New Mexico September 18, 2016
This One Tiny New Mexico Town Transports You To The Days Of The Wild West
Lincoln, near Ruidoso, is one of the best-preserved towns in New Mexico. You can still see El Torreon, a fortification that the Spanish used during Apache raids. However, the most dramatic part of Lincoln’s history comes later, in the days of The Wild West. That’s when the Lincoln County War turned this small town into a battlefield.
Today, this historic site includes 17 original structures and outbuildings so, as you wander down the street, it’s easy to remember that you’re walking in the footsteps of outlaws like Billy the Kid. In fact, President Rutherford B. Hayes once declared Lincoln’s main drag “the most dangerous street in America.”
The Lincoln County War (1878-1881) was provoked by extreme business rivalry and the quest for money. The two sides were vying for prominence in the beef market and dominance of this part of the state.
In one corner of the ring was Lawrence G. Murphy. He co-owned the Murphy & Dolan mercantile, a saloon and store. It opened in 1874.
It was the only store around so he had a monopoly. If you’re wondering whether Murphy exploited this situation and jacked up prices, the answer is a resounding YES. Murphy had two business partners: James J. Dolan (who owned the house pictured above and below) and John H. Riley.
In the other corner were Alexander McSween and John Henry Tunstall, backed by John Chisum. They opened a competing store, J. H. Tunstall & Co, in 1876 (pictured above).
You can still go inside this store and view original merchandise from the 19th century!
Anyway, back to the conflict... Murphy wanted his competition out. He controlled the local sheriff and his men. So, although there was a semblance of law in Lincoln, it was for sale.
In February 1878, Tunstall was murdered in cold blood, supposedly by Murphy and Dolan’s lackeys. There were several witnesses to this event, including Billy the Kid. The latter and others who'd respected Tunstall swore to get revenge on those responsible for his death. This sparked the Lincoln County War.
The town split into two factions. The gang seeking to avenge Tunstall were called The Regulators. Those on the Murphy/Dolan side included Sheriff Brady and his deputies, along with the Jesse Evans gang. Over the following five months roughly a quarter of Lincoln’s population was murdered. Approximately 19 men died in all.
The Regulators launched their plan for revenge. They lay in wait and, when some of the men who had participated in Tunstall’s killing walked down the main street in Lincoln, they shot two of them to death. One of these men was Sheriff Brady, the other was a deputy.
The Lincoln County War culminated in “The Five Day Battle.” The McSween/Tunstall faction amassed 60 men. Many in the area supported them because they were sick of paying the exorbitant prices at Murphy’s store.
The new sheriff – working for Murphy – installed 40 men in the Wortley Hotel (pictured above).
Scuffles ensued but, on day four, well-armed troops from Fort Stanton showed up. Their role was supposedly to protect the women and children, but they were known to side with Murphy and Dolan. Their arrival escalated the situation.
The sheriff set fire to McSween’s house to force The Regulators out. (This image doesn't depict the actual house which burned to the ground.)
Billy the Kid was one of the men stuck in the slow-burning building. McSween emerged, unarmed and supposedly was trying to surrender when a sheriff’s deputy shot him five times. The deputy was killed that night, along with two more of McSween’s men. All the others got away.
President Hayes was unimpressed by the New Mexico governor’s handling of the situation. He appointed Lew Wallace (pictured) as the new governor. In November 1878, Wallace declared that anyone involved in the Lincoln County War would be granted amnesty. In order to keep his new post, the fighting had to stop.
Billy the Kid had other charges pending against him, so amnesty didn’t help him much. Governor Wallace promised to give a reward of $500 to anyone who captured the outlaw.
Sheriff Pat Garrett did just that. Billy the Kid was sentenced to death by hanging.
He was imprisoned in the Old Lincoln County Courthouse (pictured above).
However, in April 1881, Billy the Kid broke out of jail, slaughtering two guards as he did so. He escaped on horseback.
Pat Garrett eventually tracked him down in Fort Sumner and shot him.
Today, as you walk down Lincoln’s – infinitely safer – main street, you’ll find yourself surrounded by buildings like this…
...And saloons like this...
As you pass El Torreon, you're reminded of the turmoil of Lincoln's early days and of all that followed.
Have you been to Lincoln? If you’d like to go, plan your visit
here. To learn more about some of New Mexico’s most famous and infamous citizens, check out this previous article on legends of The Wild West.