The Lincoln County War was a cattle war between rival factions in the New Mexico Territory. The war became famous because of its famous gunslingers. Specifically Billy the Kid, Sheriff William J. Brady, John Chisum, Jose Chavez y Chavez Alexander McSween, James Dolan, and Lawrence Murphy.
The war began over the business. John Tunstall was an English-born citizen who intruded on James Dolan's turf. Instead of playing fair, Dolan decided to have Tunstall killed. It was a decision that cost him everything, and began a war.
In November 1876, two capitalists arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico. John Tunstall and Alexander McSween intended to start a cattle ranch, store, and bank in a partnership. However, they ran into a problem known as Lawrence Murphy.
Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan had controlled Lincoln County for years, and he was a profitable cattle rancher who did not want to give any profits away. When Tunstall arrived, he saw him as a threat rather than a competition.
The factions were divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, with the Murphy faction being mostly Irish Catholic, while Tunstall and his allies were mostly English Protestant.
Murphy also had many politicians in his control, which included the Territorial Governor, Territorial Attorney General, and even the entire United States government.
The gang had accumulated their wealth by buying most of their cattle from rustlers rather than reputably ranchers.
Fritz Insurance Policy
The main event that led up to the beginning of the Lincoln County War was controversy over the disbursement of Emil Fritz's insurance policy. Emil Fritz was a partner of L. G. Murphy.
When he died in 1874, the executors of the estate hired Alexander McSween to collect his insurance policy. After collecting the policy, McSween refused to turn over the money to the executor of the estate because The House claimed that the money was owed to them as debt, and McSween suspected that the executor of the estate would turn the money over to them.
McSween also knew how badly strapped for cash the House was and, as a business competitor, was likely loathed to see the money go to them, whether their claim was legitimate or not.
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.
Sheriff Brady formed a posse to attack Tunstall's remaining assets at his ranch 70 miles from Lincoln. 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.
John Tunstall's Death
On February 18, 1878, members of Sheriff Brady's posse caught up with Tunstall while he and his ranch hands were herding his last nine horses back to Lincoln.
Brady's posse pulled their weapons on Tunstall and murdered him while his farm hands witnessed from a distance. Those farm hands were: Richard "Dick" Brewer, John Middleton, Henry Newton Brown, Robert A. Widenmann, Fred Waite, and the notorious Billy The Kid.
Jesse Evans, one of Murphy's men, was the culprit in the shooting. This murder catalyzed the Lincoln County War. It would soon become a national issue.
John Tunstall was a well-liked man, and his death caused many uprisings.
His cowhands and other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to bring justice to his murder; however, since New Mexico was still a territory, the entire criminal justice system was controlled by allies of Murphy and Dolan, who were the men responsible for Tunstall's death.
This did not deter the Regulators, who were made up of many men at different times but held the same core. That core was: Billy the Kid, 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, and Henry Newton Brown.
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 running gunfight on the condition that he and his fellow deputy sheriff, Frank Baker - who had no part in the Tunstall murder but was riding with Morton and Lloyd - 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. One Regulator, William McCloskey, who was a friend of Morton's, resisted such action
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. 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.
Nolan writes that Morton took ten bullets, and Baker was shot five times.
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.
Dealing with Sheriff 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.
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.
Battle of Blazer's Mill
Three days after Brady was taken care of, the Regulators headed southwest from Lincoln and reached Blazer's Mill.
Blazer's Mill was an important destination during this time because it was a trading post. During this time, they came upon the rancher Buckshot Roberts.
Buckshot Roberts was listed on the warrant list of men who participated in the murder of John Tunstall. This resulted in a famous shootout where Buckshot Roberts took on the Regulators by himself.
Roberts was killed during the exchange, but he took Richard Brewer with him. He also wounded Middleton, Scurlock, Coe, and McCarty.
After the death of their leader, Richard Brewer, the Regulators elected Frank McNab as their leader.
On April 29, 1878, Sheriff Peppin led his posse, including the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, towards the Regulators. When they arrived, a shootout between the two factions occurred.
McNab was killed in the fight, and other members were wounded or captured.
The next day, the Seven Rivers members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson, and John Galvin were killed in Lincoln. This has never been attached to the Regulators. However, it is ironic that many of their enemies quickly lay dead.
The capture of Frank Coe escape custody shortly after.
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 Jesse Evans 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 soon became Bonney's closest friend
Battle of Lincoln
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.
Over the next three days, the men exchanged shots and words. Tom Cullens, one of the men aiding the Regulators, was killed by a stray bullet, and the Dolans lost Charlie Crawford in their ranks.
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.
On the afternoon of July 19, the 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.
Later that evening, Billy the Kid and Jim French figured out a way to escape using gunfire. The men, along with others, began their escape and were able to get away except for one, Harvey Morris, who was killed.
Some troopers moved into the backyard to take those left into custody when a close-quarters gunfight erupted. Alexander McSween and the Seven Rivers cowboy Bob Beck both died. Three other Mexican Regulators got away in the confusion to rendezvous with the "iron-clad" members yards away.
There was little justice served in the war. The men who fought on either side ended up as fugitives and, in the case of Billy the Kid, notorious.
Murphy died of cancer the same year as the war at the age of 47. So, despite his wealth and power, it meant very little. Dolan was indicted for the murder of Tunstall and was released. He would acquire Tunstall's property but would die in 1898 at the age of 47.
The only bright side of this war was Susan McSween. She was the wife of Alexander McSween, and while her husband's story ended during the Lincoln County War, her's was just getting started.
She became one of the greatest cattle ranchers in the West and averaged 3,000 - 5,000 head of cattle. At the age of 85, she died as one of the wealthiest women in the West.