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The Lincoln County War (1878-79) — Competition Wasn't Welcome

By Bill Kelly

Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2003

Gov. Lew Wallace issued amnesty for participants on both sides of the fracas. Photo courtesy State Historical Society of New Mexico
Gov. Lew Wallace issued amnesty for participants on both sides of the fracas 

Nomad Indians dominated Lincoln County's population, but it had also been inhabited for hundreds of years along the Rio Grande and its branch by casual settlers. For many years, New Mexico was looked upon by politicians in Washington as an abandoned puppy among the states and territories. In 1874, General Tecumseh Sherman, testifying before the senate committee, thundered from the pulpit, "ownership of the Territory of New Mexico is not worth the cost of defense."

In 1849, the U.S. Government paid $10,000,000 to the State of Texas to settle the boundary dispute between New Mexico and Texas, spending a small fortune to keep a curb on the ferocious Indians and ruthless cutthroats widespread in the territory. In 1863, the Territory of Arizona was established by cutting off the western half of New Mexico. At the same time the uncivilized boundaries between New Mexico and Colorado were straightened. Arizona depended on the courage and gunslinging skills of imported peace officers along with the full and uncompromising support of the citizenry.

John Henry Tunstall had just turned 23 when he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and aligned himself with Alexander Sween, an attorney, and John Chisum, one of the West’s most prosperous cattlemen, who had pushed his Long Rail brand and jinglebob herds into the Pecos Valley in the early 1870s. Born and raised in England, Tunstall observed that land could be bought cheap in New Mexico, and he could make a sizeable fortune on terra firma and livestock. In the wildest reaches of the Southwest, where government was rudimentary or nonexistent, a special breed of men flourished against superior odds, and Tunstall, "the wealthy Englishman," was one of these men.

The chaos that followed on the heels of Tunstall’s arrival spawned a gunfighting subspecies that pitted the Tunstall-Chisum-McSween factions against a solitary businessman named Lawrence Murphy, owner of a huge general store called The House. Murphy controlled the law in town, along with everything else. He eventually sold his establishment to two Irishmen, named John Riley and J.J. Dolan, who then held most of the trump cards.

The Tunstall-Chisum-McSween faction objected to the idea that mere merchants should have control of government contracts for supplying beef to Army posts and Indian reservations. The crooked, influential officials were known as the Santa Fe Ring, and consisted of corrupt Republican officeholders who kept profits on contracts sky-high to feather their own nests. Various small ranchers turned against Chisum, for occupying public gazing for his great herds. Collectively, the small ranchers sided with owners of The House.

Tunstalll was badly mistaken if he thought The House was going to stand idly by and let him erect his general merchandise store in Lincoln. Competition wasn't welcome.

This Flying H. Ranch became John Tunstall's headquarters in 1877 when he, joined by Billy the Kid and others, started construction of his house.  Photo courtesy the author's collection
This Flying H. Ranch became John Tunstall's headquarters in 1877 

In the fall of 1877, gun-proud Billy the Kid joined up with Tunstall. Tunstall hired Dick Brewer, who had a common interest in horse-breeding, to look after his ranch, presumably on the theory that he was best equipped to handle his own kind. Born in Vermont, Brewer, a big man with cannon arms, was raised in Wisconsin, and migrated to Los Feliz River in Lincoln County when his wife ran off with another man. Here, he worked hard and kept to himself, having few outside friends and trusting no one. Since fighters of the Lincoln County War were recruited from the ranks of the toughest gunfighters available - men who could not only shoot straight, but also ride hard and long - Brewer’s involvement was an enduring one.

The July 19, 1878, fracas could hardly have been avoided, because skulduggery in high places dictated that the proprietors of The House obtain a court order attaching some of Tunstall’s livestock as payment of a so-called unsettled debt. When Tunstall refused to turn the animals over, Sheriff William Brady - who kowtowed to the House faction, put hot-tempered Billy Morton personally in charge of tracking down and apprehending Tunstall’s livestock. Even an impartial observer would have conceded that Brady’s choice of Morton had been at best ill-starred.

The Kid and several Tunstall riders took to their heels when they saw the posse approaching, well armed and riding hard. They were close enough to see Tunstall stand his ground and order the posse off his property. They were close enough to see Jesse Evans shoot Tunstall through the chest. While he was on the ground, Morton took Tunstall’s gun from its scabbard and shot him through the head, then mashed Tunstall’s skull with the butt of his own rifle.

Dick Brewer had been appointed special constable by the justice of the peace to serve murder warrants on Tunstall’s killers. At dawn, scores of mounted men gathered, consisting of Tunstall supporters who called themselves "Regulators." They were carrying six-guns, rifles, and shotguns, and were weighted down with available ammunition. Instinctively, each man knew that the object was to get Tunstall’s cowardly killers. Tired mounts swam rivers and climbed up steep mountains, galloping toward Lincoln.

On June 1, 1878, the Las Vegas Gazette published an editorial reflecting on the incident:

     "The newspapers are warming up over the Lincoln County troubles. Bitter speeches and harsh
     epithets are in order. Keep your temper, gentlemen. Exercise charity, practice Christian patience,
     and don’t allow yourselves to be drawn into this whirlpool of violent words and still more violent
     deeds. A disgraceful, lawless, local feud should not be allowed to spread through the whole
     territory, like the small pox. Just let it die down within the limits of Lincoln County. It really
     concerns only a few persons, who, if left to themselves, are not likely to injure each other by
     violence. It was been a constant interference by outside parties which has raised hell. Better
     quickly ignore all correspondence from, and concerning Lincoln County, and see how quickly the
     troubled waters will sink to rest."

On March 2, 1878, the Regulators, with Charley Bowdre, Dick Brewer, Doc Scurlock and William Bonney swung leather, and galloped across the hard-scrabble land in search of the swaggering ruffians who gunned down Tunstall. Four days later they captured Frank Baker and Billy Morton. They shot them execution-style and left them for the buzzards in the Seven Rivers district.

When the glorifiers of the west get together, the story always gets around to the day the Regulators happened upon Andrew "Buckshot" Roberts, and the gunfight at Blazer’s Mill on the Tularosa. Bowdre had an abiding dislike for Roberts, so he shot him in the groin. But Roberts didn’t die easy. He killed John Middleton and Dick Brewer and wounded George Coe, before he crossed the Great Divide. Ironically, Roberts had nothing to do with killing Tunstall.

Curiously, the Lincoln County authorities failed to charge Charlie Bowdre with the Roberts murder. However, on April 12, 1878, a Grand Jury warrant was issued against him in Cause #411, and then he was a man on the dodge with a price on his head.

For the most part, these bands of riders were organized in a quasi-military fashion and exercised their own judgment as to methods of disposing of their enemies. A typical incident was Billy the Kid’s disposal of Sheriff Brady, which took place on April Fool’s Day, 1878. This lethal showdown made Billy the Kid famous far beyond his locality, and never mind that most of the Kid’s victim’s were either ambushed or unarmed, and his other Lincoln County shootings were bloodied with assaults that were utterly vicious and capricious.

The Regulators never gave up in hunting down Tunstall’s killers. On April 1, 1878, Sheriff Brady and two deputies, George Hindman and Billie Mathews were walking down the street opposite the courthouse when several men opened fire from behind an adobe wall. They were Billy the Kid, Charlie Bowdre, Fred Wayte, Tom O’Folliard and Frank Nab. Pistols and six guns spat lead, and Brady and Hindman fell. Mathews ran like crazy and made it to safety. While Billy was a good shot, he was given credit for all the killings, bringing his tally closer to the famous "21." But as in most of Billy’s killings, there were no heroics in this encounter.

On May 9, 1878, they tracked Manuel Segovia to Jimmy Dolan’s Seven River’s cowcamp in the immense wilderness, and shot him fuller of holes than a sieve.

McSween was then in the splendid position of placing his own law enforcement in Lincoln County, and the Dolan faction wasn’t strong enough to oust the McSween forces until soldiers from adjacent Ft. Stanton chased McSween’s men out of town. On the night of July 19, 1878, McSween’s house went up in flames, and as the occupants fled from the house, they were shot down. McSween was killed. Others escaped, including Billy the Kid, who later united with Bowdre. With McSween’s death, the monumental feud was declared officially over.

However, it was plain that anyone who had sided with McSween was no longer safe in Lincoln County, and as vigilante committees formed, those threatened with mayhem headed for the high country. On August 5, 1878, Billy the Kid, Jim French, Henry Brown, Charlie Bowdre, John Middleton, Ignacio Gonzales, Fernando Herrera, Esiquio Sanchez, and Atanacio Martinez rode to the Mescalero Indian Reservation hell-bent on swiping fresh horses speedy enough to outrun any posse. The Anglos stopped to rest their horses, while the others kept going. Reservation Clerk Morris Bernstein spotted them, and wanted to know what they were doing. Martinez shot him through the heart. Although everyone knew who killed Bernstein, Billy the Kid was blamed for the murder.

The San Miguel County Probate Court records show that Bowdre married Manuela Gonzales, Fernando Herrera’s daughter, who was barely 13 years old, in 1878. Doc Surlock married his other daughter, and the foursome moved their families ninety miles northeast of Fort Sumner. Traveling with them were the last of the old Regulators, Tom O’Folliard and Billy the Kid.

Scurlock eventually moved to Texas and urged Bowdre to come along, but Bowdre refused to leave his beloved New Mexico, even though his "Wanted" poster was tacked on more trees than apples. On the sparsely populated frontier, Pete Maxwell built a ramshackle ranch near Fort Sumner and raised cattle. Bowdre went to work for him.

Meanwhile, Billy the Kid lived in a powder-keg situation, imbued with the frontier psychology of survival of the fittest, and the best shot would win. He organized a gang of iron-nerved horse thieves that included Tom O’Folliard, Dave Rudabaugh, Tom Pickett, and Billy Wilson. They were fiercely dedicated to swiping horses from central New Mexico to the Texas Panhandle, and selling them to the highest bidder. In desperation, New Mexico cattlemen elected Patrick Garrett sheriff of Lincoln County to bring in the Kid alive or dead. Garrett was a man who could not be buffaloed, a man obstinate and totally without fear.

When Bowdre heard that Gov. Lew Wallace had issued amnesty for participants on both sides of the fracas, he sent word to Garrett through the grapevine that he wanted to talk about surrendering. The two men met on the road outside Fort Sumner. Oddly, Bowdre didn’t like the conditions set forth in the agreement, and decided not to surrender. Garrett let him ride off unharmed.

On the night of December 20, 1880, Garrett and several determined Texans set a trap in Fort Sumner when they discovered The Kid & Co. would be coming into town for a little celebrating. As the outlaws approached, Garrett called "Halt!" Tom O’Folliard, reached for his scabbard, and Garrett dropped him from his saddle. The Kid & Co. escaped the fusillade and never stopped until they reached Wilcox.

On July 15, 1881, Billy the Kid joined Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard in the Fort Sumner cemetery when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed him in Pete Maxwell’s Fort Sumner home the night before. Although he never regretted killing the Kid, Garrett did regard Bowdre favorably. He always said he felt Bowdre was a good man who had a future in New Mexico as a law-abiding citizen. This was corroborated by Bowdre’s old Lincoln County War companion, George Coe, who said, "Poor Bowdre, he wasn’t a rogue at heart. He got mixed up in bad company."

Perhaps things would have turned out differently for Bowdre if he had stayed in Mississippi instead of Lincoln County, where he died in a scrubby line camp from bullets fired by lawmen at the age of thirty-two, a poor end to a good start.

Reference Sources

Keleher, William A. Violence in Lincoln County 1869-1882. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Coe, George. Frontier Fighter. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1934.

Garrett, Patrick F. The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1959.

Rickards, Colin. The Battle of Blazer’s Mill. University of Texas Press, El Paso, Texas. Southwest Studies Series, Monograoh #40.

Kelly, Bill. Bill Kelly’s Encyclopedia of Gunmen. Printer’s Devil, Anaheim, Ca., 1976.

Fulton, Maurice G. The Lincoln County War. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, 1968.

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