Think of tough western towns and Tombstone and Dodge City may come to mind. Lincoln, New Mexico can hold its own when it comes to a wild and wooly reputation.
In the 1870s, the railroad arrived in northern New Mexico, linking Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque to the wider world outside. The rest of New Mexico was still pretty much on its own. Lincoln County, which now consists of 4,831 square miles, then encompassed 22,000 square miles. The law in those parts consisted of one sheriff.
In 1873, L.G. Murphy opened a mercantile store which filled many roles in the small community – general goods purveyor, lender, creditor, wholesaler and middleman between ranchers selling beef to Native Americans and the U.S Army installations. With his fingers in many pies, Murphy with his partner Jimmy Dolan soon controlled the economy in the region.
In 1876, a newcomer to the area, Englishman John Tunstall, arrived to start his own enterprise. He bought cattle, but, lacking U.S. citizenship, had to take a partner, Alexander McSween, who could purchase property.
The Tunstall Store opened in August of 1877, sharing space with McSween’s law office and the newly formed Lincoln County Bank. These enterprises threatened the monopoly that Murphy and his friends held over the town. It wasn’t long before things got ugly – and deadly.
In February of 1878, Murphy and Dolan, claiming that McSween owed them money, got Sheriff, William Brady to take a posse out to Tunstall’s ranch. Murphy and Dolan intended to take some of Tunstall’s cattle as a settlement. In the process, Brady’s posse shot and killed John Tunstall. This was the opening salvo in what became known as the Lincoln County War.
Within weeks, the Lincoln County Justice of the Peace, in retaliation against the Murphy-Dolan faction and Sheriff Brady, appointed Tunstall’s ranch foreman as a constable. Constable Dick Brewer swore in his own posse which included William Bonney – Billy the Kid. The Tunstall faction was known by the name Regulators.
The Regulators rode toward Roswell and captured two of Tunstall’s murderers then headed back to Lincoln. The ride back proved fatal to the captives. The body count now stood at three.
On April 1, the Regulators secreted themselves behind a tall, adobe wall near the Tunstall Store and when Sheriff Brady and his deputies rode down the main street, the Regulators opened fire, killing Brady and fatally wounding one of the deputies. The Regulators high tailed it out of town,
Reaching their destination, Blazer’s Mill on the Mescalero Apache reservation, they ran into another member of the Murphy faction. A gunfight ensued and both the Murphy man and Dick Brewer were killed. Body count: Tunstall team – two, Murphy men – five.
Up to this point, most townsfolk sided with the Tunstall group but with the escalation of violence, the divide between supporters widened.
On July 14, the two groups, whose ranks had swelled to approximately 50 each, occupied a number of buildings along the main street. With shots fired, the stand-off became known as the Five Day War.
On the fifth day, troops from nearby Fort Stanton arrived. Led by Lt. Col. Nathan Dudley, the entourage included a dozen buffalo soldiers, two dozen infantrymen, a 12-pound howitzer and a Gatling gun. Far from trying to restore peace, the soldiers aligned themselves with the Murphy-Dolan crew. Billy and the Regulators, out-gunned, beat a hasty retreat. Alexander McSween, who tried to surrender, was shot on the spot. By this time, the body count was pretty impressive – I don’t have exact numbers.
The road running through Lincoln gained national attention as “the most dangerous street in America,” and President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed General Lew Wallace territorial governor. In his charge, Hayes challenged Wallace to bring peace to Lincoln. In November, the Governor declared an amnesty for all participants.
In February of 1879, a year after Tunstall’s murder, Billy the Kid and other Tunstall combatants returned to Lincoln to meet with what was left of the Dolan contingent (Murphy had sold out and moved away before the Five Day Battle.)
The groups achieved détente and joined in celebratory drinking. Think about it, former enemies, lots of liquor, and guns. Soon the truce as broken and there was another body on the floor. There were, however, no more big battles.
By 1880, the Tunstall store was rented to a new merchant; the Murphy-Dolan store went bankrupt. Attention had been turned to Billy the Kid who had taken up cattle rustling. Captured several times, the Kid was an escape artist. Finally caught and tried, he was taken back to Lincoln to be executed. He escaped once again, but, finally, in 1881 was found and shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett.
“You can’t tell the players without a scorecard,” a line attributed to editorial cartoonist Herblock, applies to the Lincoln story. It wasn’t until going through my notes and collected materials for this story that I felt I had a handle on the history. Now I’d like to revisit Lincoln.
Lincoln is designated a New Mexico Historic Site. It’s one of the most complete, authentic western towns in the country. Many buildings present during this historic period still stand – several turned into interpretive centers or museums.
One of the most interesting is the Tunstall Store Museum. On display are items found in a bolt-hole built under the store where a wounded Regulator was hidden following the shooting of Sheriff Brady. The Murphy-Dolan Store is another highlight. Turned into the county courthouse after the store closed, it was the scene of Billy the Kid’s most dramatic ecape.
For visitors to New Mexico looking for a fascinating site with a big helping of history, Lincoln should be a must-see spot. Lincoln is approximately 500 miles from Edmond but the rich variety of attractions — Roswell, White Sands, Ruidoso and Carlsbad Caverns among others — make this region of the state well-worth the drive.