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Billy the Kid & Battle of Lincoln County, New Mexico

Updated on October 8, 2016

Main Street, Lincoln, New Mexico - The Most Dangerous Street in America


President Rutherford B. Hayes called Lincoln, New Mexico's Main Street "the most dangerous street in America." In September 1878, he removed New Mexico's corrupt Governor Axtell from office and appointed Lew Wallace as the new governor. He also replaced The United State's attorney, the Lincoln County sheriff and the local military commander.

Governor Wallace thought that the situation in Lincoln County might call for martial law. Hays advised lawbreakers to return to peace. On November 13, 1878, Governor Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for all those involved in the Lincoln County War if they were not already under indictment. This proclamation did not include Billy the Kid.

Modern Day Photo of Main Street Lincoln, New Mexico

Lawrence Murphy, The Greedy Instigator

Know as the "Scoundrel Behind the Lincoln County Wars"

The Lincoln County War was a conflict between rival cattle barons in 19th century New Mexico Territory.

In the early 1870's two men, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan owned the only store in Lincoln County , called, Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking. Another man named John Riley also entered into the business with them. At the time, Lincoln County was the largest county in the nation, covering 1/5 of New Mexico territory. In addition to the store, Murphy and Dolan also owned large cattle ranches.

Their influential territorial ties to officials in Santa Fe, allowed them to obtain several lucrative contracts with the military at Fort Stanton. One of the issues at hand was that the beef being supplied to Native Americans on reservations was spoiled and rustled from local cattlemen. Natives were starving and local businessmen were losing cattle and profits hand over fight.

Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking monopolized the trade of the county, controlling pricing, making immense profits on their goods, and controlled every part of the economy of the large county in New Mexico. The merchants, along with their allies, which included local law enforcement, were familiarly known as "The House."

Murphy and his allies were disliked by the small farmers and ranchers in Lincoln County as they were forced to pay high costs for their goods, while at the same time, being made to accept lowest possible prices for their cattle. The ones that weren't stolen that is.

John Tunstall: A Gentlemen, Scholar, and Businessman

Opposed the Lincoln Stranglehold and Opened a General Store

In 1877 John Tunstall, a wealthy 24-year old English cattleman and banker, and a partner Alexander McSween, a local lawyer, set up a rival business called H.H. Tunstall & Company near the business owned by Dolan, Murphy and Riley.

Supporting them was a large ranch owner named John Chisum, who owned more than 100,000 head of cattle.

Furious at this development, Dolan attempted to goad Tunstall into a gunfight. However, Tunstall refused to use violence himself but soon recruited Billy the Kid, officially, as a "cattle guard."

In February, 1878, "The House" proprietors obtained a court order to seize some of Tunstall's horses as payment for an outstanding debt by court order lodged illegally against McSween. Since Tunstal was McSween's business partner, he got caught up in the dispute.

When Tunstall refused to surrender his horses, Lincoln County Sheriff, William Brady, formed a posse led by deputy William Morton to seize the horses. After protesting the presence of the posse on his land, Tunstall was shot in the head on February 18, 1878. This incident started what became known as the Lincoln County War.

Billy the Kid was deeply affected by the murder, claiming that Tunstall was one of the only men that treated him like he was "free-born and white." At Tunstall's funeral Billy swore: "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."

Adding fuel to the fire, it was rumored that Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy.

However, Billy would not be able to immediately exact his revenge as he was jailed briefly and his rifle confiscated by Sheriff Brady. After he was released, Billy soon joined a posse led by Dick Brewer, Tunstall's Ranch Foreman, called the Regulators. Deputized, the group's primary aim was to hunt for Tunstall's killer, William Morton.

On March 6, 1878, the Regulators tracked Morton in the countryside near the Rio Peñasco. After a five mile running gunfight, Morton surrendered on the condition that his fellow deputy sheriff, Frank Baker, would be returned alive to Lincoln. However, on the third day of the journey back to Lincoln, on March 9th, Billy and another Regulator killed the prisoners, along with one of their fellow Regulators that had tried to stop them.

Three weeks later, Billy and several other Regulators holed up in Tunstall's store while Sheriff William Brady was searching for the killers of his deputies. They ambushed the sheriff and his men on April 1, 1878, killing Sheriff Brady and mortally wounding one of his deputies.

On July 19, 1878, McSween and his supporters, including Billy the Kid, were besieged by the new 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, including an unarmed Alexander McSween.

That's when, President Rutherford B. Hayes removed New Mexico's corrupt Governor Axtell from office and appointed Lew Wallace as New Mexico's new governor. Governor Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for all those involved in the Lincoln County War if they were not already under indictment but not Billy the Kid.

Officially, this ended the Lincoln County War, but not before nineteen people had been killed in the conflict.

In Depth Story of Billy the Kid and McSween's Widow

Alexander A. McSween, Merchant & Partner to Tunstall

Attorney and Partner of Tunstall

Alexander A. McSween, a young lawyer fresh from the Washington University Law School of St. Louis, Missouri. McSween was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and was educated in the first place as a Presbyterian minister.

He was a man of handsome, smart and more polished than the average man. He was an orator, a dreamer, and a visionary; a strange, complex character. He was not a fighting man, and belonged anywhere in the world rather than on the frontier of the bloody Southwest. His health was not good, and he resolved to journey to New Mexico. He and his young bride, Susan, with a good team of horses reached the little placita of Lincoln, in the Bonito Canyon, March 15, 1875. Outside of the firm of Murphy, Riley & Dolan, there were at that time but one or two other American families. McSween started up in the practice of law.

He saw the strangled hold on the county. When John Tustall moved to Lincoln they partnered up to offer the locals another avenue. His Mercantile store partnership with Tunstall was unwelcomed competition to the Murphy gang.

In additon, McSween was an smart attorney. He could lodge legal recourse against Murphy's and his facet, except the local courts and law enforcment officials were in Murphy's pocket as well. Murphy owned the bank, the notes on local farms, their homes, etc.

McSween represented a local widow who tried to claim an insurance policy after her husbands death. Murphy held the gentleman's will and refused to give it up, even under court order. This led to Murphy filing a claim of money due from the dead man's estate. McSween was could not collect on the policy for many years of legal battle. In the meantime, Murphy obtained court order from courpt officials, for payment allowing him to seize McSween and Tunstall's assets. Tunstall was killed for resisting.

McSween was eventually killed, shot in the back, when his house and belongings were burned to the ground by Murphy's order via army officials.

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

It appeared there was no stopping Murphy and his gang except for a band of young boys who worked as ranchhands for Tunstall and wanted his death to count for something.

Billy the Kid, Regulator & Ranch hand of John Tunstall

William Henry McCarty (Aka: Henry Antrim, William H. Bonney)

Billy the Kid was deeply affected by the murder he witnessed, claiming that (John) Tunstall was one of the only men that treated him like he was "free-born and white." At Tunstall's funeral Billy swore: "I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."

Adding fuel to the fire, it was rumored that Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of James Dolan and Lawrence Murphy.

However, Billy would not be able to immediately exact his revenge as he was jailed briefly and his rifle confiscated by Sheriff Brady. After he was released, Billy soon joined a posse led by Dick Brewer, Tunstalls Ranch Foreman, called the Regulators. Deputized, the group's primary aim was to hunt for Tunstalls killer, William Morton.

On March 6, 1878, the Regulators tracked Morton in the countryside near the Rio Peasco. After a five mile running gunfight, Morton surrendered on the condition that his fellow deputy sheriff, Frank Baker, would be returned alive to Lincoln. However, on the third day of the journey back to Lincoln, on March 9th, Billy and another Regulator killed the prisoners, along with one of their fellow Regulators that had tried to stop them.

Three weeks later Billy and several other Regulators holed up in Tunstall's store while Sheriff William Brady was searching for the killers of his deputies. They ambushed the sheriff and his men on April 1, 1878, killing Sheriff Brady and mortally wounding one of his deputies. Witnesses say Billy walked over to Brady's dead body and retrieved his rifle Brady had been using against them.

On July 19, 1878, McSween and his supporters, including Billy the Kid, were besieged by the new 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, including an unarmed Alexander McSween.

That's when, President Rutherford B. Hayes removed Axtell and appointed Lew Wallace as New Mexico's new governor. Governor Wallace proclaimed an amnesty if they were not already under indictment. Not including Billy the Kid.

Officially, this ended the Lincoln County War, but not before nineteen people had been killed in the conflict.

On December 15, 1880, Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy the Kid's head.

On December 23rd he was captured by Pat Garrett but escaped in April, 1881, killing two deputies in the process.

On July 14, 1881, he was tracked again by Pat Garrett to Fort Sumner, New Mexico where he was shot and killed by Garrett.

So that story goes. Locals know the deep friendship between Pat and Billy and rumor has it, someone else is buried in the grave site in Fort Sumner. It is believed Billy escaped under the cover of darkness to Mexico. Billy was fluent in Spanish. He often visited Mexico and knew his way around.

I personally visited the grave site of Billy the Kid. You cannot convince me for a million dollar offer that Billy is in that grave. There is headstone marker proclaiming Billy lies there with a word hand-carved roughly into the headstone. It says, "PALS."

Billy the Kid Mug with Quote "Pardon I don't need no stinkin' pardon!"

How accurate is the movie Young Guns compared to the Story of Lincoln?

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    • goo2eyes lm profile image

      goo2eyes lm 5 years ago

      i think it is pretty accurate or did i sleep during the movie?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Pretty Much Accurate!

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