Lincoln County War

After the American Civil War the former soldier, James Dolan moved to Lincoln County where he was employed as a clerk by Lawrence Murphy. In 1874 the two men became business partners and established the Murphy & Dolan mercantile and banking operation. John H. Riley, another Irish immigrant, also became a partner in this venture. The company was highly successful and won contracts to supply beef to both the Mescalero Apache Reservation and Fort Stanton. Murphy and his friends were disliked by the small farmers in Lincoln County as they were forced to pay high prices from Murphy & Dolan while at the same time they had to accept low prices for their cattle.

In 1876 Alexander McSween and John Tunstall set up a rival business. These two men were given the support of John Chisum, the owner of a large ranch and over 100,000 head of cattle. McSween and Tunstall now established J. H. Tunstall & Co, a shop and bank close to the one owned by Dolan, Murphy and Riley.

Dolan was furious at this development and attempted to goad Tunstall into a gunfight. Tunstall refused to use violence himself but he did recruit Billy the Kid to help him in his business dispute. On 18th February, 1878, Tunstall was killed by a gang of men that included William Morton, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill. This incident started what became known as the Lincoln County War.

Pat Garrett later argued: "The majority of these outrages were not committed by the principals or participants in the war proper, but the unsettled state of the country caused by these disturbances called the lawless element, horse and cattle thieves, footpads, murderers, escaped convicts, and outlaws from all the frontier states and territories; Lincoln and surrounding counties offered a rich and comparatively safe field for their nefarious operations."

Billy the Kid was deeply affected by this murder and claimed that Tunstall "was the only man that ever treated me like I was a free-born and white." Apparently at Tunstall's funeral Billy the Kid swore: "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do." Billy joined the Regulators, a group led by Dick Brewer that supported Alexander McSween. It was claimed that John Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy. Rumours began to circulate that Dolan had offered $1,000 for anyone willing to murder Alexander McSween. Over the next few months the Regulators killed Sheriff William Brady, George Hindman, Frank Baker, William Morton, Buckshot Roberts and others who they claimed they had been involved in the killing of Tunstall.

On 19th July, 1878, McSween and his supporters, including Billy the Kid, were besieged by Sheriff George Peppin and a group of his men. McSween's house was set on fire and several people were shot dead as they came out of the house. This included the unarmed McSween. Ella Davidson was living in the area at the time: "About noon we saw heavy smoke. It was the McSween store that had been set afire by the Murphy men to burn out the McSween men who were surrounded, so they couldn't escape. When the fire was under way Mr. McSween calmly walked to the door as if surrendering and was shot down. Then, two others that followed were riddled with bullets. George Coe, Henry Brown, and Charlie Bowdre were among the crowd that escaped. Billy the Kid was the last one left in the building. During the excitement of the roof crashing in, he rushed out with two pistols blazing. Bob Beckwith, whose shot had killed McSween, was killed by one flying bullet and two others were wounded. The Kid, with bullets whizzing all around him, made his escape."

When Lewis Wallace took office as Governor of New Mexico on 1st October 1878, he proclaimed an amnesty for all those involved in the Lincoln County War. It is estimated that nineteen men were killed during the conflict.

Susan McSween, Alexander McSween's widow, hired Huston Chapman as her attorney after her husband was killed. Chapman was murdered on 18th February, 1879. James Dolan was accused of the murder but with the help of powerful friends, the case against him was dropped. Meanwhile, Dolan purchased the property previously owned by John Tunstall.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Pat Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882)

"The Lincoln County War," in which the Kid was now about to take a part, had been brewing since the summer of 1876, and commenced in earnest in the spring of 1877. It continued for nearly two years, and the robberies and murders consequent thereon would fill a volume. The majority of these outrages were not committed by the principals or participants in the war proper, but the unsettled state of the country caused by these disturbances called the lawless element, horse and cattle thieves, footpads, murderers, escaped convicts, and outlaws from all the frontier states and territories; Lincoln and surrounding counties offered a rich and comparatively safe field for their nefarious operations.

It is not the intention, here, to discuss the merits of the embroglio - to censure or uphold either one faction or the other, but merely to detail such events of the war as the hero of these adventures took part in.

The principals in this difficulty were, on one side, John S. Chisum, called "The Cattle King of New Mexico," with Alex A. McSween and John H. Tunstall as important allies. On the other side were the firm of Murphy & Dolan, merchants at Lincoln, the county seat, and extensive cattle-owners, backed by nearly every small cattle-owner in the Pecos Valley. This latter faction was supported by T. B. Catron, United States attorney for the Territory, a resident and eminent lawyer of Santa Fe, and a considerable cattle-owner in the Valley.

John S. Chisum's herds ranged up and down the Rio Pecos, from Fort Sumner way below the line of Texas, a distance of over two hundred miles, and were estimated to number from 40,000 to 80,000 head of full-blood, graded, and Texas cattle. A. A. McSween was a successful lawyer at Lincoln, retained by Chisum, besides having other pecuniary interests with him. John H. Tunstall was an Englishman, who only came to this country in 1876. He had ample means at his command, and formed a co-partnership with McSween at Lincoln, the firm erecting two fine buildings and establishing a mercantile house and the "Lincoln County Bank," there. Tunstall was a liberal, public-spirited citizen, and seemed destined to become a valuable acquisition to the reliable business men of our country. He, also, in partnership with McSween, had invested considerably in cattle.

This bloody war originated about as follows: The smaller cattle-owners in Pecos Valley charged Chisum with monopolizing, as a right, all this vast range of grazing country - that his great avalanche of hoofs and horns engulfed and swept away their smaller herds, without hope of recovery or compensation - that the big serpent of this modern Moses, swallowed up the lesser serpents of these magicians. They maintained that at each "round-up" Chisum's vast herd carried with them hundreds of head of cattle belonging to others.

On Chisum's part he claimed that these smaller proprietors had combined together to roundup and drive away from the range - selling them at various military posts and elsewhere throughout the country - cattle which were his property and bearing his mark and brand under the system of reprisals. Collisions between the herders in the employ of the opposing factions were of frequent occurence, and, as above stated, in the winter and spring of 1877 the war commenced in earnest. Robbery, murder, and bloody encounters ceased to excite either horror or wonder.

(2) Frank McNab interviewed in the Mesilla Independent (12th March, 1878)

When he had ridden some 20 miles and had reached a point about 5 or 6 miles from Black Water, Morton was riding side by side with one of the posse, when he suddenly snatched McClosky's pistol from his scabbard and shot him dead. Although mounted on a slow horse, he put him to his best speed, closely followed by Frank Baker. They were speedily overtaken and killed.

(3) Francisco Gomez, knew Billy the Kid when he was a child. He was interviewed about this as part of the WPA Project in 1938.

When I was about eighteen years old I went to work for the McSween's. I stayed with them for about two years. I remember that one winter Billy the Kid stayed with the McSween's for about seven months. I guess he boarded with them. He was an awfully nice young fellow with light brown hair, blue eyes, and rather big front teeth. He always dressed very neatly.

He used to practice target shooting a lot. He would throw up a can and would twirl his six gun on his finger and he could hit the can six times before it hit the ground. He rode a big roan horse about ten or twelve hands high, all that winter and when this horse was out in the pasture Billy would go to the gate and whistle and the horse would come up to the gate to him. That horse would follow Billy and mind him like a dog. He was a very fast horse and could out run most of the other horses around there. I never went out with Billy but once.

Captain Baca was sheriff then and once some tough outlaws came to Lincoln and rode up and down the streets and shot out window lights in the houses and terrorized people. Captain Baca told Billy the Kid to take some men and go after these men. Billy took me and Florencio and Jose Chaves and Santano Mayes with him. The outlaws went to the upper Ruidoso and we followed them. We caught up with them and shot it out with them. One of the outlaws was killed and the other ran away. None of us were hurt.

When the Lincoln County war broke out my father did not want to get into it so he made me quit working for the McSween's and come home and stay there.

(4) Ella Davidson lived in Lincoln, New Mexico, durng the Lincoln County War. She was interviewed about this as part of the WPA Project in 1938.

On the Sunday evening before the terrible days that ended the Lincoln County War Mother said: "Ella this is the week that will end all this bloodshed and fighting and, I thank God your father is away and won't be mixed up in the shooting, but I an afraid to stay here with you children unprotected." So that night after supper she took us to stay with the Ellis family, in their house which was built with all the rooms in one long row. About ten o'clock we heard someone with spurs on, come clattering down the whole length of the house. The door where we sat opened and there was Billy the Kid! He was followed by fourteen men who took possession of the house. We went back to our home but Mother was afraid to stay there after she thought our water supply would perhaps be cut off, so we went to Juan Patron's house and about midnight that house was taken over by some of the fighters. We then went to Montonna's store where we went to bed and when we got up the next morning about twenty men had taken possession there, but we stayed there from Sunday evening, until the next Friday morning. Mother got up and after we saw men fired on and one killed, she said, "I am going to take you children out of this danger!"

So she took us two miles out of town to where there were some tall poplar trees - they are still there - and about noon we saw heavy smoke. It was the McSween store that had been set afire by the Murphy men to burn out the McSween men who were surrounded, so they couldn't escape. When the fire was under way Mr. McSween calmly walked to the door as if surrendering and was shot down. Then, two others that followed were riddled with bullets. George Coe, Henry Brown, and Charlie Bowdre were among the crowd that escaped. Billy the Kid was the last one left in the building. During the excitement of the roof crashing in, he rushed out with two pistols blazing. Bob Beckwith, whose shot had killed McSween, was killed by one flying bullet and two others were wounded. The Kid, with bullets whizzing all around him, made his escape.

After this battle that took place in July, 1878 everything quieted down, and my mother took us home. Mrs. McSween, whose home was burned, stayed with us all night, and the next morning she asked me to go with her to see the ruins of her house. We found only the springs and other wires of her piano that was the pride of her life. She raked in the ashes where her bureau had stood and found her locket.

That was the most destructive battle of the Lincoln County War. We were terribly upset with all the fighting and killings. My sister Amelia had more than she could stand so my mother sent her to a ranch until things could settle down.