A greed-inspired conflict and the involvement of a famous “Kid” have made this New Mexico town the stuff of legends.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
It was a war that no one won. It was a time and place where even the men with badges wore black hats. And when the soldiers showed up to help restore order, their commander was no John Wayne. The best-known participant in the war died branded as a murderer, yet he was as much a victim as a criminal. As one historian noted, it was a war with no heroes.
The place was Lincoln County, New Mexico, a sprawling expanse of land that, at the time, covered one-fourth of the territory. The time was 1878 and the county seat, the tiny community of Lincoln, was already a backwater, far from transportation or major population centers. Yet the Lincoln County War, as it came to be known, resulted in the destruction of two mercantile empires, the dismissal of a territorial governor, the intervention of the President, and the launching into national prominence of a teenage gunslinger known as Billy the Kid.
Fort Stanton, a U.S. Army post in Lincoln, required food and supplies for its men and livestock, and a mercantile business in town had a monopoly on provisioning the fort. Two men sought to take over that monopoly. What’s more, the town was bereft of effective law enforcement. To all those ingredients, add three more, so common in the Old West: An abundance of liquor and Winchester rifles, and a code that required that a man never back down from a challenge or threat.
Something was bound to happen.
Unlike so many other historical towns, Lincoln gives today’s visitors the “real thing.” As you enter the valley where the town resides, you see it very much as William Henry Bonney (or McCarty), later known as Billy the Kid, saw it in 1878. The Murphy-Dolan store building that subsequently served as the courthouse still stands at one end of town. Stone markers identify where two deputy sheriffs died when Billy the Kid shot them during his escape from the building. Midway through town, the long, one-level Tunstall store appears much as it did when John Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween challenged the mercantile monopoly of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan.
A stone tower, or torreon, is the oldest structure in town, built by Spanish settlers as a defense against the Mescalero Apache Indians. Women and children would take shelter on the ground floor while the men used the gun ports on the second floor for defense.
Other buildings look much the same as they did when the two warring camps fought over the lucrative trade arrangement with Fort Stanton.
Fortunately for us, the locals have joined state officials in preserving or restoring the town to its 1881 appearance. There are no fast-food establishments, chain motels, or even gas stations to distract visitors from the 19th century. Were it not for the paved road that runs through town, and the modern-day vehicles upon it, visitors might feel as though they’ve stepped into a time machine.
The roots of the Lincoln conflict lay in greed. Fort Stanton was built to help the military control the marauding Apache Indians, who had taken understandable exception to the influx of Anglo settlers on their land. Fort Stanton needed food and supplies. Lawrence Murphy, James Dolan, and others created a lucrative monopoly they called “The House” by establishing themselves as the sole business able to provide the fort’s needs. The Murphy-Dolan combine could pay almost nothing to local farmers and ranchers for their produce and beef, then sell it at exorbitant profits to the fort. In spite of those advantages, Murphy and his partners were terrible businessmen. By 1877 Murphy was well on the way to killing himself with alcohol abuse (some sources state he was dying of cancer), and The House was having financial difficulties. In March of that year, Murphy sold out to Dolan.
That same year Dolan was challenged by John Henry Tunstall, a wealthy young man from England, and his partner, a Scottish lawyer named Alexander McSween. There really wasn’t enough business for two enterprises. Locals quickly took sides, many happy to see a challenge to the hated monopoly.
Billy the Kid had by then joined a gang of thieves in Lincoln, but did not stay with them for long. Tunstall offered him a job with his store, and he accepted. He may have considered it his chance to make a change for the better.
By early 1878 the conflict between the Dolan and Tunstall groups was constant. Dolan tried all he could to get rid of the Englishman, and sued McSween. As part of the case, Sheriff William Brady sent a posse to Tunstall’s ranch to take cattle and horses. Billy joined Tunstall and others in driving the horses to another location but were ambushed by Dolan’s men in the process. Tunstall was murdered by the posse, yet Sheriff Brady refused to permit the arrest of the suspects.
Billy joined others who swore to avenge Tunstall’s murder, and he and five others ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady. From there, the Lincoln County War escalated into a series of ambushes and gun battles that resolved nothing. Forces loyal to Dolan and men loyal to McSween were so violent that the soldiers from Fort Stanton, led by the bombastic, alcoholic, and inept Colonel Nathan Dudley, were sent to Lincoln to protect the women and children. They did nothing to stop the conflict, though. In fact, Dudley’s erratic and inconsistent actions, if anything, further inflamed the war and made it certain the Dolan forces would win.
In July 1878 Dolan’s men laid siege to McSween’s home, where he, his gunmen (including Billy), his wife, her sister, and children were holed up. On July 19, the fifth day of the siege, Dolan’s men set the house on fire. Billy led one group that fled for their lives and McSween led another. In the gunfire and melee that followed, McSween was killed, along with four others. None of the women or children was harmed.
The McSween home was leveled and has never been rebuilt. Tunstall and McSween were dead and their supporters scattered. On the surface, it appears that the bad guys won. Yet a review of Tunstall’s correspondence with his family in England shows that he and McSween had every intention of creating a monopoly similar to Dolan and Murphy’s, squeezing the locals and selling their goods to the military at highly inflated prices.
Jim Dolan survived the war, but the business he and Murphy had developed was bankrupt, and his former partner was near death. In subsequent years, Dolan married into money, and, ironically, purchased the Tunstall store and ranch in 1882. He later became an elected territorial official. McSween’s wife, Susan, married and divorced a second husband while amassing enough livestock to be called the “cattle queen of New Mexico.”
None of the other participants fared as well. The fallout from the war rippled outward, ensnaring territorial governor Samuel B. Axtell, who was dismissed by President Rutherford B. Hayes for his uncritical support of the Dolan faction. His replacement, Lew Wallace, was a man better known for his writing than his political achievements. Wallace attempted to get to the bottom of the conflict by promising amnesty to people on both sides, including Billy the Kid, if they would tell their side of what happened. Billy honored that commitment but still was sought for the murder of Sheriff Brady.
In spite of that hopeful beginning, Wallace spent far more time writing the novel Ben Hur than he did administering territorial affairs or resolving the Lincoln County conflict.
Billy the Kid’s fame rested not only on his participation in the war itself, but on events that occurred afterward. Many participants in the war were charged with crimes. Only two ever stood trial: Billy and Colonel Nathan Dudley. Territorial officials and the courts refused to prosecute the rest. Dudley was accused of arson, because he did not stop the Dolan forces from burning the McSween home. He was acquitted.
Billy the Kid was arrested by the new sheriff of Lincoln County, Pat Garrett. At a trial in Mesilla, he was convicted of being the sole murderer of Sheriff Brady (although it was a gang shooting) and sentenced to hang. He was taken in chains back to Lincoln and incarcerated in an upstairs room in the old Murphy-Dolan store, awaiting execution. It is still not clear how he got a gun, but he wound up killing the two deputies guarding him and escaped town. Billy finally met his destiny at the hands of Sheriff Garrett near Fort Sumner in July 1881. Or did he? Even as this is written, an attempt is being made to exhume his mother’s body from her grave in Silver City to check her DNA against that of Brushy Bill Roberts, who died in Texas at age 90 in 1950, and claimed to be Billy the Kid.
If You Go …
Lincoln is approximately a 3½-hour drive southeast from Albuquerque (site of FMCA’s 71st International Convention, March 16, 17, and 18). From Albuquerque, take Interstate 25 south to U.S. 380 east. Lincoln is located 32 miles east of the junction of U.S. 380 and U.S. 54.
A visit to Lincoln can consume a few hours or the better part of a day. You will have no difficulty parking your motorhome along the highway in Lincoln. However, the town does not have RV parks. Nearby Capitan has two campgrounds, and several more are located in and around Ruidoso. Likewise, restaurant opportunities are limited. The reconstructed Wortley Hotel and the Ellis Store serve meals. Several restaurants also are available in Capitan, 10 miles west on U.S. 380, where you can visit the Smokey Bear Museum and view the real Smokey’s final resting place. Ruidoso, a little more than 30 miles from Lincoln, is a full-service city, with shopping and numerous restaurants.
The entire town of Lincoln is a state monument and national landmark. Six historical buildings in the town comprise the Lincoln Museum. You can start your tour in any building, but it’s recommended that you begin at the Historic Lincoln Visitors Center, located on the north side of the main (and only) street, halfway through town. A $6 admission price includes entrance to all six buildings in town, including the Murphy-Dolan (Courthouse) store and the Tunstall store. Children 16 and under are admitted free.
Starting at the visitors center will help you understand the dynamics that created the conflict as well as allow you to “meet” many of the principal players in the drama. Other exhibits allow a wider view of Lincoln County than just the war. The museum buildings are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., year-round. Phone (505) 653-4372 for more information.
Fort Stanton’s museum is open Thursday through Monday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The building itself is used today for drug rehabilitation programs, but the excellent museum is worth a visit. The fort and museum are located on State Route 220, off U.S. 380 between Lincoln and Capitan. Because of limited parking, Fort Stanton and the nearby Merchant Marine and military cemetery are best visited with your towed vehicle.