The Lincoln County War

Billy the Kid

Your high school American history teacher probably skipped over the Lincoln County War. Mine did. I’d never heard of it until I was researching an article about Billy the Kid.

The war took place in 1878 in New Mexico which was then a territory of the United States. (It wasn’t admitted as a state until 06 Jan 1912.) The Lincoln County War is what is known as a range war. Range wars are wars which were fought between two different factions, neither of which is a government. Therefore they are undeclared. The reason was generally over the control of open range land by cattlemen but there can be other causes as well. On the other hand, you aren’t any less dead if you get killed during an undeclared war than if you get killed in a declared war.

The Lincoln County War stands out among other range wars because it involved some very notable people:

  • William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid
  • William Brady, a sheriff
  • Pat Garrett, another sheriff who, a few years later, killed Billy the Kid (spoilers)
  • John Chisum, a cattle rancher
  • Alexander McSween, a businessman and lawyer
  • Lawrence Murphy, an organized crime boss

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Pat Garrett

Three movies have been made about this war:

  • The Left-Handed Gun (1958)
  • Chisum (1970) starring John Wayne
  • Young Guns (1988)

One one side of the Lincoln County War we have Lawrence Murphy who, along with his partner, James Dolan, had a monopoly on the sale of dry goods in the county through his store LG Murphy & Company. Murphy maximized his profits by selling beef from rustled cattle.

John Tunstall

Enter English-born John Tunstall who, with partner Alexander McSween and financial backing from cattleman John Chisum, decided to open a competing dry goods store in 1876. There was also a religious aspect to this conflict. The Murphy faction were Irish Catholics and Turnstall’s Protestant. Those two groups were constantly at odds with each other at the time.

The two stores went to court over the competition but the case was dismissed in February of 1878. Murphy and Dolan were able to obtain a court order giving them all of McSween’s goods but they took Turnstall’s also in the process. This may have been an honest mistake but that doesn’t explain what happened next. Sheriff Brady formed a posse with the Jesse Evans Gang to get the rest of Turnstall’s merchandise which he had at his ranch about 70 miles away.

Each side had the support of local businessmen, lawmen, ranch hands and, of course, gangs. Here’s how things line up:

  • The Murphy-Dolan faction allied with Sheriff Brady of Lincoln County and had the support of the Jesse Evans and the John Kinney Gangs.
  • The Tunstall-McSween faction put together their own posse known as the Regulators with their own lawman, the town constable Richard M. Brewer. The Regulators included famed gunslinger Billy the Kid and a variety of others. The Regulators were deputized by the Lincoln County Justice of the Peace.

First the Evans Gang killed Turnstall. An investigation determined that he had been shot in cold blood by Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill. Richard Brewer and Billy the Kid witnessed the murder from a distance. The Regulators got their revenge by killing Sheriff Brady. Much like inner city gang wars today, things escalated and more people died. Events reached a climax at the Battle of Lincoln, a four-day long gunfight in which McSween was killed and the remainder of the  Regulators scattered.

Although Murphy’s side was victorious, things did not return to normal. Turnstall’s murder resulted in Billy the Kid’s vendetta which continued until he was killed by Pat Garrett along with a couple of other former Regulators.

© 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.


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Written by Gary J Sibio

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