The Lincoln County War

I have to start this story back in the summer of 1990. I was playing tag with a group of cousins at my Uncle Danny’s house at a family gathering of some sort or another. I was 12 and someone had left the basement television on HBO, which we didn’t have at my house. I watched as Young Guns came on and left the childish games behind to be transported back to the 1870’s and the Lincoln County War. Though it was not the most accurate telling of the story, it started an obsession of Wild West legends and Western movies that would only be equaled by Buddy Holly in my youth.

I looked up Billy the Kid in our encyclopedia, the internet of the day, as soon as we got home. There wasn’t a lot of information in the World Book, but there was a photo of Billy the Kid. It only made my obsession greater and my thrust for more information grew.

Tintype of Billy the Kid

Fast forward 28 years to where Laura and I are planning our latest cross-country trip from California to Kentucky. I proposed a three day 300 mile detour to Lincoln, New Mexico and then back up to Fort Sumner. All of which is to see where the Lincoln County War took place, and where The Kid was shot to death and laid to rest. Laura agree to the adventure, and the 12 year old boy in me jumped for joy.

As we left Flagstaff, we soon took a right off I-40 to head southeast on Arizona highways to New Mexico highways in route to Lincoln. These roads in the winter are beautiful and mostly empty of traffic. It was not uncommon for us to drive an hour or more without seeing another car. We found a RV park and set up for the night. I had a hard time sleeping through the night awaiting the next day’s visit to the historic town, so I stayed up brushing up on the history.

I apologize for the small history lesson, but I think it’s needed to explain the places we saw.

We will start with the Murphy/Dolan partnership in Lincoln, New Mexico. They had a mercantile store and ran a ranching business there. They pretty much ran the county and their headquarters was called “The House”. A wealthy  young man named John Tunstall moves into town from London England. He partners up with the local lawyer Alex McSween ( who already had some bad blood with the Murphy/Dolan side) to open another mercantile store in Lincoln and started into ranching. The competition wasn’t welcomed. On February 28, 1878 Tunstall and a few of his men, including Henry McCarty who was going by the allies William H Bonney (aka Billy the Kid), where taking horses into town. On this trip the Murphy/Dolan group tried to end the competition by gunning down Tunstall while The Kid and other men were in pursuit of wild turkey. The men could see the shooting but couldn’t do anything to stop it. This murder of Tunstall started a spree of revenge killings to be known as the Lincoln County War.

Here are just a few of the highlights of that war.

On April 1, 1878, Bonney and others of the Tunstall/McSween gang were laying in wait beside the Tunstall store for the County Sheriff Brady, a Murphy/Dolan puppet.  Dick Brewer of the Tunstall/McwSeen side was appointed Special Constable and a few others where his Deputy Constables, including The Kid.  The group called themselves the Regulators. The Regulators were issued warranties for the men who murdered Tunstall. Now both sides felt as if they were acting as the law. The Regulators jumped Brady as he walked by the Tunstall store. They then shot and killed him. Billy ran to lifeless body of Brady in the street. Some believe he was looking to reclaim a pistol Brady had taken from Bonney. The Kid was shot in the leg, but got away and recovered.

Gun fights and killings took place the next few months until July 15, 1878. McSween had returned to Lincoln with 40 or so men after hiding outside of town. The Murphy/ Dolan side had numbers too, and the two sides took up buildings in the town. It was the beginning of the “Five Day War”.

The first three days were of the two groups exchanging gunfire until the military showed up from Fort Station which was a few miles to the east. The military took the side of the Murphy/Dolan group and pointed their fire power at McSween’s house. Most of the men around town on the McSween side left when the military showed up. The men left were in the McSween house and now they were surrounded. On the night of July 18-19, McSween’s house was set fire with Alex McSween, The Kid, and other Regulators inside. Many were shot and killed as they left the house, including Alex McSween, but The Kid along with other Regulators somehow got away into the night. McSween’s death would mark the end of the Lincoln County War, but not the end to the story for Bonney.

Tunstall and McSween’s grave markers behind Tunstall store
Tunstall and McSween’s grave markers behind the Tunstall store

The next few years the Regulators, lead by The Kid, were on the run. Murphy would die of cancer and Dolan would lose ” The House” but would later end up buying the Tunstall store and ranch. The House would be bought by the county and used as the court house, sheriff’s office, and county jail.

“The House” later to be the court house, and site of Billy the Kid’s escape.

Governor Wallace had promised a pardon to Bonney on March 15, 1879 for The Kid’s testimony about the murder of the lawyer Huston Chipman. Bonney let himself be arrested on March 21, 1879 and provided a statement about the Chapman murder. He also testified in court against the commanding officer of the military forces in the “Five Day War”. By June 17, 1879, Billy began to believe Wallace would never grant him the promised amnesty. Billy took his leave and was on the run again.

By 1880 a new sheriff was elected named Pat Garret. Though he knew The Kid from card games, he vowed to arrested Bonney. Sheriff Garret caught up with Billy the Kid and other members of the Regulators in Old Fort Sumner and killed Tom O’Folliard on December 19, 1880. The rest of the group fled and sought refuge at an abandoned rock house in Stinking Springs, NM. On the morning of December 22, 1880, Pat Garret and his men shot Charlie Bowdre as he left the house to feed the horses. The Kid was captured and taken back to Lincoln to face trail for the shooting of Sheriff Brady. Bonney was convicted and sentenced to hang. It was the only conviction of the Lincoln County War. Bonney wrote to Governor Wallace four times about the promised pardon, but Wallace never wrote back.

As Pat Garret was off collecting taxes, he left two deputies to oversee Bonney and five other prisoners. On April 28, 1881 Deputy Bob Ollinger took the other five prisoners across the street for lunch, leaving Deputy James Bell to guard The Kid. Billy asked to go to the outhouse and over powered Bell on the way back up the stairs. Bonney shot and killed Bell. The Kid then broke into Garret’s office and stole a shotgun. Bob Ollinger ran back after hearing the shots that killed Bell. Billy opened both barrels of the shotgun on Ollinger through the second story window. Ollinger fell dead. This was not the first time Billy the Kid had escaped jail, but it would be his last.

Bonney would be on the run for 3 months until Garret caught up to him at the house of Pete Maxwell. Maxwell was a friend of Billy and a former employer of Garret. Pat Garret shot The Kid two times as Billy entered a dark room. The first bullet was through Billy’s heart. Bonney was dead before he even knew who had killed him. The Kid was buried the next morning on July 15, 1881 next to his “pals” Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre. His grave was marked by a wooden marker. A flood would later take way the marker, but another would take it’s place. The Kid’s stone has been stolen a few times through out the years, which made need for all the iron.

Bonney is  on the right.

As a child I looked up to Billy the Kid as some kind of hero outlaw. I thought of him as a tough as nails gun slinger that had fought on the right side, but the wrong side of the law. Now that I have lived almost twice as long as Billy did, I see him in a different light. By most accounts he was a soft spoken jolly jokester that was easy to get along with, but would be quick to end an argument with gunplay. Looking back on the story and reading the letters between him and Wallace, I now also see the very scared young boy. After all he was just 21 years of age at the time of his death, and it seems that a lot of his fame was forced on him.

Lincoln, NM is an amazingly kept and preserved town. While walking through the very buildings and street where these events happened that captured the nation’s imagination for 140 years, I got split seconds of feeling like I was unstuck in time. It was like I was really there in the 1870’s and 1880’s. It’s a feeling that only a town like this can produce. The visit was worth the diesel burned, hours driven, and the bumps taken from the road. I do believe that anyone else would feel the same about Lincoln, NM. It is a little town in the middle of nowhere New Mexico where big things happen, and then time stayed as still as possible since. This post is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more interesting characters and crazy events to this story and history rich town. I hope you get to visit Lincoln, and you get to take the time to know the story in full.

There was still other surprises this part of New Mexico had install for us. We will pick them up next week.

Until next time,



One thought on “The Lincoln County War

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s