McGonagill, Henry Clay (1879–1921)

By: Jack Lala

Type: Biography

Published: April 1, 1995

Updated: October 26, 2020

Clay McGonagill (McGonegill, McGonigle, or McGonagil), rodeo cowboy, was born on September 24, 1879, in Sweet Home, Lavaca County, Texas, the youngest of six children of George M. and E. C. McGonagill. When he was four the family moved to the vicinity of Midland, where his father raised the Billy and steeldust breeds of quarter horse. The young McGonagill spent his early years on the ranch learning to ride and rope his father's horses. When not working for his father, Clay traveled through West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona cowboying for ranches in the area. He was a personable and genial fellow, yet he possessed an ornery side. Any chance for formal education was cut short in 1897 when Clay and a friend, Joe Gardner, threatened to kill the school principal and a grade school teacher after a fight with the school superintendent. In 1907 he was charged with horse theft, though the charges were later dropped and Clay won a "malicious prosecution" suit. In March 1912 charges were filed in the district court of Gaines County against him for "robbery with firearms" of a bank in Seminole. Allegedly, Clay and notorious outlaw Tom Ross perpetrated the offense, but charges were later dropped against Clay, apparently for lack of evidence.

As a rodeo cowboy, herding and roping steers for prize money throughout the western United States and as far away as England and South America, Clay fast established himself as the world's best steer roper. In 1902 he accompanied legendary cowboy humorist Will Rogers and other cowboys to Montevideo, Uruguay, for the First International Rodeo. Legend had Clay McGonagill winning more than 500 roping contests in his day. He set several records over a period of time for steer roping, time and again besting his own marks. He was a colorful character willing to take on all comers in steer roping competitions, known around the turn of the century as "fairgroundings." In July 1907 he challenged Bob Gentry, an Indian and popular Oklahoma champion, to a test of skill, claiming he could rope eleven steers to Gentry's ten in less time. After falling behind early, he proceeded to back up his brash talk with his roping skill and won the bet. In April of that same year he had set a record of 21½ seconds. In doing so, he won a unique bet for a gambler's wooden leg, which the fellow had wagered upon hearing Clay boast that he could break the record. After parading around the arena with his new prize, McGonagill returned the trophy to its needy owner.

McGonagill married Annie Laurie Johnston on January 16, 1904. He had met her only four days earlier in San Antonio, where she was attending a boarding school. The couple had one son. Clay McGonagill was killed on October 24, 1921, while hauling a load of hay on the Papago Indian Reservation, near Sacaton, Arizona. He had stopped the wagon he was driving to clear the road of a steel power line. The line carried more than 11,000 volts, and Clay was killed instantly. He was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975.

Eve Ball, "Clay McGonagill: A Colorful Cowboy," Persimmon Hill 9 (Winter 1979). Bill Modisett, "Clay McGonagill: The Wildest Cowboy, The Greatest Steer Roper," in Cowboys Who Rode Proudly: Carrying Cattle...And the Methods of Handling Them, comp. and ed. Evetts Haley, Jr. (Midland, Texas: Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library, 1992). Bill Modisett, The King of Monument: The Life and Times of Henry Clay McGonagill (Midland: Staked Plain Press, 2011). Willard H. Porter, Who's Who in Rodeo (Oklahoma City: Powder River, 1982). Guy Weadick, Clay McGonagil: A Fast Man with a Rope (Clarendon, Texas: Clarendon Press, 1962).

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Cowboys and Cowgirls
  • Rodeo Personalities
  • Sports and Recreation
  • Sports (Rodeo)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jack Lala, “McGonagill, Henry Clay,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 1, 1995
October 26, 2020