The Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid

D Moreno

The Lincoln County War was a war that began between two rivals in the New Mexico Territory in 1878. It became famous because of the participation of old West gunslingers, dishonest sheriffs, cattle ranchers, lawyers, and businessmen. There was lawless violence, and ambitious men that used and misused power to retain their fortunes.

There were two men by the names of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan who owned the only store in Lincoln. At the time Lincoln was one of the largest counties in the New Mexico Territory. In addition to the store, they owned cattle ranches. They had contracts with the military that was stationed at Fort Stanton, and they had political influences with officials in Santa Fe. They were one of the largest merchants who controlled the trade, the economy and had influence over the law. They disliked the small ranchers and farmers in and around Lincoln County. In 1877 a young wealthy Englishman named John Tunstall, came to Lincoln and set up a rival business which infuriated Murphy and Dolan. Tunstall felt he would need protection from Murphy and Dolan and so Tunstall befriended a young man named William H. Bonney aka. Billy the Kid and hired him. Billy had been orphaned at the age of 15, was known to get himself into trouble, later he would be known as an outlaw and gunfighter. Murphy and Dolan’s proprietors had obtained a court order to seize Tunstall’s horses for a payment for a dept, but he refused to give the horses. Lincoln County’s Sherriff William Brady formed a posse who then went to Tunstall’s property, and when he refused the posse, they shot him dead. This was the event that would influence the outbreak of the Lincoln County war in 1878. Billy the kid had liked Tunstall, he had treated Billy good. Billy the Kid swore to get every man who had killed his friend. After the murder of John Tunstall, every road and trail in the area was made a dangerous journey. Tunstall's men, who were now a deputized force, The Regulators, would seek justice for their murdered friend. They would start with killing members of the Evans Gang, who had killed their friend Tunstall. In a series of other events, the Regulators killed Sheriff Brady, other killings would continue for several months, eventually leading up to the battle of Lincoln. This became a five-day gunfight and siege that resulted in the killing of Alex McSween, who was also a friend of the Regulators. The gunfight would scatter the Regulators in different directions, leaving them on the run. Pat Garrett, whom had been a friend of Billy at one time, was named County Sheriff in 1880, and he would eventually hunt down Billy the Kid, and killing two other former Regulators in the process.

William H. Bonney aka Billy the Kid was made to look like he was a villain, a murderer, however many people who knew him have said that he had an easy-going personality, who had a good sense of humor and was always in good spirits. He sought out revenge for a friend who was done wrong by ambitious political men. His legacy continues to fascinate us because his death is controversial, and the facts are conflicting. Maybe it is easier for some people to believe that he escaped assassination and lived to a ripe old age, than to accept conflicting testimony, and because most would like a happy ending.
the only known photo of Billy the KidPublic Domain photo

Nolan, Frederick (2009) [1992]. The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History. Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press

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I write a variety of local, unique and historical articles. Military wife, Mother of two.

Roswell, NM

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