Capt. Thomas Jacob Clay by Ned Boyajian

Thomas Jacob Clay was born on April 5, 1853, in the “old house” at Ashland, that is: prior to the reconstruction of the house by Tom’s father, James B. Clay (1817-1864). James’ James’ parents were Statesman Henry Clay (who built Ashland) and his wife, Lucretia Hart. James’ wife, Tom’s mother, was Susan Maria Jacob who lived from 1823 to 1905. Family lore holds that James was finally moved to rebuild the house when bits of plaster fell into Tom’ crib. 

Tom lived with his family at Ashland and (for one year) in Washington, DC, until the fall of 1862, shortly after the Battle of Ashland. Then he and two of his sisters were sent to live with an aunt on his mom’s side in New Jersey, where he remained until 1863. He then joined his immediate family who were staying in Canada. There his father died in January, 1864.

Tom and his family returned to Kentucky in 1865. 

He was graduated from Louisville Medical College in 1873. After graduation, he spent several months in New York City, in the office of Dr. Lewis A. Sayre. Then he opened his own practice in St. Louis, MO. 

Finding that he was too young to establish a lucrative medical practice, he applied for and received an appointment as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His appointment was granted in April 1877. 

In the spring of 1886 he “volunteered  for service with the troops operating in Sonora, Mexico, against Geronimo.” Tom’s story continues in his own words: 

We met Geronimo on a little river east of Fronteras over a range of the Sierra Madre Mountains where [Lt. Charles] Gatewood had induced him to remain with his outfit and have a talk with [Captain Henry] Lawton [Clay’s immediate superior officer] about surrendering. Geronimo and his principal men came to our camp for a talk, and after a conference the promised to go with us to Skeleton Canon and have a talk with General Miles, who was to meet us there. While they were in our camp several of the officers proposed either to capture or kill the Indians while we had them in conference. Gatewood, and  think Doctor [Leonard] Wood, and I made a most strenuous protest against such a course and said that w would no be parties to such treachery and that if such a course was pursued, we would prefer charges against all those concerned. After this conference Geronimo and his men returned to their camp.

Next morning, we started for Skeleton Canon where we went to meet General Miles. The Indians started on the march first, Lawton giving Lieutenant Smith orders to follow with our command. He; Gatewood; Doctor Wood; the interpreter, George Wratten; and I went ahead with the Indians. We got to where the Indians went into camp about sundown and as Smith did not put in an appearance, Lawton became uneasy, thinking he had taken the wrong trail. So, with George Wratten, he left us and cut across country to try to locate him and the command. They did not show up, we remained with the Indians that night and with them next morning when they resumed the march. W marched all day with them. When we broke camp in the early morning, Natches (a son of the noted Chief Cochise) went ahead, with most of them, deployed in a long skirmish line. After he had gone about half an hour, Geronimo, with the old men, women and children, and the surplus horses followed in the rear and about the center of the line. We went into camp about dusk, and soon after Lawton joined us with Smith and our command, which had taken the wrong trail. 

“We resumed the march early next morning and marched  company with Geronimo and his band to Skeleton Canon where we met General Miles. A conference was then held between General Miles and Geronimo and his principal men, and after quite a long talk Geronimo concluded to surrender unconditionally. Next morning we left for Fort Bowie. Geronimo and his leading men were put in an ambulance, and as I was a quite noted rifle and pistol shot, General Miles ordered me to ride behind the ambulance and to shoot any of the Indians if they attempted to escape. This was an awfully hard ride for me. I was on a rough gaited mule and the distance to Fort Bowie was seventy miles and we made it in eleven hours. We put the Indians in the guard house, and the next morning we marched them down to Bowie Station, put them on a special train, and took them to San Antonio, Texas, where they were turned over to the commanding officer there, to hold them till they were shipped to Fort Pickens, Pensacola, Florida. 

After leaving the Indians at San Antonio, I joined my company at Fort Union, New Mexico ….

Tom Clay remained in the Army until 1894. He then retired to Fayette County, KY, where he “engaged  in the breeding of thoroughbred horses with my brother, George H. Clay [1858-1934]… till March, 1927, when we sold the farm and horses and have since made our home at the Lafayette Hotel, in Lexington.”  

He never married and had no issue, but was devoted to his nephews and nieces, the children of his brother Charles D. Clay (1857-1935). In return, the children idolized their Uncle Tom. These children included Robert Pepper Clay and Elizabeth Startling Clay, the author’s grandfather and great aunt.

The year that Tom retired from the Army, Geronimo and other Apaches who had been detained in Florida were allowed to resettle at Fort Sill, OK. There Geronimo died in 1909. 

Thomas Clay himself died on January 16, 1939 in New York City, where he had gone to seek medical treatment at Memorial Hospital, then located on West 106th Street. 


Years later, at about the time of Tom Clay’s death, a little red-headed girl was living at Fort Sill. Her father, Robert Pepper Clay, was an officer stationed there and she was the grand-niece of Tom Clay. One of the places she liked to play was an old guardhouse … where Geronimo had stayed. For decades, girl and woman, she remembered a path worn on the floor of the guardhouse … she was told the path was made by Geronimo, pacing to and fro. 

Some Sources

A brief autobiographical sketch by Thomas J. Clay, among the Clay Family Papers housed in the Library of Congress

Chasing Geronimo: The Journal of Leonard Wood, May-September 1886, Leonard Wood, ed by Jack C. Lane

The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch by Lindsey Apple

Geronimo: His Own Story: The Autobiography of a Great Patriot Warrior by Geronimo

Oral tradition told to the author by his grandfather, his great aunt, and his mother: Col. Robert Pepper Clay, Sr., Elizabeth Starling Clay Blanford, and Lucy Starling Clay Boyajian

Tom’s death notice, The New York Times, January 17, 1939

Start Date 11/12/2022 - Please rate your reaction.