson, Arizona in which Clay’s time was clocked at 23 seconds. (The current record has gradually been lowered to around 6 seconds.) He was about twenty-two years old at the time and was described as a “small, boyish and unassuming young man.”
Clay also participated in contests in which he and another contestant would compete by roping a number of steers at one event. The winner would be the one who had the lowest time. Likewise, sometimes he and a partner would compete against two other contestants and the team with the lowest combined times would win. The San Angelo Press issue of December 3, 1902 promoted such a contest where Clay and Joe Gardner competed against John Hewett and Fred Baker for prize money totaling $1,000.
He married Annie Laurie Johnston in 1904 and they following year, their only son Henry Clay McGonagill, Jr. was born. Annie was the daughter of James Washington Johnston (1861 – 1937) and Anna F. Whitley Johnston (1864 – 1900) in Sealey, Texas. She was the only daughter out of four children born to that union. James W. Johnston was a cattle rancher in the Sealy area.
In late 1905, Clay’s rodeo career was well underway. However, articles began to appear in Texas and New Mexico newspapers about Clay having been accused of misappropriating funds from the sale of several horses. The accusation charged that he had sold a group of horses in Texas, several of which were alleged to have belonged to J. L. Taylor and his son when they were sold in Sealy, Texas in Austin County. Clay was arrested at one point, but released as the court proceedings took their course. The trial was continued several times over the next few years. Finally, the Carlsbad Argus of Carlsbad, New Mexico in its issue of September 24, 1908 reported that the trial held there had just concluded. The account included Clay’s statement that he had bought the horses from a third party and Clay was acquitted of the charges. Clay continued to compete in rodeos before and after this event.
In 1907 he is said to have lowered the world record in steer roping to 21.4 seconds in a contest in which he defeated Oklahoma roping champion Bob Gentry. In so doing, the story is told that he also won a side bet with a one legged gambler in which he won the gambler’s wooden leg. Clay reportedly rode around showing off his prize for a short while, but returned the leg to the gambler.
A second legal matter has him being accused of assisting outlaw Tom Ross in the 1912 robbery of a bank in Seminole, Texas, but Clay was later cleared of these charges. There are no other known allegations of any illegal activities in newspaper accounts.
Clay’s colorful life included knowing and performing in events with humorist Will Rogers. Their acquaintance likely began with Clay’s rodeo career, and Rogers is known to have worked for at least a while for the old Hat Ranch, most likely in Midland, Texas. In the early 1900s, Rogers took a group of American rodeo personalities to South America. The group included McGonagill, bulldogger Bill Pickett and numerous others. The relationship the Rogers and McGonagills appears to have been an enduring and a warm one, since after Clay’s untimely death, Will Rogers and his wife visited the McGonagill family on several occasions.
Clay and his family were living in Arizona when he was accidentally electrocuted. On October 24, 1921, he was working on a job, moving a hay rack on the Papago Indian Reservation near Sacaton, Arizona when he came across a low hanging power line. In trying to clear the roadway to make room for his hay wagon, he came in contact with the line carrying 11,000 volts of electricity and was instantly killed. Details of the accident vary somewhat with some accounts saying he accidentally touched a charged wire while others say that the wire had come in contact with the wagon and he may have been shocked when he stepped on a metal wagon wheel.
Clay is buried in the Lovington Cemetery in Lea County, New Mexico along with his parents. He was inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975. Annie survived him another thirty-five years, passing in 1956. She is buried in Huntsville, Arkansas.
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