2/18/1878 - A single death on this day proves to be the spark that ignites what Western historians call the Lincoln County War ... a battle between rival factions for control of the New Mexican region that will last until July of 1878, see numerous back-and-forth revenge killings, feature a five-day siege of a Lincoln store, and turn an unknown young cowboy named William Bonney (or Henry McCarty if that is your preference) into the outlaw legend, Billy the Kid.
Billy The Kid
The conflict that will cost many lives and fortunes before its completion, results from antagonisms that develop when the control of the area's ranching and dry goods interests (and contracts to supply the military with beef) begin to be challenged in 1876 by a disparate triumvirate seeking to break the monopoly ... a threesome made up of wealthy 24-year-old English businessman John Tunstall, 35-year-old Canadian lawyer and merchant Alexander McSween, and 53-year-old cattle rancher John Chisum (his spread contains over 100,000 cattle). A very formidable group facing a ruthless foe in the form of what is called "The House" ... a name for the members of those in support of the ongoing criminal activities of the Murphy-Dolan interests in New Mexico.
Tunstall, McSween, and Chisum
Named for its creator, 47-year-old Lawrence Murphy from Ireland, and his business partner, 30-year-old Union Army veteran James Dolan, the Murphy-Dolan gang makes big money off the region starting in 1869 with the establishment of L. G. Murphy & Co. Soaking local farmers and ranchers with high prices as the only game in town (with their tentacles into the entire territory as part of what is called the "Santa Fe Ring" that includes rancher Thomas Catron, a rancher with a spread of 3,000,000 acres, who also happens to be attorney general, district attorney William Rynerson, territorial judge Warren Bristol, and territorial governor Samuel Beach Axtell) ... and wanting their monopoly to remain as is, they are not happy when their rivals open J. H. Tunstall & Co. in 1876. Not happy to the extent that when their foes won't back down, they begin hiring as cowboys, outlaws and killers from the Seven River Warriors, the Jesse Evans Gang (of which Billy the Kid was a former member), and the John Kinney Gang (actions that Tunstall and friends react to by hiring their own gunmen, a group that will call themselves The Regulators and includes the Kid, Tom O'Folliard, Jose Chavez y Chavez, Richard Brewer, Frank McNab, Charlie Bowdrie, Jim French, George and Frank Coe, and Doc Scurlock).
Murphy, Dolan, Catron, And Jesse Evans (With Friend)
Mix those circumstances with "we were here first" attitudes, one side being composed mostly of Irish Catholics, while the other come from Protestant backgrounds, the fact that McSween once served as a Murphy-Dolan lawyer, and a trumped up case (later dismissed) that results in a court order to attach McSween's assets, and the bloodshed that will take place becomes inevitable ... especially when the court order is misused to also grab the assets of the Tunstall ranch.
Lincoln, New Mexico
Posse dispatched on 2/18/1878 to put Tunstall out of business one way or another, when the gunmen for Murphy-Dolan arrive at the ranch and find its owner not home, a smaller group leaves the ranch and goes in search of Tunstall and any of his cowboys seeking trouble. Unaware of what is happening back at the ranch, Tunstall and a group of his ranch hands, that includes Billy the Kid, are leisurely riding to Lincoln with a small group of nine horses. Pursued and caught a few miles out of town in an area of scrub timber, the posse opens fire without warning on Tunstall and his men, scattering the riders (who gallop off to a hillside overlooking the trail into town). Brave to a fault or just plain stupid, instead of escaping into a better position also where he can defend himself, Tunstall stays with his horses and surrenders to the "deputies" that confront him ... Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill. But surrender isn't what the trio is looking for and Tunstall is gunned down by a rifle bullet to the chest and a revolver (a killing witnessed by his men on the hill) round through the back of his head. Killing complete, the trio then fires Tunstall's pistol and arranges the body to match the story the men will tell of the rancher resisting arrest ... a story bought by authorities under the control of the Murphy-Dolan faction, no charges are filed against the threesome for Tunstall's death.
War! Tunstall's murder incites both sides into an open clash that will have Morton and Hill (and Frank Baker) murdered near Blackwater Creek in another "attempted escape" killing of individuals already disarmed and in custody (Morton will be shot ten times, and Hill goes down with five pieces of lead in his body), the ambush assassination by Billy and his Regulator buddies of Lincoln Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George W. Hindman (blaming the pair for Tunstall's death), the deaths of Buckshot Roberts (Murphy-Dolan) and Richard Brewer (Tunstall) in a gun battle at a trading post called Blazer's Mill, a gunfight at the local Fritz ranch that results in the death of Frank McNab, gunnings in Lincoln that take the lives of several Murphy-Dolan men, and the five-day Battle of Lincoln that results in the death McSween as he flees his burning home and store. Weary of the killings, many of the bitter combatants already dead, and the United States government involved in the form of a new governor being appointed by President Grant (Civil War general and soon-to-be Ben Hur author, Lew Wallace) and sent to New Mexico to put the war to an end, the clash peters out in July of 1878 (Murphy will grab all of Tunstall's ranch, but dies of cancer soon after, while Dolan drinks himself to death on his ranch by the age of 49) without a clear cut winner.
The End Of The Battle Of Lincoln
There is however one huge living loser when the war ends (but not for long) ... Mr. William Bonney, who will surrender to authorities under the promise of a pardon by Governor Wallace for providing testimony about the murder of attorney Huston Chapman by members of the Murphy-Dolan faction, have the pardon reneged on, form a gang of rustling outlaws, see his best friend, Charlie Bowdre, killed when Sheriff Pat Garrett and posse mistake him for the Kid, get caught, tried for the murder, and be sentenced to death for the Brady ambush (legend has the judge sentencing Billy to hang until he is "dead, dead, dead," to which the outlaw responds, "Go to hell, hell, hell."), and kill Lincoln deputies James Bell and Bob Ollinger escaping the Lincoln jail, before being killed by Garrett at the home of Pete Maxwell on 7/14/1881 at the age of only 21.
Newly Discovered Photo Believed To Be Of Billy The Kid
2/18/1878, and with the murder of rancher John Tunstall, the Lincoln County War begins!
The Kid And Richard Brewer