Lincoln County War

Lincoln County War

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = Lincoln County War
date = February 18 to July 19, 1878
place = Lincoln County, New Mexico, United States
result = Indecisive
combatant1 = Ranchers
combatant2 = Regulators
commander1 = Lawrence Murphy
James Dolan John Kinney
commander2 = Billy the Kid
Richard Brewer
Doc Scurlock
strength1 = More than the Regulators
strength2 = 46 (usually less)
casualties1 = 14 killed, 2 wounded
casualties2 = 8 killed, 7 wounded

The Lincoln County War was a 19th century conflict between two entrenched factions in America's western frontier. The "war" was between a faction led by wealthy ranchers and another faction led by the wealthy owners of the monopolistic general store in Lincoln County, New Mexico. A notable combatant on the side of the ranchers was William Henry McCarty (alias William H. Bonney), who is better known to history as Billy the Kid.

The Lincoln County War begins

In 1878, a few months after William Henry McCarty was hired by cattle rancher John Tunstall, violence broke out. The House proprietors Dolan and Riley obtained a court order to seize some of Tunstall's horses as payment for an outstanding debt. The posse formed to recover the horses contained many criminals, most members of a gang of outlaws known as "The Regulators", led by a transplanted Texas desperado named Jessie Evans. At one time, a youthful Billy the Kid had been a member of the gang, as was outlaw William Bresnahan, better known as Curly Bill Brocius, who would shoot to infamy as the nemesis of lawman Wyatt Earp. Murphy-Dolan also enlisted the John Kinney Gang.

On February 18, 1878, members of the Dolan posse cornered Tunstall in rural Lincoln County. When the rancher challenged the deputies, he was shot dead by Jessie Evans, William Morton, Frank Baker and Tom Hill. Tunstall's murder was witnessed from a distance by several of his men, including Billy the Kid.

Tunstall's surviving cowhands were deputized to apprehend his killers. Thus known as the Regulators, they sought to avenge his murder and further the interests of Tunstall's partners, Alexander McSween and John Chisum. 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". They were; Billy the Kid, Richard Brewer, Frank McNab, Doc Scurlock, Jim French, John Middleton, George Coe and Frank Coe, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, Fred Waite, and Henry Brown.

The Regulators immediately set out to apprehend the Dolan cowboys on their arrest warrants. First and foremost was William Morton, who was caught in the countryside near the Rio Peñasco. Morton surrendered after a five mile (8 km) running gunfight on the condition that Morton and his fellow deputy sheriff, Frank Baker (who, though he had no part in the Tunstall slaying, had been captured with Morton [Robert Utley, "Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life" (1989), pg. 56] ) would be returned alive to Lincoln. Even though Regulator captain Dick Brewer admitted he would have preferred to have killed them, he gave the two his assurance they would be safely transported to Lincoln. However some Regulators insisted on doing away with their prisoners. Their efforts were balked by one of their own, William McCloskey, a friend of Morton.

On March 9, 1878, the third day of the journey back to Lincoln, in the Capitan foothills along the Blackwater Creek, McCloskey, Morton, and Baker were all killed. The Regulators claimed that Morton had murdered McCloskey, then tried to escape with Baker, forcing them to kill their two prisoners. This story was not believed by most of their contemporaries, who found the idea that Morton would have killed his only friend in the group implausible [Utley, "Billy the Kid", pg. 59] . The fact that the bodies of Morton and Baker each bore eleven bullet holes, one for each Regulator, underscored suspicions that they had been deliberately murdered by their captors, and that McCloskey had lost his life for opposing it. [Ibid, pgs. 59-60.] Coincidentally, on this very same day Tunstall's other two killers, Tom Hill and Jesse Evans, were put out of action while trying to rob a sheep drover near Tularosa, New Mexico. In the gun battle, Hill was killed and Evans severely wounded. While Evans was in Fort Stanton for medical treatment, he was arrested on an old federal warrant for stealing stock from an Indian reservation.

Killing of Sheriff Brady, Gunfight of Blazer's Mill

On April 1, 1878 Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown and Billy the Kid ambushed Sheriff William J. Brady and his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. Brady died of at least a dozen gunshot wounds, and Deputy George W. Hindman was hit twice, fatally. Once the shooting stopped, Billy the Kid and Jim French broke cover and dashed to Sheriff Brady's body, either to get his arrest warrant for Alex McSween or to steal his rifle. A surviving deputy, Billy Matthews, wounded both men with a rifle bullet that passed through each of their legs. French was wounded enough to the point where he couldn't ride, having to be hidden temporarily by Sam Corbet in a crawlspace in Corbet's house.

Just three days after the murders of Brady and Hindman, the Regulators headed southwest from the immediate area around Lincoln, ending up at Blazer's Mills, a sawmill and trading post that supplied beef to the Mescalero Indians. Here, they blundered into rancher Buckshot Roberts, whose name was on their arrest warrant. In the ensuing gunfight, known as the Gunfight of Blazer's Mills, Roberts was mortally wounded, but not before killing Regulator captain Dick Brewer and wounding John Middleton, Doc Scurlock, and George Coe, along with shooting Charlie Bowdre in the gunbelt, and grazing Billy the Kid, the bullet not even breaking the skin.

Following Sheriff Brady's death, John Copeland was appointed to replace him. However, when Copeland refused to side with either faction, opting to remain neutral and deal with both factions accordingly, Murphy-Dolan used their influence to have him removed and replaced by George Peppin, a Murphy-Dolan symathizer and employee.

Killing of Frank McNab, Regulator reaction

After Brewer's death, Frank McNab was elected captain of the Regulators. On April 29th, 1878, a posse including the Jessie Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors, under the direction of Sheriff Peppin, engaged Regulators Frank McNab, Ab Saunders, and Frank Coe in a shootout at the Fritz Ranch. McNab was killed in a hail of gunfire, with Saunders being badly wounded, and Frank Coe captured. On April 30th, 1878, Seven Rivers members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson and John Galvin were killed in Lincoln, and although the Regulators were blamed, that was never proven, and there were feuds going on inside the Seven Rivers Warriors at that time. Frank Coe escaped custody some time after his capture, although it is not clear exactly when, allegedly with the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Wallace Olinger, who also gave him a pistol.

What is known about the morning following McNab's death is that the Regulator "iron clad" took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, trading shots with Dolan men as well as U.S. cavalrymen. The only casualty was Dutch Charley Kruling, a Dolan man wounded by a rifle slug fired by George Coe at a distance of convert|440|yd. By shooting at government troops, the Regulators gained their animosity and a whole new set of enemies. On May 15th, the Regulators tracked down Seven Rivers gang member Manuel Segovia, who is believed to have shot McNab, with him being gunned down by Billy the Kid and Josefita Chavez. 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 become Billy the Kid's best friend and constant sidekick.

The Battle of Lincoln

See main article: Battle of Lincoln, New Mexico

Into the summer, the large confrontation between the two forces materialized 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 Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, John Middleton, Frank Coe, and several others. About twenty 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 cowboys.

Over the next three days, shots and shouts were exchanged but nothing approached an all-out fight. One fatality was one of the McSween defenders, Tom Cullens, killed by a stray bullet. Another was Dolan cowboy Charlie Crawford, shot at a distance of convert|500|yd 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 remained until the arrival of U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Nathan Dudley. Upon firing cannons at the Ellis store and other positions, Doc Scurlock and his men broke from their positions, as did Josefita Chavez's cowboys, leaving those left in the McSween house to their fate.

By the afternoon of July 19, the house was set afire. As the flames spread and night fell, Susan McSween was granted safe passage out of the house while the men inside continued to fight the fire. By 9 o'clock, those left inside got set to break out the back door of the burning house. Jim French went out first, followed by Billy the Kid, Tom O'Folliard, and Jose Chavez y Chavez. The Dolan men saw the running men 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. Alex McSween was killed, as was Seven Rivers cowboy Bob Beckwith. Francisco Zamora and Vicente Romero were killed as well, and Yginio Salazar was shot in the back, while three other Mexican Regulators got away in the confusion, to rendezvous with the iron clad members yards away.


Ultimately, the Lincoln County War accomplished little other than to foster distrust and animosity in the area and to make fugitives out of the surviving Regulators, most notably Billy the Kid. Gradually, his fellow gunmen scattered to their various fates, and he was left with Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, Dave Rudabaugh, and a few other friends with whom he rustled cattle and committed other crimes.

Eventually Pat Garrett and his posse tracked down and killed Tom O'Folliard, Charlie Bowdre, and later Billy the Kid himself in July 1881. All three were buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

ee also

*"Young Guns"
*Bob Dylan's song, Señor, from the album Street-Legal, which includes the line: "Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we're headin' / Lincoln County road or Armageddon?" (The Spanish traditionally refer to God as "Señor.")


*"Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life", by Robert M. Utley, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
* [ Seven Rivers Riders]
* [ Battle of Lincoln]
* [ Old West Gunfighters]
* [ Legends of the West, Lincoln County War]
* [ Lincoln County War, Competition Wasn't Welcome]

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