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Lincoln — Billy the Kid postal station

By Phyllis Eileen Banks

Last updated on Sunday, December 29, 2002

Stage where the "Old Lincoln Days" pageant of Billy the Kid is held. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
Stage where the "Old Lincoln Days" pageant of Billy the Kid is held.
Folklore notes that the main street of Lincoln is 1,000 yards of museums. It is a corner of history that has been missed by the sweep of the 20th Century. Although a living community, it is also a National Historic Landmark. It still resembles the community it was in 1878 following the Lincoln County War. Buildings have been preserved and restored, including the courthouse where Billy the Kid made his famous escape. It is now operated by the New Mexico State Monuments, a division of the Museum of New Mexico that also owns other historic buildings in Lincoln.

The town postmark reads "Billy the Kid Station" because it is known as the Heart of Billy the Kid Country. Volumes upon volumes have been written about the Kid and the Lincoln County War. However, it is much more than either of those.

About 150 people live in this 5,700 foot high community on U.S. Highway 380. Lincoln County is home to about 14,000. Four cultures have influenced Lincoln:  Indian, Spanish, Anglo and Black. Apache Indians were the original inhabitants of the area. The Torreon, a rock fort tower, where settlers hid during Indian raids, still stands in the center of town.

The Hispanic settlers in the 1840s named it Las Placitas and later changed it to Las Placitas del Rio Bonito for the Bonita River flowing through it. Their dwellings were called "jacals" and a representative one is on the grounds of the Heritage Trust. The San Juan Church in Lincoln, built by these pioneers, was dedicated in 1887.

Anglo cattlemen, one of whom was cattle baron John Chisum, began arriving from Texas to take advantage of the growing market for beef. Other merchants like John Tunstall from England with his partner Alexander McSween, L. G. Murphy and James Dolan opened businesses. When Tunstall was murdered near Lincoln that incident touched off the Lincoln County War, a war characterized as a range war and a blood war. Others say it was a fight between business competitors mixed with politics.

General Lew Wallace was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico by President Rutherford B. Hayes to clean up after the war. Nearby Ft. Stanton, home of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Regiment, was involved in protecting the women and children during the siege. The Territorial Legislature of 1869 formed Lincoln County and changed the name of Bonita Plaza to Lincoln. Lew Wallace's famous novel Ben Hur, first published in 1880, was written here.

The non-profit Lincoln County Heritage Trust has been responsible for much of the preservation of Lincoln properties. The Historical Center is one, where visitors may enjoy exhibits of the Apaches, Hispanic, Western Black Cavalry, cowboys and the Lincoln County War. A ten minute video on Lincoln's history is shown in the old-fashioned theatre. Employees also wear the clothing of the 1800s.

Across the courtyard is the Museum Store with books and memorabilia of the area. On the grounds of the Trust is the Columbus Rock, carved during WWII by the crew of the German luxury liner Columbus. They scuttled their ship rather than have it fall into British hands. The crew was rescued from the Atlantic Ocean by a United States ship and interned at Ft. Stanton. The rock was presented as a gesture of friendship to the people of Lincoln.

Pat Garrett was one of the owners of the Lincoln Hotel, now known as the Wortley Pat Garrett Hotel owned by Tim T. Hagaman. It was reconstructed in 1960 and offers old fashioned lace and brass beds for nostalgia buffs.

"Old Lincoln Days" are celebrated the first full weekend in August each year with a reenactment of Billy the Kid's escape, a parade, fiddler's contest and other festivities. A visit to Lincoln is a step back in time. Thanks are due the Lincoln County Heritage Trust for its role in preserving it.

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