Outlaw Cliff Ragan: tales of a horse thief

cliffraganLocal Author Signs Book About Outlaw Cliff Ragan Around 1900, when any sort of theft or robbery was reported in three counties and two states, Cliff Ragan was immediately a suspect. If horses or cattle were stolen, sheriffs and constables put Ragan’s name on the top of their lists. The “outlaw” was well enough known that newspapers in the Fresno area reported on his whereabouts, and he left his mark on Fresno, Inyo and Madera counties in California, and in Nevada as well. In Inyo County for a short time before another prison stint, Ragan sold his saddle to A.A. Brierly, the county undersheriff. Some years later, Brierly literally ran into Ragan while tending cows, and riding Ragan’s old saddle, which the outlaw immediately recognized.

That is one of the numerous tales that make up local author Rob Pearce’s book, “Bad Man or Good Friend: The Life Story of Cliff Ragan, Outlaw.” Pearce credits his grandfather Brierly as a contributor to the book, since it was his stories about Ragan that enthralled Pearce as a boy and led him on a 30-year search for the details of Ragan’s life of crime, which extended from the 1880s to the 1940s. Pearce will make a presentation and also sign his book on Ragan on Saturday, Nov. 16, at the Eastern California Museum, 155 N. Grant St., in Independence. Pearce’s presentation about the habitual criminal and horse thief, will start at 1:15 p.m., and he will be at the museum to answer questions and sign books until 4 p.m. For more information, call 760-878-0258.

As a young man, Ragan committed several rather violent crimes, and had a couple of shoot-outs with the law. By 1898 had already served two terms in San Quentin. Around 1911, he was suspected of stealing horses in the Independence area, but got away. In 1914, he and two others again stole horses in Inyo County, and the three were captured and Ragan was sentenced to his third stay in San Quentin. That’s when he sold his saddle to Brierly. When the two met again in 1918 while tending cows in the Fish Lake Valley, Ragan said, “if I had all the cattle I have stolen, I’d be a millionaire.” Brierly surmised that Ragan stole for the thrill of it. The outlaw told him, “you cannot imagine how exciting it is to be riding your horse at a dead run with someone taking a shot at you.”

Those first-person accounts prompted Pearce to undertake a thorough and rather impressive bit of historical research about Ragan. Eventually, Pearce uncovered newspaper articles, letters, prison records and photos of Ragan and was able to piece together his long life as a cowboy and mostly a criminal. That career started when he was 16 and stole a horse in Fresno, and ended in 1940, when he was released from his last prison sentence. Besides serving plenty of time in numerous county jails in California and Nevada, Ragan ended up serving three sentences in San Quentin, two stretches in the Nevada State Penitentiary (and escaped once), and one, final bit of prison time in the Idaho State Penitentiary. He died in 1941, and was buried in Winnemucca, Nev., in an unmarked grave, which Pearce eventually discovered.


2 Responses to Outlaw Cliff Ragan: tales of a horse thief

  1. Eastern Sierra Local November 14, 2013 at 11:50 am #

    I wonder if Frank Shaw knew him?

  2. Trouble November 14, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    I heard he ended up being our local D.A.?


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