John Philip Clum

(1851 - 1932)

Photo of John Clum

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The year 1898 marked the height of the Klondike stampede and the beginning of the rush to Nome. The year before, important copper deposits had been discovered in Prince William Sound, where ill-advised Klondike gold seekers sought an all-America route to the Klondike. Although many of those would-be miners returned home empty handed, others spread out along Alaska's southern coast before ascending previously unexplored rivers to make gold discoveries in the Kenai, Willow, and Yentna basins. Laborers at the almost mature mines at Juneau and Douglas in Alaska's southeastern panhandle watched the northern developments to see if they should jump for Nome or travel into Alaska's Interior. Communications were very important to the mining community, and the most reliable method was written, which were then carried by the U.S. Postal Service, an entity that would also safely carry physical gold bound for the U.S. Mint at a very reasonable cost.

The Postal Service needed to expand rapidly to keep up with the explosive growth of the territory. To do this rather Herculean task, they sent a middle-aged, rather slight, prematurely bald man whose previous wilderness experience had been in the southwestern deserts. The man was John Philip Clum, who was designated as Postal Inspector for Alaska. His lack of northern experience was seemingly no handicap. In a five-month period, Clum traveled 8,000 miles, established seven new post offices, and equipped existing ones.

Tough assignments were nothing new to John Clum. On February 26, 1874, at the age of twenty three, Clum accepted a commission as Indian agent on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southeastern Arizona. Clum was on the job by early August, and he quickly established an effective self-rule system, a first in any of the western reservations. In April 1877, backed up by his Apache police force, Clum captured Geronimo in a bloodless standoff. Unfortunately, Clum's effective management system, based on honesty and trust, could not survive venal civilian agents who managed only to line their own pockets, and a military whose aim was Apache genocide. Clum resigned on July 1, 1877, when he was only twenty-six years old.

Clum's early life was rather typical for his time, but judging from his educational history, probably on the prosperous side. Family heritage was Dutch. His father, William Henry Clum, married Elizabeth Van Deusen. John, who was born on September 1, 1851, had five brothers and three sisters. The family farm was near Claverack, New York where John attended the Hudson River Institute. In 1870, John entered Rutgers University, where he played on the second recorded intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton. Clum intended to return to Rutgers in 1871, but was quite ill that summer - likely the illness that caused John to lose his hair. (John's later Apache name was Nantan Betunnikiyeh meaning Boss with high Forehead.) Lacking funds to return to school in the fall, Clum joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps in September 1871, and became a weather observer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Clum was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, which assumed management of the San Carlos Reservation in the early 1870s. Former classmates at Rutgers, aware of Clum's western location, volunteered him for a position as Indian agent, where he not only captured Geronimo1 and his lieutenants, Francisco, Ponce, and Gordo, but also accepted the peaceful surrender of Victorio's 400 member band. Clum was a bit of a showman. In 1876 he traveled to Ohio to wed Mary Dennison Ware, and took with him an Apache body guard of twenty-two San Carlos men who played 'Wild Apaches' on the way to cover expenses.

Apache agent John Clum in a group portrait with the Yuma Chief.

Apache agent John Clum in a group portrait with the Yuma Chief.
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Clum's enlightened management policies kept him in political hot water. As noted by one biographer:

"In the three years that Clum had served as agent his salary was still $1,600 per year. In that time four other reservations had been closed …and Indians sent to San Carlos increased from 800 to 5000. Seven other agents had been fired as they were not needed. . .a final blow came when the Indian Bureau moved the Army to periodically inspect Clum's charges.

The twenty-six year old Clum sent a brash telegram to Washington saying that if his salary was increased and he was allowed two more companies of Indian police, he would assume control of all the Apaches in Arizona and that all the army troops could be removed. Politicians could not allow this to happen as they were making a great deal of money because of the presence of the Army."
Deciding to learn more about publishing, silver, and western boomtowns, Clum left his position as Indian agent on July 1, 1877.

Clum and his wife bought the weekly Arizona Citizen based in Tucson, Arizona Territory, and kept up a long-range editorial battle with the Army and with "the political double crossers in Washington." The Clums also kept their eyes on a rich silver strike at Tombstone, Arizona that seemed very newsworthy. In December 1879, they visited the wide-open boomtown, and on May 1, 1880, published the first edition of the surviving Tombstone Epitaph saying that "every Tombstone must have an epitaph". Almost immediately, Clum linked up with a minority reform group that wished to at least slow down the wide open pace of the town. In 1881, under a new city charter, Clum was elected mayor, and he soon appointed Virgil Earp as town marshall. The Epitaph continued to crusade against the Clanton-McLowry gang, who boasted that they would run the Clums and all the Earps, including Wyatt, out of town. The quarrel ended on October 26, 1881 with the famous 'Battle of the OK Corral'. Numerically, Clum and the Earps won, although both Virgil and Wyatt were wounded. On the other side, Billy Clanton and two McLowrys were dead. Money still ruled the town, however, and John Clum, Doc Holliday, and the Earps were marked for death. A few days later, a stagecoach with Clum aboard was riddled with bullets, and then Morgan Earp was killed.

Mary Clum died while the Clums were still in Tombstone. Perhaps the death threats were too much, but in any event John sold the Epitaph and left Tombstone on May 1, 1882. From 1882 into the 1890s, Clum followed mining boomtowns in California and Nevada.

John and Mary Clum.

John and Mary Clum.
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From 1898 until 1910, Clum was in the Alaska-Yukon region. He was appointed Postal Inspector for Alaska in 1898, and moved to the booming territory. On a stopover in Dawson City, Yukon Territory on his way to Alaska, Clum met an old acquaintance, Nellie Cashman, who had been part of the Law and Order League in Tombstone (and who is an inductee into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame).

Unlike Alaska Postmasters, who have been studied in great detail by postal scholars, little is written about the Postal Inspectors. Fortunately, a Seattle postman on a prospecting jaunt to Nome in 1900, left a detailed record of Clum's role in Nome in the summer of 1900. Fred Lockley and a buddy in the Seattle Post Office requested a leave of absence so they could join the Nome stampede. After a voyage of 23 days they arrived at Nome. The men went ashore where they sought opportunities to mine or prospect. Finding opportunities either too sparse or not to their liking, they decided to try the post office. The found that Postmaster George Wright was absent 'Outside', but that John Clum, the Inspector, was running the Nome Post Office. After discussing their past experience in some detail, Clum told Lockley and partner to report for duty in a few hours. When the men returned they found that Clum had typed out instructions:

"A system of free delivery has been established in connection with the Nome Post Office which will be inaugurated on a portion of Front Street and extended as conditions exist. The bearer (Fred Lockley, Jr.,) has been appointed a clerk in the Nome Post Office and is authorized to take the names and addresses of persons who may be entitled to obtain service within the prescribed district. Only those who are unable to obtain boxes in the Post Office will be served by the carriers.

Signed John Clum
Post Office Inspector
Nome, June 21st, 1900"

Lockley found an incredible level of activity. The boom on the Nome 'general delivery' service was said to be the largest in the United States. The two young men picked up their mail from a 12' x 12' room manned by eleven sorters - twenty-two counting the night shift, running seven days a week (with a short day on Sunday). Clum had authorized clerks to take placer gold dust, valued at about $16 per ounce, for mail orders, and in the month of July alone, intake exceeded $130,000. Clum even found old friends from Tombstone nearby - Wyatt and Josephine Earp were running the roadhouse at Dexter a few miles east of Nome.

John Clum (right) and Wyatt Earp in Nome, Alaska in 1900.

John Clum (right) and Wyatt Earp in Nome, Alaska in 1900.
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In 1906, Clum was back in Interior Alaska. On January 17, 1906, he was appointed to be the second Postmaster of Fairbanks, Alaska, preceded by the founder of Fairbanks, E. T. Barnette, who had been appointed on April 10, 1903. Clum's appointments show some political importance. In the shorthand adopted by postal students, an appointment shown as P & S means a Presidential Appointment that was also approved by the U. S. Senate. (Most of Alaska's early Postmasters only show an A for their appointments). President Theodore Roosevelt personally authorized Clum's appointment.

While in Alaska, John Clum mined for placer gold near Fairbanks and in the Nome area, and was probably associated with dredging. However, his main qualification for induction into the Mining Hall of Fame is his participation in establishing reliable mail service in a wild territory, a necessity for an efficient mining industry. James Wickersham wrote:

"No hardier, braver, or more capable men ever drove a stage across the plains to California than the pioneer mail carriers of the Yukon."
These men were directed for a while by John Clum, whose own bravery and inherent honesty had been well documented on the San Carlos Reservation and on the dusty streets of Tombstone long before he came north.

John Clum left Alaska in 1909. He then spent several years lecturing and publicizing passenger and tourist services on the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1928, he moved to Los Angeles, where he died in on May 2, 1932. Clum was survived by his third wife Florence, a son, Woodworth, and a daughter, Carol Kingsland Clum Vachon. Clum's adventurous life has been documented in at least ten motion pictures and on television. In 1956, Clum was played by Audie Murphy in Walk the Proud Land based on the book Apache Agent written by Woodworth Clum.

By Charles C. Hawley, February 27, 2010


1 Geronimo escaped shortly after his initial capture by Clum.


Ora B. Dickerson, One hundred and twenty (120) Years of Alaska Postmasters, 1867-1987. 1989.

Gary LaDoux, 2007 and 2008, Nantan: The Life and Times of John Clum. 2 volumes, volume 1, 2007; volume 2, 2008. Trafford Publishing Company

Fred Lockley, Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900. Facsimile-Shorey's Book Store. Seattle. Available Anchorage Public Library, Alaska, Loussac: Call #383.49798

Glauthier, Martha, "San Dimas Remembered." (2/17/10)

The Spell of the West-- John P. Clum. (12/2/2009)

John Clum, // Clum (2/17/10)

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