The Lincoln County War was a battle between competing business interests in the New Mexico territory during the 1870s, with two factions competing to monopolize trade with Fort Stanton. As the largest customer in Lincoln County, the fort’s business gave the winning faction control over Lincoln County’s economy. As the largest county in the country, that economic power was the equivalent of being the overseer of a very large fiefdom. Law favored those who paid for it. Justice wasn’t part of the equation.
Each faction employed gunfighters and thugs, with wealthy, powerful interests pulling the strings and providing money behind the scenes. The Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful attorneys and land speculators, backed the Murphy-Dolan faction, and John Chisum, a wealthy cattle baron, supported the Tunstall-McSween group. By the time the smoke cleared, the carnage in Lincoln made headlines around the world, often heavy on fantasy and light on facts, cultivating the mythos of the Wild West and propelling Billy the Kid to fame (or infamy, depending on perspective).
Today, the main road through Lincoln is paved, but otherwise the town retains the ambiance of the western frontier, absent gun fights. There are no gas stations, convenience stores, motels, Starbucks or national chains. Many of the historic properties remain, with the Lincoln State Monument providing information to visitors for guided walking tours of the town.
Lawrence Murphy was born in Wexford, Ireland. He served in the Union Army from 1851-1861. He moved to New Mexico after he was discharged, joining the First New Mexico Volunteers stationed at Fort Stanton. When his service came to an end in 1866, he partnered with fellow veteran Emil Fritz to open a store and brewery at the fort, L.G. Murphy & Co.
They secured the government contracts to provide beef, vegetables and other supplies to Fort Stanton and the Mescalero-Apache Reservation based on their military connections. However, they came up with a variety of illicit scams to fulfill the contracts. For example, they would sell land they didn’t own to aspiring ranchers on credit. When ranchers were unable to make their payments, which happened regularly, Murphy and Fritz would foreclose on the land and seize their cattle and crops. They sold the ill-gotten gains to Fort Stanton. Also, they were paid to supply the Apache Reservation and never delivered the supplies, resulting in famine. In short, they were corrupt, conniving scumbags.
James Dolan was born in Galway, Ireland. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was five years old. He served in the Union Army during the last two years of the Civil War, moving to New Mexico in 1865. He enlisted in the First New Mexico Volunteers and was stationed at Fort Stanton where he met Lawrence Murphy. The Irish brigade. Dolan went to work as a clerk for Murphy after he was discharged. When Emil Fritz was diagnosed with kidney disease in early 1873, he sold his stake in the store to Murphy and returned to Germany.
James Dolan had no patience and a volatile temperament. He attempted to shoot a Captain at Fort Stanton, James Randlett, during a heated altercation in May, 1873. Between the price gouging, the scams and the attempted murder, the Fort seized the opportunity to shut down the store, evicting the pair. However, Murphy didn’t lose the government contracts. They were never forced to surrender the cattle or land that they had seized from ranchers. They promptly started construction of a new store and banking operation down the road in Lincoln, which opened in April, 1874.
Dolan bought into the business, officially known as “Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking” (nicknamed “The House”). It was the only store in Lincoln County at the time. Having cultivated political connections with unscrupulous members of the Santa Fe Ring, Murphy retained the contract with Fort Stanton and secured an additional contract with Fort Sumner. With a monopoly on supplies in Lincoln County, Murphy and Dolan’s propensity for corruption flourished.
They leveraged their banking operation to fleece farmers and ranchers, acquiring large herds of cattle and large property holdings through foreclosure. They purchased cattle from rustlers, essentially funding the cattle thieves and over-charged small farmers for supplies while simultaneously forcing them to accept low prices for their cattle and produce. In short, they controlled commerce and real estate in Lincoln, which meant they had a hand in everything, including politics and the law. They cultivated powerful, unscrupulous allies, creating a lot of enemies in the process.
Late in 1876, Murphy and Dolan took on an additional partner, John Riley. Murphy sold his stake in the business to Dolan and Riley in 1877 when he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He died on October 20, 1878, shortly after the Lincoln War broke out. He was about 47 years old.
In 1877, about a month after Murphy sold his interest in “The House” to Dolan and Riley, Alexander McSween, a lawyer, and John Tunstall, set up a rival business called H.H. Tunstall & Company across the street. They had the support of John Chisum, a cattle baron who resented Dolan and Riley’s influence on cattle prices.
John Henry Tunstall was from a wealthy British family. His father had an ownership stake in a large dry goods store in Victoria, British Columbia, called Turner, Beeton and Tunstall. The store was a one stop shop sort of place, selling everything from carpet to cigars. They had a line of canvas clothing, Big Horn, that was popular among cowboys and miners. However, when profits waned between gold rushes, Tunstall Sr. became concerned and sent his son to check on the operation and to develop business skills. John Tunstall was 19 at the time, with lot of opinions, little life experience, a chip on his shoulder, poor social skills, and questionable business acumen.
Tunstall arrived in British Columbia in 1872. Initially he hit it off with his father’s business partner, John Turner, staying as a guest at his home; however, the amicable rapport didn’t last long. Tunstall was given a position at the store in lieu of Beeton’s son, which provoked resentment. That sentiment was exacerbated when Tunstall accused Turner of being incompetent in letters to his father. In response, Turner wrote to Tunstall Sr., complaining about the young man’s condescending demeanor and social ineptitude. Their relationship continued to sour until Tunstall decided to seek his fortune elsewhere, moving to California to become a sheep rancher on February 18, 1876. Within a few months he realized that he wasn’t well suited to sheep ranching either.
He moved to New Mexico in November of that year, with illusions of grandeur that, upon meeting Alexander McSween in Santa Fe, rapidly morphed into a three year plan to wrest control of Lincoln’s economic and political monopoly from “The House.” He bought a cattle ranch on the Rio Feliz, about 28 miles outside of Lincoln, and established his store like a mini fortress across from Jas. J. Dolan & Co.
Alexander McSween was an attorney from Canada. He moved to Lincoln with his wife, Susan, in 1875. He started doing legal work for John Chisum. McSween was an aspiring cattle man. Chisum had one of the largest cattle herds in the American West. Chisum was no fan of Murphy, Dolan and Riley due to their suppression of cattle prices and support for cattle rustlers. McSween met Tunstall in Santa Fe shortly after he arrived in the Territory. He talked Tunstall into partnering with him to set up shop in Lincoln, but he neglected to mention the hazards associated with competing against Dolan and Riley.
When Tunstall arrived in Lincoln, McSween became his business partner, with Chisum providing financial backing. Tunstall and McSween’s quickly stripped business away from Dolan and Riley by offering more money for cattle and lower prices on supplies. Dolan and Riley were livid. They resented the encroachment on their monopoly and resented that it was an Englishman doing it. As the feud escalated, alliances were often determined based on ethnic and sectarian lines. The House was predominantly Irish Catholic whereas Tunstall and his allies were predominantly English Protestant.
Billy the Kid
Of the many outlaws that roamed the New Mexico territory in the late 1800s, none are as infamous as Billy the Kid. His relationship with John Tunstall, and subsequent role in the Lincoln County War, cemented his dubious legacy as a famous antihero of the American West.
Billy the Kid was a pseudonym, one of many aliases that he adopted during his brief life. His real name was Henry McCarty. He was born in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan in 1859. Billy had a younger brother, Joseph, but there are no records reflecting the identity of their biological father. They may have been born out of wedlock, which would explain their mother’s decision to move west, first to Indiana, then to Kansas, then to Colorado, and, in 1873, to New Mexico, where she married a man that she had met in Indiana, William Antrim.
The decision to move to New Mexico was based on his mother being diagnosed with tuberculosis. Living in a warm, dry climate was the only remedy available. Unfortunately, it didn’t help her. She passed away in 1874 when Billy was 14 years old. His stepfather sold the family’s cabin, put the boys in separate foster homes and headed to Arizona. Within a year Billy was arrested for stealing food, escaping out of the chimney of the jail and fleeing to Arizona to find his stepfather.
Their reunion was short lived. William Antrim didn’t want anything to do with the boy and sent him on his way. They never saw one another again. Billy did odd jobs to support himself, stealing when he couldn’t afford food. Petty theft escalated to stealing whatever he could to make money. He was a small guy, about 5’8” and 135 pounds, frequently targeted by bullies, including a blacksmith by the name of Windy Cahill from Fort Grant, Arizona. Cahill never missed an opportunity to physically assault the smaller boy. Billy was determined to defend himself and managed to procure a gun. When Cahill attacked him during an argument and reached for the gun, Billy managed to wrest it from him and shot him. The confrontation with Cahill prompted Billy’s return to New Mexico and his first alias, William H. Bonney.
Life as a Criminal
That was the first of many murders over the next several years, though Billy wasn’t remembered as a cold-blooded killer by those who knew him. He was well liked and well regarded by most, which is how he managed to elude capture for so long. It was a bad idea to have a gunfight with him and he was slippery as an eel when incarcerated, with a lot of friends willing to help him hide and an incredible amount of luck…until the luck ran out abruptly.
Billy got involved with the Jesse Evans gang, migrating to Lincoln as part of his crew in 1877. He worked for Sheriff Brady briefly until he was caught stealing a horse from the Tunstall Ranch by the ranch foreman, Dick Brewer. That encounter led to his his first visit to the Lincoln County jail. Tunstall visited the young thief in jail. He was surprised to discover that a polite, articulate, literate, witty young man. He took pity on him and dropped the charges. Instead, he offered him a legitimate job at his ranch.
Billy’s work ethic must have impressed Tunstall, because he gave him a horse, a saddle, and a Winchester ’73 as gifts, which was considered enormously generous at the time. That gesture made a lasting impression on Billy. In Tunstall and Dick Brewer, Billy found brothers. His loyalty to John Tunstall profoundly impacted the course of his life.
LINCOLN COUNTY WAR (1878 – 1881)
Emil Fritz’s Insurance Policy
The conflict that precipitated the Lincoln County War was a controversy over the disbursement of Emil Fritz’s insurance policy. Emil Fritz, who had returned to Germany with kidney disease before Murphy and Dolan set up shop in Lincoln, died in 1874. He left his estate to his sister and brother. Resolving the estate was no easy feat. The Executor was tasked with getting a copy of the death certificate, traveling to New York to retrieve a $10,000 life insurance policy, returning to Lincoln to inventory remaining assets, paying off financial obligations, including taxes and fees, formally probating the will in court, and dispersing the remaining estate to Fritz’s family.
Initially Lawrence Murphy appointed Sheriff William Brady as the executor of the estate, but over the course of the next two years Brady was unable to resolve the matter. He bowed out in 1876 and the Fritz family hired Alexander McSween. McSween met with the insurance company in New York in November, 1876. The New York insurance company wired $7,148.49 to McSween in July of 1877, which was deposited in the trust account. McSween requested more time to settle the estate and pay bills from the probate court. His request was granted. McSween placed an ad in the local newspaper notifying anyone with a claim to contact him. Murphy and Dolan filed a claim.
Legal Battles Escalate
Murphy had sold out his stake to Dolan and Riley at that point. Dolan was floundering financially, on the verge of bankruptcy. McSween was aware of their financial challenges. He asked to examine their books to validate their claim. Dolan denied access. In response, McSween refused to acknowledge their claim, which provoked a volley of court petitions between “The House” and McSween, culminating in Dolan accusing McSween and John Chisum of embezzlement. Both men were arrested and jailed. The Territory Attorney General, Thomas Catron, quickly released Chisum due to a lack of evidence, but he continued to hold McSween.
Dolan leveraged his allies on the bench, convincing Judge Bristol to issue a writ against McSween’s property in February of 1878. Based on McSween’s partnership with Tunstall on the business in Lincoln, Dolan obtained a court order to seize all assets from both Tunstall and McSween. Sounds sketchy? It was. Sheriff Brady formed a posse, enlisting guns for hire from the John Kinney Gang, the Jesse Evans Gang, and the Seven Rivers Warriors, essentially deputizing mercenaries.
Santa Fe Ring
To understand how a feud, and a legal battle over a will, could become a war, it is necessary to consider how money, politics and the law intersected in the American West. Murphy and Dolan were wealthy and well established by the time Tunstall showed up in Lincoln. They had significant influence in the territory and powerful allies, including the support of the Santa Fe Ring, a group of powerful individuals who controlled politics and law in the New Mexico territory at the time.
The Santa Fe Ring specialized in separating Hispanic and Native American farmers and ranchers from their land, crops and livestock. The Territorial Governor, Samuel Axtell, the Chief Justice of New Mexico, John Slough, and the Attorney General of the New Mexico Territory, Thomas Catron, were members. Catron held the mortgage on “The House” so he had a vested interest in the outcome of the feud.
By the time conflict between Tunstall and McSween escalated, “The House” had a stranglehold on government beef contracts. They owned the county’s major mercantile and they had a robust, albeit fraudulent, banking operation. As the dominant commercial enterprise in Lincoln County, they controlled judicial appointments and had selected lawmen who would support their interests, like Sheriff Brady and the thugs sent to confiscate Tunstall’s ranch and livestock. They were like the Irish cowboy mob.
Tunstall was not a paragon of virtue either. He had partnered with McSween and Chisum with the intention of taking over “The House” monopoly. Whereas he quickly discovered how ruthless “The House” could be as adversaries, he mistakenly believed that the law would protect him. He found out early in 1878 that Dolan was the law in Lincoln.
The murder of John Tunstall
On February 18, 1878, Sheriff Brady and his posse arrived to seize Tunstall’s ranch and livestock. They had already confiscated over 300 head of cattle. They discovered that Tunstall was on his way to Lincoln with about nine horses and a few of his ranch hands. A few members of the posse were dispatched to pursue them, including Jesse Evans, William “Buck” Morton, Tom Hill, George Hindmann and Frank Baker. They caught up with Tunstall’s group in a canyon near modern day Glencoe, with Billy sounding the alarm as they approached.
The posse’s intentions were immediately apparent as they ignored the horses and charged Tunstall, firing without warning. Tunstall’s ranch hands scrambled, taking cover in the brush on a hill overlooking the trail. Tunstall initially stayed with his horses, riding away when he realized the posse’s intentions. Three members of the posse pursued him. When they caught him, they shot him in the chest and once in the head. They set up the crime scene to make it look like Tunstall had resisted arrest, which was a common practice at that time and convinced no one.
The Regulator’s Revenge
Dick Brewer, Tunstall’s former foreman and a well-respected ranch owner, and Billy the Kid swore out affidavits to “Squire” John Wilson. The judge was sympathetic and issued warrants for the assassins. Constable Martinez deputized Billy the Kid and Fred Waite to help him serve the warrants to the culprits, who were hanging out at Dolan’s store. When they arrived, Sheriff Brady refused to acknowledge the warrants. Instead, he arrested the trio and confiscated their weapons, including the Winchester rifle that Tunstall had given to Billy. Sheriff Brady was forced to release Martinez within a few hours, but kept Billy and Fred locked up for a few days, making them miss Tunstall’s funeral.
A few days of simmering in jail did nothing to calm tempers. When Fred and Billy were released, they were determined to exact revenge. Led by Dick Brewer, a posse, including Billy the Kid, Jose Chavez y Chavez, John Middleton, Tom O’Folliard, Fred Waite, Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, George Coe, Frank Coe, Jim French, Frank McNab, and Henry Newton Brown, rode out of Lincoln in pursuit of William “Buck” Morton. They referred to themselves as “the Regulators.”
The Regulators caught up with Buck Morton and Frank Baker near the Rio Peñasco on March 6, 1878. A five-mile chase and gunfight ensued, with Morton eventually surrendering on the condition that he and Baker be taken into custody and returned alive to Lincoln. Baker had accompanied the men who killed Tunstall, but he was not involved in the murder.
Dick Brewer agreed to the terms, but he only had the support of one Regulator, William McCloskey, who was friends with Morton. The rest of the Regulators had no faith that justice would be served in Lincoln. On the third day of the journey back to town, the Regulators killed McCloskey, Morton, and Baker in the Capitan foothills on the banks of Blackwater Creek. They claimed that Morton had murdered McCloskey and tried to escape with Baker, forcing them to kill both men. Knowing that Morton and McCloskey were friends, no one bought the story. Furthermore, the bodies of Morton and Baker were riddled with bullet holes.
Power in High Places
In response to the killing of Morton and Baker, Sheriff Brady requested assistance from the Territorial Attorney General, Thomas Benton Catron. Catron had a vested interest in supporting “The House” due to holding the mortgage on the mercantile and bank. Catron turned to the Territorial Governor, Samuel B. Axtell, another member of the Santa Fe Ring, for assistance.
The governor decreed that John Wilson, the Justice of the Peace who had deputized the Regulators and issued warrants for the arrest of Tunstall’s murderers, had been illegally appointed by the Lincoln County Commissioners. That decree meant that the Regulator’s actions, legal at the time, were now deemed illegal, making them subject to arrest for the murders that occurred while executing the warrants legally. Axtell also revoked Widenmann’s status as a Deputy US Marshal, yielding all legal authority in Lincoln to Sheriff Brady and his men. Brady immediately secured warrants to arrest the Regulators and Alexander McSween.
The murder of Sheriff William Brady
On April 1, 1878, a group of Regulators, including French, McNab, Middleton, Waite, Brown and Billy the Kid, hid out in a corral behind Tunstall’s store, ambushing Sheriff Brady and his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. Brady was shot at least a dozen times and died immediately. One of his deputies, George Hindman, was also fatally wounded.
French and Billy the Kid ran over to Brady’s body to retrieve the Winchester at his side, which was the one confiscated from Billy during his prior arrest. The remaining deputy, Bill Matthews, grazed both men with one bullet. Ultimately, the act of retribution didn’t benefit the Regulators. Bringing the gunfight into town turned more of the townsfolk against them.
Battle of Blazer’s Mill
On April 4, 1878, the Regulators left Lincoln, riding southwest to Blazer’s Mill, a sawmill, post office and trading post on the Rio Tularosa. There were several other buildings in close proximity, including a restaurant. As they ate lunch, Buckshot Roberts, listed on their arrest warrant as one of Tunstall’s murderers, showed up at the mill unexpectedly.
Buckshot was aware that the Regulators were after him and he knew that they had already killed several of the men involved in Tunstall’s murder. As a result, he sold his ranch with the intention of leaving the area. He was staying with a friend near Blazer’s Mill waiting on the check. When he saw a wagon heading to the mill, he headed over to rendezvous, thinking the check might be part of the delivery. When he arrived, he realized that the Regulators were there, with their horses hitched around back.
Frank Coe saw Roberts go into the mill. He intercepted Buckshot, trying to talk him into surrendering. Based on the revenge killing of Morton and Baker, Buckshot was disinclined to surrender peacefully. Dick Brewer got frustrated with the negotiation and sent several men outside to take him by force. As the armed men approached, Roberts panicked, grabbing his rifle and firing.
The first shot hit Charlie Bowdre in the belt buckle. Charlie returned fire, hitting Buckshot in the abdomen. Buckshot didn’t go down. He continued to fire as he retreated into the mill. He shot John Middleton in the chest, shot Frank Coe in the right hand, blowing his thumb and trigger finger off, grazed Billy the Kid with a shot, and shot Scurlock’s pistol out of his hand. When he ran out of ammunition, Billy the Kid tried to tackle him. Buckshot clocked him with the butt of his rifle and barricaded himself in the mill. He found another rifle and hunkered down to stave off the Regulators.
Rather than continuing the gunfight, the Regulators took care of their wounded. They continued to negotiate with Buckshot, trying to convince him to surrender. Dick Brewer was in no mood to negotiate. He circled to the back of the building and opened fire. Buckshot returned fire, killing Brewer with a shot to the eye. The Regulators retrieved the body of their fallen leader and left. Buckshot remained in the building until a few of the locals approached with a white flag, bringing a doctor to treat his wounds. It was too late. He died a couple of days later. Dick Brewer and Buckshot Roberts were buried next to one another at the Blazer Cemetery in Mescalero.
Gunfight at the Fritz Ranch
After Dick Brewer’s death, the Regulators elected Frank McNab as their captain. McNab was a cattle detective, sent to Lincoln County to break up the cattle rustling rings. McNab was originally staying at John Chisum’s ranch before lending his talent and his guns to the Regulator’s cause. McNab’s determination to break up the cattle rustling rings, and promotion with the ranks of the Regulators, earned him the enmity of various gangs in the region, including a group known as the Seven Rivers Warriors, who were loyal to Dolan and eager to eliminate anyone perceived as a threat to their illicit cattle operation.
In Lincoln, one of Sheriff Brady’s deputies, John Copeland, was briefly appointed Sheriff. He refused to pledge loyalty to Dolan and Riley and was suspected of having loyalties to the Tunstall-McSween faction. He was quickly replaced by George Peppin, a loyal henchman of “The House.”
Ambush at Fritz Spring
On April 28, the Warriors left Seven Rivers, riding north towards Lincoln, led by William H. Johnson, a former deputy under Sheriff Brady. They were accompanied by seven or eight members of the Jessie Evans Gang, with a total of about 35 men, including Sheriff Peppin. Several of the men were part of the posse that went after John Tunstall. They stopped at Fritz Spring, a watering hole about eight miles south of Lincoln. They assumed the Regulators would pass by on their way to Seven Rivers and they were right.
McNab, accompanied by Frank Coe and Ab Saunders, showed up at the spring the following day to water their horses. The posse, hiding in the bushes around the spring, ambushed them, shooting McNab in the side and shooting Saunders twice, in the hip and the ankle. Coe attempted to flee. They shot his horse in the head, knocking Coe to the ground. He took cover in a nearby arroyo. McNab tried to crawl to safety, but he was shot in the head and died instantly.
With the main target eliminated, the posse held their fire. Saunders was out of commission and Coe had run out of ammunition. One of the posse, Wallace Olinger, was on good terms with Coe and talked him into surrendering. Lacking a better alternative, Frank surrendered. He was taken into custody and the group began riding towards Lincoln. Ab Saunders was left behind at Fritz Ranch, later taken to Fort Stanton for treatment. In the meantime, word of McNab’s death reached Lincoln. The remaining Regulators rallied, setting the stage for a showdown in the streets of Lincoln.
Battle of Lincoln
By this time, Alex McSween had been cleared of embezzlement charges related to Emil Fritz’s life insurance policy. Dolan and Riley had been indicted for cattle theft, as well as for the murder of John Tunstall. The British Consulate was demanding an investigation on behalf of Tunstall and the citizens of Lincoln were tired of rowdy young men shooting up their town.
Over the next few days, several members of the Seven River Warriors were killed. The deaths were attributed to the Regulators, though that was never proven. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down, captured and killed Manuel Segovia, the man who shot McNab in the head.
In July, the Regulators took up positions around Lincoln. A three-day gunfight ensued, with a steady exchange of bullets and insults. Scurlock, Bowdre, Middleton, Frank Coe and several others were positioned in the Ellis store. Alexander and Susan McSween, Billy the Kid, Henry Brown, Jim French, Tom O’Folliard, Jose Chavez y Chavex, George Coe and a dozen Mexican cowboys were holed up in the McSween house. There were an additional twenty Mexican Regulators, led by Josefita Chaves, positioned around town.
Tom Cullens, one of the cowboys at the McSween house, was killed by a stray bullet. Charlie Crawford, one of the Dolan’s hired thugs, was shot at a distance of 500 yards by Doc Scurlock’s father-in-law, Fernando Herrera. Henry Brown, George Coe, and Joe Smith snuck out of the McSween house to the Tunstall store, where they chased two of Dolan’s men into an outhouse, forcing them to dive in to escape.
The House Calls on Fort Stanton
Dolan and Riley rallied their allies, including Colonel Nathan Dudley from Fort Stanton. Dudley led a small squad of troops, including eleven Buffalo Soldiers, a howitzer and a Gatling gun to Lincoln under the pretense of mediating the conflict, though it became readily apparent that Dudley was there to support “The House.” He ordered his troops to surround the town, cutting off most of the Regulators from a small group of people trapped in the McSween house and the Ellis store. When the troops directed fire at the Ellis store and other positions, the Regulators scattered.
The battle raged for five days. On the afternoon of July 19, Colonel Dudley stood idly by as the Murphy-Dolan faction set the McSween house on fire. Susan McSween, the other women, and five children were granted safe passage out of the house, while the men inside tried to fight the blaze. The house was engulfed in flames and the men inside had to choose between being burned alive or shooting their way out by 9 pm. Jim French led the charge, followed by Billy the Kid, Tom O’Folliard, and Jose Chavez y Chavez. Their goal was to draw fire, allowing the other men, who were unarmed, to escape to the river.
Fort Stanton Intervenes
As the others followed, Dolan’s men saw them and opened fire. A few of the Fort Stanton Troops moved in with the Dolan contingency to take the escaping men into custody. In the close quarters gunfight that followed, Alexander McSween and his law partner, Harvey Morris, were killed, as well as one of the Seven Rivers cowboys, Bob Beckwith. Beckwith’s death was attributed to Billy the Kid, though it seems unlikey, because Billy had fled in a different direction. During the pandemonium, three of the Mexican Regulators managed to escape, rendezvousing with French, Billy, O’Folliard and Chavez y Chavez.
With Tunstall and McSween dead, the Regulators scattered, and Fort Stanton allying with “The House,” Dolan and Riley celebrated their victory. They proceeded to get drunk and looted the Tunstall store while the remaining Regulators took advantage of the distraction and fled Lincoln.
The Battle of Lincoln ended the Lincoln County War, though there were related skirmishes through 1881, culminating in the death of Billy the Kid and the remaining Regulators at Fort Sumner. At least 19 people were killed during 1878. A federal investigator, Frank Angel, wrote to President Rutherford B. Hayes, criticizing the New Mexico’s governor role in the conflict. He asked the President to intercede. President Hayes, who deemed Lincoln’s main street “the most dangerous street in America,” replaced Governor Samuel Axtell with Lew Wallace in September, 1878. Wallace was a celebrated Union general who was pursuing a career as an author.
After the death of her husband, Susan McSween contacted the Tunstall family in England. They sent her money to pursue litigation against Dolan. She hired an attorney, Huston Chapman, with the intention of reclaiming John Tunstall’s property in court. She sued Dolan and Dudley for their roles in killing her husband.
On February 18, 1879, on the one-year anniversary of Tunstall’s murder, Billy rode into Lincoln with his crew hoping to settle matters with Dolan. Huston Chapman was there to mediate on behalf of the Regulators. The two groups met and agreed not to testify against one another, with the understanding that anyone who violated the agreement would be “killed on sight.” The rival factions celebrated the agreement by getting drunk together. Billy had the foresight to remain sober. One of Dolan’s men, William Campbell, demanded that Chapman do a jig. When he refused, Dolan and Campbell killed him. Billy fled the scene.
Many of the Regulators left the New Mexico territory. As the defacto leader of the group after the Battle of Lincoln, they asked Billy to join them, but he chose to stay in New Mexico. His hopes for a legitimate job and a normal life died in the embers of McSween’s home. Whereas his actions were no worse than many of the other men involved, he became the scapegoat. He spent the remainder of his life on the run, usually with Pat Garrett hot on his heels.
Billy stayed with the remaining Regulators; Charlie Bowdre, Tom O ‘Folliard, Dave Rudabaugh, and a few others, rustling cattle, committing assorted petty crimes, and killing several more deputies during a series of infamous jail breaks over the next two years.
When Lew Wallace became Governor, he contemplated imposing martial law in Lincoln. However, President Hayes advised a more conciliatory approach, intended to encourage those involved to lay down arms and to return peace to Lincoln. In November,1878, Wallace called for a halt to violence and granted amnesty to everyone involved, with one exception…Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid Tries to Negotiate a Pardon
In March,1879, Governor Wallace removed Colonel Dudley from his post at Fort Stanton for his role in the Battle of Lincoln and he ordered the arrest of any person involved in the murder of Huston Chapman. On March 13, Wallace received a letter from Billy the Kid, recounting the events that led to Chapman’s death. Billy wrote:
“I have no wish to fight any more. Indeed, I have not raised an arm since your proclamation. As to my character, I refer to any of the citizens, for the majority of them are my friends and have been helping me all they could. I am called Kid Antrim but Antrim is my stepfather’s name. Waiting for an answer I remain your obedient servant.”
Wallace responded on March 15, asking Billy to meet with him in Lincoln.
“Come to the house of Squire Wilson (not the lawyer) at nine o’clock next Monday night alone. I don’t mean his office, but his residence. Follow along the foot of the mountain south of the town, come in on that side, and knock on the east door. I have authority to exempt you from prosecution, if you will testify to what you say you know.
The object of the meeting at Squire Wilson’s is to arrange the matter in a way to make your life safe. To do that the utmost secrecy is to be used. So come alone. Don’t tell anybody -not a living soul- where you are coming or the object.”
Indictments, Acquittals and Pardons
Billy met secretly with Governor Wallace on March 17, 1879. Wallace asked him to voluntarily surrender, offering him a full pardon to testify to the Grand Jury investigating the murders of Tunstall and Chapman. Billy agreed. A few days later he surrendered to Sheriff Kimbrell and his posse.
In April, 1879, more than 200 criminal indictments were made against Dolan and 50 of his men, including Campbell. The charges encompassed the murders of Tunstall, McSween, and Huston. Many of the men indicted took advantage of the governor’s offer of amnesty. Billy testified that Dolan and Campbell had killed Chapman. The court, still firmly in Dolan’s pocket, acquitted everyone involved. Dolan later acquired all of Tunstall’s property. The Tunstall family got nothing. They became resentful towards everyone involved. Dolan died on his ranch in 1898 at the age of 49.
Susan McSween took over a large tract of land shortly after the Lincoln County War ended, establishing a ranch in Three Rivers. By 1895 her ranch holdings were some of the largest in the territory, with 3000-5000 head of cattle. She was known as “The Cattle Queen of New Mexico.” She may not have gotten justice for her husband, but she managed to outlive most of the people involved and died a wealthy woman on January 3, 1931 at the age of 85.
Wallace Reneges on The Kid
Governor Wallace never followed through with the pardon. That decision may have been influenced by rampant political corruption. There were a lot of powerful people who wanted Billy dead. Alternately, Wallace may have been busy promoting his novel, Ben Hur. Either way, his decision to renege sealed Billy’s fate.
On December 15, 1880, Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid’s head. On December 23, Billy was captured by Pat Garrett. He escaped in April before they could hang him, killing two deputies in the process. On July 14, 1881, Pat Garrett and his posse tracked him down again at Fort Sumner where he was staying with a friend, Pete Maxwell. Garrett went to Maxwell’s house around midnight. When Billy heard people moving around the house, he went to Maxwell’s room to check on him. Garrett shot him twice, killing him. He’s buried at Fort Sumner.
Though the powerful men who wanted Billy dead celebrated the news, Pat Garrett received more scorn from the local population than accolades. In death, Billy the Kid became famous, and a folk hero to many, whereas Pat Garrett merely symbolized the rampant corruption that plagued New Mexico throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fittingly, Governor Wallace never paid Garrett the bounty on Billy the Kid’s head.
988 Calle La Placita
Lincoln, NM 88338
5 to 7 museums are open to the public, depending on the season. All of the museums are wheelchair accessible, other than the 2nd floor of the Lincoln County Courthouse. A small park is available for picnics and there is ½ mile hiking trail along the Rio Bonito. The Dolan House, closed Wednesday & Thursday, is the sole restaurant. There are two B & Bs: the Dolan House and the Wortley Hotel. The closest gas station is 12 miles west in Capitan or 10 miles east in Hondo. There is camping available in the Lincoln National Forest at Baca Campground, approximately 10 miles northwest of Lincoln.
$5. Free to NM residents on the first Sunday of each month. Children 16 and under are always admitted free. Wednesday admission is free to New Mexico Seniors with ID. Cash, credit cards, and checks accepted at the Visitor Center and Courthouse.
Open 9:00 am – 5:00 pm 7 days a week
7 of the 9 buildings begin closing at 4:30 pm
Closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day
From I-25:10 miles south of Socorro take U.S. 380 east. It is 98 miles from San Antonio to Lincoln.
From US Hwy 70: Take US Hwy 70 west between Roswell and Ruidoso take US Hwy 380 west. It is 10 miles to Lincoln.
- About Billy the Kid
- History and legend of Billy the Kid
- Lincoln County War
- Big Jim French and the Lincoln County War
- John Henry Tunstall – The Man Who Started the Lincoln County War
- Trinity Site Tour | The Trinity site is the location of the first atomic bomb explosion on earth. White Sands Missile Range. (575) 678-1134 or (575) 541-2444.
- Hondo Iris Festival | Stop by to see a stunning variety of Irises in bloom throughout the month of May, a cheerful cacophony of color.
- Ruidoso Downs Race Track Season | May 25-September 3, 2018 | The Ruidoso Downs weekly racing schedule is Friday through Monday with a 1 pm first post time.
- Smokey Bear Stampede | Fourth of July weekend | The nation’s largest open rodeo weekend includes four nightly rodeos, two-day ranch rodeo, youth ranch rodeo, kid’s rough stock rodeo, cook-off, kids events, and nightly dances. On July 4th, enjoy a full day of Independence celebration with a BBQ cook-off, mutton bustin’, goat roping, evening rodeo, fireworks, and a dance.
- Mescalero Apache Ceremonial Dances | Fourth of July weekend | Annual event to witness the coming of age ceremony of Mescalero Apache maidens. Ceremonial dances, a rodeo, and arts and crafts. The fireworks display at Inn of the Mountain Gods on the 4th is always spectacular.
- Lincoln County Art Loop Studio Tour | Visit over 20 Lincoln County artists’ studios during the annual Art Loop and meet over 30 artists.
- Fort Stanton Live! | Annual event that brings costumed re-enactors from the Civil War and Indian Wars era to the Fort for demonstrations, presentations, a concert and a military ball.
- Ruidoso Art & Wine Festival | Late July. Over 100 of the nation’s most talented artists.
- Old Lincoln Days | Enjoy a weekend of folk pageants with re-enactors portraying Billy the Kid’s last escape and the notorious Lincoln County War. Admission is $6 for adults and $2 for children.
- Annual Golden Aspen Motorcycle Rally | September 19-23, 2018 | The Golden Aspen Rally will feature live music, stunt rider, $10,000 poker run, vendors, trade show, bike judging, free meals, and a NEW bike giveaway!
Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium | October 12-14, 2018 | Old West storytellers, noted historians, poets, musicians, and chuckwagon cooks. I
Trinity Site Tour | The Trinity site is the location of the first atomic bomb explosion on earth. White Sands Missile Range. (575) 678-1134) 526-8911
The Lincoln National Forest in the Smokey Bear and Sacramento district includes over 70,000 acres of forest for outdoor recreation. There are a number of developed and dispersed campsites in these two areas.
Smokey Bear Ranger District
Open year round. A site favored for horseback riding.
Facilities: Tent/RV campsites with vault toilets. No drinking water. Creek. Hiking trails. Horse corrals.
Directions: Highway 48 to Highway 37 to Bonito Lake turnoff. Watch for signs.
Cedar Creek Recreation Area
Open spring through fall. Camping areas for group camping and a day-use picnic area. Reservations required.
Facilities: 3 group camping areas and 23 picnic sites for tent/RV with picnic tables, grills, drinking water, vault toilets. Hiking trails. Fitness trail. Pavilion
Directions: Immediately adjacent to the north of the Smokey Bear Ranger Station is Cedar Creek Rd (Forest road 88). Turn left on this road, follow Forest Road 88 for less than 1 mile and you will see the signs and gates for the picnic area on your right.
Monjeau Lookout Camping Area
Open spring through fall. A site with panoramic views of the National Forest. Often windy.
Facilities: 4 campsites with grills. Toilets. No drinking water. Historic Monjeau lookout tower built by CCC. Spectacular views from tower.
Directions: Highway 48 to ski area road. Turn right onto Monjeau Road. Continue to top. Road is steep and rocky, and may be closed due to inclement weather. Check with Ranger Station.
Open spring through fall.
Facilities: Tent camping, trailer camping, picnic tables, drinking water and parking.
Directions: Immediately adjacent to the north of the Smokey Bear Ranger Station is Cedar Creek Rd (Forest road 88). Turn left on this road, follow Forest Road 88 for less than 1 mile and you will see the signs and gates for the campgrounds on your right. This campground is the 2nd set of facilities you will see on your right.
Open spring through fall. Dispersed camping near Monjeau Lookout.
Facilities: 17 campsites with picnic tables and grills. Vault toilets. No drinking water. Historic Monjeau lookout tower nearby.
Directions: Highway 48 to ski area road. Turn right onto Monjeau Road. Watch for signs
Open year-round. A beautiful site that is not often visited.
Facilities: No toilets. No drinking water. Creek.
Directions: Highway 48 to Highway 37 almost to Nogal. Turn left on forest road 400. Proceed 5 miles, then right on FR-5628.
Inn of the Mountain Gods
287 Carrizo Canyon Rd
Mescalero, NM 88340
627 Sudderth Dr
Ruidoso, NM 88345
Circle B RV Park
26514 E. Hwy 70
Ruidoso Downs, 88345
Blue Spruce RV Park
302 Mechem Drive
Eagle Creek RV Resort
159 Ski Run Rd
Things to See