The Lincoln County War is one of the most prominent and profound pieces of New Mexico’s history, yet it is also one of the bloodiest encounters the region ever experienced. Passed down through stories and the set of countless old western movies, the War featured some of New Mexico’s most recognizable and historic characters and events. The most intriguing parts of the War include the cause of the dispute, the fighting which occurred during the War, and the lasting effects the War has on New Mexico. The main cause of the War in Lincoln County includes the tensions that arose in the County because of the lawlessness of the land.
The roots of the War lay nearly five years before any fighting actually occurred. In 1873, two Irish-Americans by the names of Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan established a business named Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking. Their business was the only one in all of Lincoln County, and because the County represented one fifth of the land area of New Mexico, they managed to establish a monopoly on their products for a vast amount of land. Later, the business partners were joined by John Riley, another Irish-American immigrant.
Together, the trio’s business blossomed, and they managed to maintain their monopoly and made a huge profit. After securely establishing their business, the men went on the buy large sums of land across Lincoln County. As they did so, the men managed to create a long, complicated, and tangled web of connections with everyone ranging from other business men to governmental officials in Santa Fe which became known as “The House”. This helped them negotiate lucrative contracts with the government to supply meat to Fort Stanton. Although, in the process, the businessmen made their fair share of enemies as ell.
Many small farmers and ranchers protested Murphy and Dolan’s business because it forced them to sell their cattle for low prices while buying high priced items from Murphy and Dolan’s store. Another person who disliked the group of businessmen was John Chisum. Chisum, a cattle rancher from Texas, previously bought land in Lincoln County seven years before the arrival of Murphy and Dolan. With over 100,000 heads of cattle, Chisum easily became the largest cattle rancher in Lincoln County, and garnered several government contracts to provide cattle for Indian reservations.
With the arrival of Murphy and Dolan, Chisum lost many of his contracts to the shady under-the-table negotiations of the businessmen. A young lawyer named Alexander McSween shared in Chisum’s resentment of Riley, Murphy, and Dolan. As tension kept rising between the wealthy Irish-Americans and other small ranchers or people such as Chisum who protested the monopoly the trio held on any goods in Lincoln County, “The House” continued to grow and spread its influence to branches of the local law enforcement, which proved critical to the Lincoln County War in later years.
In 1876, a wealthy 24-year-old Englishmen by the name of John Tunstall arrived in Lincoln County. Not long after he arrived in the County, Tunstall soon learned about “The House” and the monopoly on goods held by Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking. Tunstall went on to meet McSween, and the two decided to establish a business of their own to compete with Murphy, Dolan, and McSween’s monopoly.
With the support of Chisum, McSween and Tunstall established the J. H. Tunstall & Co, which not only sold products resembling those sold by Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking, but also stood at a location geographically near the Irish-Americans’ business. This establishment of competition not only placed two great economic forces against each other, but also split the county’s residents in two factions, with one staying loyal to Murphy and his business while the other took advantage of the low prices offered by Tunstall’s shop. Outraged by the arrival of competition, Murphy, Dolan, and Riley did everything in their power to reestablish their monopoly.
At one point, Dolan challenged Tunstall to a gunfight, and even though he refused, Tunstall went on to hire young men to protect his business and land, one of whom being William Bonney, later known as Billy the Kid. Tensions finally escalated to a fatal point when Murphy, desperate to rid the County of any competition, used his lucrative political connections to charge McSween (who previously worked as a lawyer for Murphy for a short period of time) $10,000 which he supposedly embezzled from Murphy’s business. In early 1878, Lincoln County Sheriff Brady arrested McSween on his charge of embezzlement.
Meanwhile, a posse led by William Morton went to Tunstall’s ranch to collect several of his horses to help pay for the debt they supposedly owed Murphy. When Tunstall refused to hand over his horses, Morton shot Tunstall in the head, and, unknown to him at the time, was witnessed by several of Tunstall’s young guards. One of these guards, William Bonney, became enraged at the killing of Tunstall, since he believed Tunstall was one of the only men who treated him like a man. With the single bullet to Tunstall’s head, the Lincoln County War was set in motion. Some even spread rumors stating Morton shot Tunstall under the orders of Murphy.
Nevertheless, nobody in Lincoln County could have predicted the mass violence that lay ahead. After the tensions finally rose to the point of murder, Lincoln County fell into a state of complete chaos and terror. The shooting of Tunstall set forth a string of shoot-outs and battles between “The House” and their opponents. Believing Murphy and Dolan ordered the murder of Tunstall, Billy the Kid vowed to get revenge on “The House” and all of its members. While not as vengeful and calmer than Billy the Kid, McSween was also outraged by the murder of his friend. Soon, Lincoln judge John B.
Wilson issued arrest warrant for Sheriff Brady. Several of Tunstall’s friends, including Billy the Kid, took the warrants to Brady, who rejected their legitimacy and arrested Billy and two others. When Brady released him a few days later, Billy went on to join a group called the “Regulators” formed on March 1 by Judge Wilson tasked with arresting Tunstall’s murderers. Led by Dick Brewer, the “Regulators” found Morton and several others in an area near Rio Penasco a mere five days later. While their orders said to bring back the men alive, Billy shot the prisoners three days later on their trip back to Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the corrupt governor of New Mexico Samuel Axtell travelled to Lincoln county after hearing carious reports of civil unrest. Being a close friend of “The House”, Governor Axtell revoked Judge Wilson’s license, therefore taking away the legality of the “Regulators”. For the next several weeks, the “Regulators” spend their days formulating plans and evading “The House” until they felt ready to attack. On April 1, 1878, as Sheriff Brady walked to the Lincoln County courthouse where the murderer of Tunstall and embezzlement charges against McSween was to be reviewed, Billy and several other “Regulators” fatally shot Brady.
Nevertheless, while the “Regulators” fled the scene, the jury in the court house convicted Bill and three others for Brady’s murder. Now without a sheriff in Lincoln, Governor Axtell appointed a former employee of Murphy, named George Peppin, as the new sheriff. Armed with a posse of trigger-happy Texans, Peppin confronted the “Regulators” hiding in McSween’s home on July 19, 1878. A crucial turning point in the Lincoln County War, the confrontation ended with Peppin torching McSween’s house, causing the “regulators” to flee outside and into Peppin’s hurtle of bullets. In the chaos, McSween was fatally shot.
With Lincoln in a state of turmoil, U. S. President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Lewis Wallace as the new governor of New Mexico on October 1, therefore taking the corrupt Samuel Axtell out of office. Finally, on November 13, 1878, Governor Wallace granted amnesty to all people involved in the Lincoln County War. While Governor Wallace went on to put out an arrest warrant for Billy the Kid, whom Pat Garret pursued for several more years, the Lincoln County War effectively ended with Governor Wallace’s proclamation. This brought an end to one of the most violent, sanguinary, and terrifying periods in New Mexico’s history.
While the majority of the fighting in Lincoln County ceased by late 1878, several disputes remained unresolved. Since the Lincoln County War led to the deaths of Tunstall and McSween, Dolan succeeded in his attempt to eliminate those who posed a threat to his business monopoly. Yet, John Chisum still posed a threat to Dolan and his monopoly. Avoiding the many bloody gunfights of the Lincoln County War, Chisum still owned thousands of cattle and acres of land in Lincoln County. While Dolan started to buy land previously owned by Tunstall, tensions between supporters and competitors of “The House” started to rise again.
This led to occasional outbreaks of violence in the County, which, while they did not end in vast bloodshed, still terrified the citizens of Lincoln County. However, this fighting ended on December 22, 1884, when John Chisum died of cancer, which finally reestablished Dolan’s monopoly on products and goods in Lincoln County. Another effect of the Lincoln County War is the fact it highlighted the lawlessness and brutality of the Wild West. While this lawlessness in the west did not originate with the Lincoln County War, this War helped to bring the issues of the west to the attention of national politicians.
The War escalated to the point to where, as stated previously, U. S. President Rutherford B. Hayes forcibly removed New Mexico Governor Samuel Axtell from office under pressure of other western politicians. Furthermore, the Lincoln County War garnered international attention with the death of Tunstall. When Tunstall died, British Minister Sir Edward Thornton started to question U. S. Secretary of State William Evarts about the mysterious conditions surrounding Tunstall’s death. Thornton eventually gained insight into the corruptness and violence of the American west, therefore pressuring Evarts to prioritize ssues in the western frontier.
The attention New Mexico gathered from national politicians helped to illustrate what the American west truly looked like and helped the area become the setting of many stories, songs, and movies. In conclusion, the Lincoln County War is a profound part of New Mexico’s history because of the cause of the War, which divided Lincoln County between the wealthy elite and common farmers, the events of the war, which ended in the deaths of nineteen people and the terrorization of other citizens, and the effects of the War, which revealed the lawlessness and the corruptness of the American west.
This helped to bring New Mexico to the attention of national policymakers and international politicians. While the War may be a blemish on New Mexico’s history, it profoundly changed how people around the world view New Mexico today. In addition, because of the attention-garnered due to the War, New Mexico became the land of rich history and culture it is today.