Pale Horse Revelations - #35 The Lincoln County War
Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.
In this week's edition we turn our attention to the event that made Billy the Kid famous, the Lincoln County War. This bloody conflict has been the subject of numerous films over the years, the most recent being 1988's Young Guns. While this is admittedly one of my favorite westerns, as we learned during our exploration of Doc Scurlock, it was not particularly accurate from a historical perspective. But like any good film based on historical events it did inspire me to dig deeper. Here's what I discovered:
As the film accurately depicts, the war was essentially an armed conflict between two factions vying for profits in dry goods and cattle interests. On one side were James Dolan and LG Murphy. One the other were John Tunstall and Alexander McSween, who were backed financially by cattle baron John Chisum.
John Tunstall was a wealthy Englishman who arrived in Lincoln in November of 1876. At the time of his arrival the county was dominated both financially and politically by Dolan and Murphy. The two owned the only store in the county, which was known locally as "The House." Tunstall intended to develop a ranch, mercantile store, and bank along with his partner McSween, a local lawyer. Not surprisingly, Dolan and Murphy did not look favorably upon this upstart challenging their status and competing for their profits.
Both sides quickly gathered supporters to their cause. Among them were lawmen, politicians, businessmen, and known criminals. Murphy and Dolan lent thousands of dollars to the territorial governor and the Territorial Attorney General held the mortgage on their company. They also had county sheriff William Brady and the Jesse Evans Gang on their payroll. On Tunstall and McSween's side were, then unknown, Billy the Kid, Doc Scurlock, town constable Richard "Dick" Brewer, and numerous others.
Completely ignored by the film were the ethically questionable actions of McSween in the handling of Emil Fritz's insurance policy. More than anything, his actions helped ignite the Lincoln County War. Emil Fritz was a partner of LG Murphy's. When he died in 1874 Alexander McSween was hired by the executors of his will to collect on the insurance policy. After collecting the money McSween refused to turn it over to the executors. His motivation for withholding the funds were the claims of Dolan and Murphy that the money was owed to them as debt. McSween feared that the executors would turn the money over to his archrivals. At this time The House was in desperate need of cash and McSween likely wanted to keep the funds away from his business rivals.
In February 1878 Murphy and Dolan managed to secure a court order to seize all of McSween's assets. Tunstall's assets were mistakenly included in the court order. Sheriff Brady formed a posse to seize the assets from Tunstall's ranch, seventy miles outside of Lincoln. The posse included the Jesse Evans Gang, John Kinney Gang, and the Seven Rivers Warriors.
The posse caught up with Tunstall on February 18th, 1878, while he and several of his men were herding his last nine horses back to Lincoln. A special investigator would later determine that Tunstall was shot in cold blood by Jesse Evans, William Morton, and Tom Hill. The murder was witnessed from a distance by several of Tunstall's men, including Billy the Kid and Dick Brewer.
Because the criminal justice system in the territory was controlled by Murphy and Dolan, Tunstall's ranch hands and local citizens joined together to form the Lincoln County Regulators to avenge his murder. The regulators included dozens of American and Mexican cowboys who came and went over the course of the conflict. At the heart of the group were a dozen or so men known as "the ironclad." This group included Dick Brewer, Billy the Kid, Doc Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, George and Frank Coe, Tom O'Falliard, and Jose Chavez y Chavez.
The Regulators were deputized by the local justice of the peace and set out to serve the legally issued warrants for Tunstall's killers. Sheriff Brady responded by arresting the deputies but was unable to hold them. The Regulators apprehended Buck Morton and Dick Lloyd along with Frank Baker, who had no involvement with Tunstall's murder. Three days later Morton, Baker, and fellow Regulator William McCloskey, were shot and killed in the Capitan Mountains near Blackwater Creek. The Regulators claimed that Morton killed McCloskey and tried to escape, forcing them to gun down both Morton and Baker. Few believed them for multiple reasons. First, McCloskey and Morton were friends, and it seems unlikely that Morton would kill the only person in the group not eager to shed his blood. Second is the fact that both Morton and Baker were shot eleven times, once for each Regulator present. It is much more likely that the Regulators decided to carry out their own brand of justice and killed McCloskey for opposing them. Later that day the two other men identified as Tunstall's killers, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill were shot while trying to rustle sheep in nearby Tularosa. Evans was killed and Hill was severely injured.
Brady sought assistance from the Territorial Attorney General, who brought the matter to the Territorial Governor, Sammual Axtell. Axtell decreed that the justice of the peace had been appointed illegally making his deputization of the Regulators and the warrants that they were serving null and void. As a result, their previously legal actions suddenly became illegal. Axtell also took steps to make Brady and his deputies the only legitimate law enforcement officers in the county.
On April 1, 1878, Brady and his deputies were ambushed on the main street of Lincoln by Billy the Kid and fellow Regulators (none of whom were those depicted in the film). Brady was shot at least a dozen times. Deputy George Hindman was also mortally wounded in the assault. For unknown reasons Billy the Kid and fellow Regulator Jim French broke from cover and rushed toward Brady's body. A surviving deputy managed to wound both men with a single shot that passed through them both. French was severely wounded and had to be harbored by a local supporter until able to travel.
Three days later the Regulators set out for Glazer's Mill, a sawmill and trading post that supplied beef to the Mescalero Apache. There they encountered rancher Buckshot Roberts. While the film depicts Roberts as a bounty hunter who came after the Regulators, he was actually one of the men listed on the arrest warrant for Tunstall's murder. Roberts was killed in the ensuing gunfight. However, before succumbing to his wounds he managed to kill Brewer and wound Middelton, Scurlock, Coe, and the Kid.
The next skirmish occurred on April 29, 1878, when Sheriff Pippen and a posse that included members of the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors caught up with several Regulators at the Fritz ranch. Newly elected Regulator Captain Frank McNab was killed, and another was badly wounded. Frank Coe was captured. The next day four members of the Seven Rivers Warriors were ambushed and killed in Lincoln. Although the Regulators were assumed to be responsible this was never proven. Frank Coe managed to escape custody with the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Wallace Olinger, who gave him a gun.
The "ironclad" Regulators then took up defensive positions around Lincoln and traded shots with Murphy-Dolan supporters. The following month Regulators caught up with Manuel Segovia, who was suspected of killing McNab. Segovia was shot and killed while allegedly attempting to escape.
The Lincoln County War concluded with the Battle of Lincoln. The battle began on July 15, 1878, when Regulators were surrounded by members of the Murphy-Dolan faction. Young Guns culminates with this battle, but only gets it partly correct. In addition to the Regulators holed up in the McSween house, a second group was surrounded while inside the Ellis store. At the store were Scurlock, Bowdre, Middleton, Frank Coe, and several others. At the McSween house were the Kid, McSween and his wife, Henry Brown, Jim French, O'Falliard, Chavez y Chavez, George Coe, and a dozen Mexican vaqueros. There were also twenty Mexican Regulators commanded by Josefita Chavez positioned throughout town. The two groups traded shots and threats over the next three days.
The stalemate was broken by the arrival of Federal troops. The troops began aiming cannons at the Ellis store and other positions prompting Scurlock and Chavez to retreat along with their men. Those in the McSween house were left to their fate. On the fourth day, July 19, 1878, the Murphy-Dolan faction set fire to the house. Susan McSween, along with the other women in the house, and five children were granted safe passage. At around 9PM that night the men decided to make a break for it, utilizing pistol fire for cover. Jim French was the first out the back door followed by the Kid, O'Falliard, and Chavez y Chavez. The Dolan men saw them and opened fire but managed only to kill McSween's law partner.
The Federal troops then moved toward the back yard to capture those remaining. A close quarter gunfight broke out and McSween was killed along with Seven Rivers member Bob Beckwith. Three Mexican Regulators managed to escape amidst the chaos. This effectively ended the Lincoln County War.
Most of the Regulators scattered across the neighboring states. The Kid, O'Falliard, Bowdre, and Dave Rudabaugh would continue to rustle cattle and commit other crimes together over the next several years. In 1881 Pat Garrett and his posse would eventually track down and kill the three former Regulators (on separate occasions). We'll circle back to Rudabaugh in a future edition of Pale Horse Revelations.
LG Murphy died of cancer on October 20, 1878, at the age of forty-seven. Dolan was eventually indicted for Tunstall's murder but was acquitted. He managed to acquire all of Tunstall's property before dying in 1898. Susan McSween established a large ranch in Three Rivers, New Mexico, where she kept between 3,000 and 5,000 head of cattle. She was a very wealthy woman at the time of her death on January 3, 1931, at the age of eighty-five.
This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.
As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found near the bottom of my home page (www.bmiltonhyde.com) and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.
Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.