Lincoln County War

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The Lincoln County War was an Old West conflict between rival factions in 1878 in New Mexico Territory. The feud became famous because of the participation of a number of notable figures of the Old West, including Billy the Kid, sheriffs William Brady and Pat Garrett, cattle rancher John Chisum, lawyer and businessman Alexander McSween, and the organized-crime boss Lawrence Murphy.

The conflict arose between two factions over the control of dry goods and cattle interests in the county. The older, established faction was led by Murphy and his business partner, James Dolan, who operated a dry goods monopoly through Murphy's general store. Young newcomers to the county, English-born John Tunstall and his business partner Alexander McSween, with backing from established cattleman John Chisum, opened a competing store in 1876. The two sides gathered lawmen, businessmen, Tunstall's ranch hands[1] and criminal gangs to their support. The Murphy-Dolan faction were allied with Lincoln County Sheriff Brady, and supported by the Jesse Evans Gang. The Tunstall-McSween faction organized their own posse of armed men, known as the Regulators, to defend their position, and had their own lawmen, town constable Richard M. Brewer[2] and Deputy US Marshal Robert A. Widenmann.[3]

The conflict was marked by back-and-forth revenge killings, starting with the murder of Tunstall by members of the Evans Gang. In revenge for this, the Regulators killed Sheriff Brady and others in a series of incidents. Further killings continued unabated for several months, climaxing in the Battle of Lincoln, a five-day gunfight and siege that resulted in the death of McSween and the scattering of the Regulators. After Pat Garrett was named County Sheriff in 1880, he hunted down Billy the Kid, killing two other former Regulators in the process. The war was fictionalized in several Hollywood films, including Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, The Left Handed Gun in 1958, John Wayne's Chisum in 1970 and Young Guns in 1988.


The Torreon, where Murphy's sharpshooters were stationed

In November 1876, a wealthy Englishman named John Tunstall arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he intended to develop a cattle ranch, store, and bank in partnership with the young attorney Alexander McSween and cattleman John Chisum. They discovered that Lincoln County was controlled both economically and politically by Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, the proprietors of LG Murphy and Co., the only store in the county. The factions were ethnically at odds, with the Murphy faction mostly Irish Catholic, while Tunstall and his allies were mostly Protestant.[4] LG Murphy and Co. loaned thousands of dollars to the Territorial Governor, and the Territorial Attorney General eventually held the mortgage on the firm. Tunstall learned that Murphy and Dolan, who bought much of their cattle from rustlers, had lucrative beef contracts from the United States government to supply forts and Indian agencies.

The government contracts, along with their monopoly on merchandise and financing for farms and ranches, allowed Murphy, Dolan and their partner Riley to run Lincoln County as a personal fiefdom. Murphy and Dolan refused to give up their monopoly. In February 1878, in a court case that was eventually dismissed, they obtained a court order to seize all of McSween's assets, but mistakenly included all of Tunstall's assets with those of McSween.[5] Sheriff Brady formed a posse to attach Tunstall's remaining assets at his ranch 70 miles from Lincoln. Lawrence Murphy and Dolan also enlisted the John Kinney Gang, Seven Rivers Warriors and the Jesse Evans Gang, and their job was mainly to harass and rustle cattle from Tunstall's and Chisum's ranches, as well as being the faction's hired guns.[6][7]

Killing of John Tunstall

On February 18, 1878, members of the Sheriff's posse caught up to Tunstall while he and his ranch-hands, Richard "Dick" Brewer, Billy the Kid, John Middleton, Henry Newton Brown, Robert A. Widenmann, and Fred Waite, were herding his last nine horses back to Lincoln. Frank Warner Angel, a special investigator for the Secretary of the Interior, later determined that Tunstall was shot in "cold blood" by Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill.[8] Tunstall's murder was witnessed from a distance by several of his men, including Richard Brewer and Billy the Kid. Tunstall's murder catalyzed the Lincoln County War.

Tunstall's cowhands and other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder, since the territorial criminal justice system was controlled by allies of Murphy, Dolan, and co. While the Regulators at various times consisted of dozens of American and Mexican cowboys, the main dozen or so members were known as the "iron clad", including McCarty, Richard "Dick" Brewer, Frank McNab, Doc Scurlock, Jim French, John Middleton, George Coe, Frank Coe, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, Fred Waite (a Chickasaw), and Henry Newton Brown.[9]

The Regulators set out to apprehend the sheriff's posse members who had murdered Tunstall. After the Regulators were deputized by the Lincoln County justice of the peace, together with Constable Martinez, they attempted to serve the legally issued warrants on Tunstall's murderers. Sheriff Brady arrested and jailed Martinez and his deputies in defiance of their deputized status. They gained release and searched for Tunstall's murderers. They found Buck Morton, Dick Lloyd, and Frank Baker near the Rio Peñasco. Morton surrendered after a five-mile (8 km) running gunfight on the condition that he and his fellow deputy sheriff, Frank Baker,[10] would be returned alive to Lincoln. The Regulators' captain Dick Brewer assured them they would be taken to Lincoln, but other Regulators insisted on killing the prisoners. William McCloskey, also a friend of Morton, resisted such action.

Blackwater Massacre

On March 9, 1878, the third day of the journey back to Lincoln, the Regulators killed McCloskey, Morton, and Baker in the Capitan foothills along the Blackwater Creek. They claimed that Morton murdered McCloskey and tried to escape with Baker, forcing them to kill the two prisoners. Few believed the story, as they thought it unlikely that Morton would have killed his only friend in the group.[11] As the bodies of Morton and Baker each bore eleven bullet holes, one for each Regulator, Utley believes that the Regulators murdered them and killed McCloskey for opposing them.[12] Nolan writes that Morton took ten bullets, and Baker was shot five times.[13] That same day, Tunstall's other two killers, Tom Hill and Jesse Evans, were shot while trying to rob a sheep drover near Tularosa, New Mexico. Hill died and Evans was severely wounded. While Evans was at Fort Stanton for medical treatment, he was arrested on an old federal warrant for stealing stock from an Indian reservation.[citation needed]

Killing of William Brady

Sheriff Brady asked for assistance from the Territorial Attorney General, Thomas Benton Catron, to put down this "anarchy". Catron turned to the Territorial Governor Samuel B. Axtell. The governor decreed that John Wilson, the Justice of the Peace, had been illegally appointed by the Lincoln County Commissioners. Wilson had deputized the Regulators and issued the warrants for Tunstall's murderers. Axtell's decree meant that the Regulators' actions, formerly considered legal, were now beyond the law. Axtell also was able to revoke Widenmann's status as a Deputy US marshal, making Sheriff Brady and his men the only law officers of Lincoln County.[14]

On April 1, 1878, the Regulators French, McNab, Middleton, Waite, Brown and Billy the Kid made ready in the corral behind Tunstall's store before attacking Brady and his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. Brady died of at least a dozen gunshot wounds; Deputy George W. Hindman was also fatally wounded. McCarty and French broke cover and dashed to Brady's body, possibly to get his arrest warrant for McSween or to recover McCarty's rifle, which Brady had kept from a prior arrest. A surviving deputy, Billy Matthews, wounded both men with one bullet that passed through each of them. French's wound was so severe that he had to be temporarily harbored by Sam Corbet in a crawlspace in Corbet's house. Widenmann was also in the corral, but whether he participated was never ascertained: he claimed he was feeding Tunstall's dog. [15]

Battle of Blazer's Mill

George W. Coe, survivor of the Blazer's Mill fight, in 1934

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Three days after the murders of Brady and Hindman, the Regulators headed southwest from the area around Lincoln, reaching Blazer's Mill, a sawmill and trading post that supplied beef to the Mescalero Apaches. They came upon the rancher Buckshot Roberts, listed on their arrest warrant as one of Tunstall's murderers. In the ensuing shootout the Regulators mortally wounded Roberts, but he killed Brewer and wounded Middleton, Scurlock, Coe, and McCarty.[citation needed]

Gunfight at Fritz Ranch

After Brewer's death, the Regulators elected McNab as their captain. On April 29, 1878, Sheriff Peppin was directing a posse that included the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors. They engaged in a shootout with the Regulators McNab, Saunders, and Frank Coe at the Fritz Ranch. McNab died in the gunfire, Saunders was badly wounded, and Frank Coe was captured.

The next day, the Seven Rivers members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson and John Galvin were killed in Lincoln, and although the Regulators were blamed, this was never proven. Frank Coe escaped custody some time after his capture, allegedly with the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Wallace Olinger, who gave him a pistol.

The day after McNab's death the Regulators known as the "iron clad" took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, trading shots with Dolan men and, allegedly, members of the US Army cavalry. "Dutch Charley" Kruling, a Dolan man, was wounded by rifle fire by George Coe. By allegedly shooting at government troops, the Regulators gained a new set of enemies. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down and captured the Seven Rivers gang member Manuel Segovia, who is believed to have shot McNab. They shot him during an alleged escape. Around the time of Segovia's death, the Regulator "iron clad" gained a new member, a young Texas cowpoke named Tom O'Folliard, who would soon become Bonney's closest friend.[16]

Battle of Lincoln

A map of Lincoln, New Mexico as it appeared between 1872 and 1881.

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A large confrontation between the two forces took place on the afternoon of July 15, 1878, when the Regulators were surrounded in Lincoln in two different positions; the McSween house and the Ellis store. Facing them were the Dolan/Murphy/Seven Rivers cowboys. In the Ellis store were Scurlock, Bowdre, Middleton, Frank Coe, and several others. About 20 Mexican Regulators, led by Josefita Chavez, were also positioned around town. In the McSween house were Alex McSween and his wife Susan, Billy the Kid, Henry Brown, Jim French, Tom O'Folliard, Jose Chavez y Chavez, George Coe, and a dozen Mexican vaqueros.[17]

Over the next three days, the men exchanged shots and shouts. Tom Cullens, one of the McSween house defenders, was killed by a stray bullet. The Dolan cowboy Charlie Crawford was shot at a distance of 500 yards (460 m) by Doc Scurlock's father-in-law, Fernando Herrera. Around this time, Henry Brown, George Coe, and Joe Smith slipped out of the McSween house to the Tunstall store, where they chased two Dolan men into an outhouse with rifle fire and forced them to dive into the bottom to escape. The impasse continued until the arrival of US Army troops under the command of Colonel Nathan Dudley. When these troops pointed cannons at the Ellis store and other positions, Billy the Kid, Doc Scurlock and his men broke from their positions, as did Chavez's cowboys, leaving those left in the McSween house to their fate.[18]

On the afternoon of July 19, Murphy-Dolan faction set the house afire. As the flames spread and night fell, Susan McSween and the other woman and five children were granted safe passage out of the house, while the men inside continued to fight the fire.[19] By 9 p.m., those left inside got set to break out the back door of the burning house. Billy the Kid and Jim French assessed their situation, and figured out a way to escape by using pistol fire as cover and escaping. Jim French went out first, followed by Billy the Kid, O'Folliard, and Jose Chavez y Chavez. The Dolan men saw them running and opened fire, killing Harvey Morris, McSween's law partner. Some troopers moved into the back yard to take those left into custody when a close-order gunfight erupted. Alexander McSween and the Seven Rivers cowboy Bob Beckwith both died. Three other Mexican Regulators got away in the confusion, to rendezvous with the "iron clad" members yards away.


The Lincoln County War accomplished little other than to foster distrust and animosity in the area. The surviving Regulators, most notably Billy the Kid, continued as fugitives. Gradually, his fellow gunmen scattered to their various fates, and he rode with Bowdre, O'Folliard, Dave Rudabaugh, and a few other friends, with whom he rustled cattle and committed other crimes. Eventually the sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse tracked down and killed O'Folliard, Bowdre, and, in July 1881, the "Kid". The three men were buried at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.[20]

Murphy died of cancer on October 20, 1878, around the age of 47. Susan McSween hired attorney Huston Chapman to pursue charges against Dolan and others, in addition to working toward amnesty for the Regulators. On February 18, 1879, one year to the day after Tunstall was murdered, Evans and Billy Campbell killed Chapman, then fled the territory. That murder also was attributed to Dolan, though his involvement was never proven. Dolan was indicted for the murder of Tunstall, but was acquitted. He later acquired all of Tunstall's property before dying on his ranch in 1898, aged 49. Susan McSween took over a large sum of land in the years after the Lincoln County War ended, establishing a ranch in Three Rivers, New Mexico. By the mid-1890s her ranch holdings were some of the largest in the territory. She averaged during this time between 3,000 and 5,000 head of cattle. She died a wealthy woman on January 3, 1931, aged 85.

In popular culture


  1. Cowboys and Outlaws: "The Real Billy the Kid". History channel
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  3. The United States Marshals of New Mexico and Arizona Territories, 1846-1912 (1982) p. 85
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  5. Nolan, Frederick, The West of Billy the Kid
  6. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. September 1, 2012
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  8. Record Group 60, NA In the Matter of the Cause and Circumstances of the Death of J.H. Tunstall, A British Subject 44-4-8-3
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  10. Robert Utley, Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life (1989), p. 56. Note: Baker had no part in the Tunstall murder but was riding with Morton and Lloyd.
  11. Utley, Billy the Kid, p. 59.
  12. Utley, Billy the Kid, pp. 59–60.
  13. Nolan, The West of Billy the Kid, p. 114.
  14. Nolan, The West of Billy the Kid, p. 115.
  15. The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History (2009) p249
  16. Wallis, The Endless Ride, p. 210.
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  19. Nolan, Frederick, The West of Billy the Kid, p. 162
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  • Nolan, Frederick (1998). The West of Billy the Kid. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3082-2.
  • Utley, Robert M. (1987). High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. ISBN 0-8263-1201-2.
  • Utley, Robert M. (1989). Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-9558-8.
  • Wallis, Michael (2007). Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-06068-3.
  • Chamberlain, Kathleen (2013). In the Shadow of Billy the Kid: Susan McSween and the Lincoln County War. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-5279-8.

External links