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Limpy Jack Clayton


(Audio intro: Ballad of Limpy Jack ) That’s the Ballad of Limpy Jack, written by Tania Durham, a Jamestown native who has spent a number of years exploring the history of Limpy Jack Clayton, who died in a Jamestown hospital on this day in 1893.

During his 60 years of wandering, Limpy made news wherever he went. He has been described as a gambler, horse thief, a Stutsman County Attorney, gun man, saloon keeper, Civil War veteran, Indian fighter, stagecoach driver, whiskey trader and the secretary of the Sunday School. Major Dana Wright, called him an “all-around useful citizen.”

So, where to begin... Clayton’s past is sketchy, but it’s believed he grew up as John Hamilton in Troy or Schenectady, NY. In about 1871, he drifted into Duluth, where he traded horses and drove a stagecoach, and it was there that he got to know Jack O’Neal and Dave Mullen, who later died with their boots on in Bismarck.

The three men soon got into trouble with the law. During the trial, Hamilton forgot himself and testified against Mullen, for which Mullen shot him in the leg. They must’ve made up, because the three men then drifted west together. They settled in a huddle of tents – the original nucleus of Jamestown. For unknown reasons, John Hamilton became J.C. Clayton at this point, and thanks to Dave Mullen’s bullet, the name Limpy was soon added.

Dana Wright wrote, “Limpy stayed in Jamestown trying the saloon business and other lines of missionary work. He had a certain amount of ability and education, had travelled (sic) much, had made a trip to China, but his talents did not seem to land in any permanent line of uplift.”

Wright also said that Limpy displayed a flair for promoting his saloon and was known to send bell ringers through the camp to announce “Free lunch at Limpy Jack’s tonight.” It wasn’t long, though, before a U.S. Marshal from Fargo reminded Limpy that he forgot to get his Territorial license for selling liquor. So, Clayton closed his saloon and started trading liquor for Indian ponies – which brought another visit from the Marshal and the end to another of Limpy’s career moves.

Clayton’s settlement was on the banks of Stoney Creek, about 22 miles north of Jamestown on the Ft. Totten Trail. Wells County Historian Lois Forrest said the piece of land on which he squatted was referred to as “Limpy Jack’s dirt ranch.” She wrote that in the cliffs along the creek, he scooped out two large dugouts, each measuring about 75 by 25 feet, with clay walls 7 feet high. One was for his beloved horses, and the other was for himself and his new business venture – running a roadhouse featuring gambling and whiskey. It also served as the first overnight stagecoach stop between Jamestown and Fort Totten.

It wasn’t long before Limpy was driving one of those stagecoaches. One day, Gilbert McMicken, an agent for Dominion Lands in Manitoba, pulled up in Georgetown; he had to get to Winnipeg as quickly as possible and needed a new team of horses for his express coach. Who should drive up just then but Limpy Jack Clayton.

When the stationmaster told Limpy to give his horses to McMicken, Limpy threw a fit. He had just completed a 20-mile trip from the north and refused to push his team any farther without a good long rest.

Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened next.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm