— THE LINCOLN COUNTY WAR —
A couple of hours after daybreak on February 18, 1878, several men on horseback heading to Lincoln, New Mexico, took cover when they spotted a posse closing on them fast. One of the men refused to turn tail and run.
John Tunstall, the 24-year old rancher the other men worked for, decided to stand his ground.
Wealthy and adventurous, Tunstall arrived in New Mexico Territory in 1876 with entrepreneurial dreams and a burning ambition to achieve success on the wide open range of Lincoln County, an area populated by cattle ranches, mining camps, and railroad towns.
But his success as a cattle rancher, banker, and merchant ruffled the wrong feathers.
The disdain harbored by established business interests put Tunstall front-and-center in a dangerous face-off for economic and political control of the 27,000-square mile region of Lincoln County, the largest county in the United States.
Two Irish-Americans who operated a general store in Lincoln called The House felt most threatened by Tunstall.
J.J. Dolan and L.G. Murphy controlled access to lucrative government contracts to supply beef, horses, and grain to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.
The House also lent money to ranchers at exorbitant interest rates. At the same time, it paid low prices for beef. The ranchers who struggled to pay back the loans suffered serious setbacks when The House foreclosed on many of them.
When cattle baron John Chisum and attorney Alexander McSween objected to the Dolan-Murphy monopoly and mounted a direct challenge to The House, Tunstall joined them. He became, in effect, the leader of the anti-House contingent.
Although Tunstall opposed violence, he knew the potential danger of his actions and began recruiting young guns for protection. Among them: William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.
The core of what would turn into a bloody confrontation centered on a questionable legal issue.
The court-approved but illegal scheme involved attaching McSween’s personal belongings and Tunstall’s assets, including his store and livestock.
The ruling, ordered by Judge Warren Bristol, a friend of the Murphy-Dolan group, fanned the flames of discontent. Some historians suggest such dubious action required cooperation from Governor Sam Axtell, along with the district attorney and the sheriff.
While preparing to remove merchandise Tunstall’s store, Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, a Murphy-Dolan ally, deputized a posse and sent it to Tunstall’s ranch to seize his cattle.
On the morning of the shooting, the four Tunstall gunfighters—Billy the Kid, Dick Brewer, John Middleton, and Rob Widenmann—watched the posse approach Tunstall, who decided to try to reason with the men.
With no warning, one of the men in the posse fired and struck Tunstall in the chest, knocking him from the saddle.
Another member of the posse retrieved Tunstall’s gun and then shot the young rancher in the back of the head. Whatever life left in Tunstall oozed out along with his blood, soaking the ground around him.
The enforcement arm of the Tunstall-McSween group—the Regulators—responded to Tunstall’s cold-blooded murder with a vengeance.
The Kid and his cohorts retaliated by killing Sheriff Brady, triggering the start of the Lincoln County War. Branded as outlaws, the Regulators fled Lincoln County authorities. The conflict claimed more than twenty lives in Lincoln County.
Less than six months after Tunstall’s death—despite all the bloodshed—The House prevailed, with Alexander McSween among its victims.
Fighting continued sporadically until 1884, the same year John Chisum died of natural causes in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
By that time, Billy the Kid had already been dead for three years, gunned down by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.
In the end, there were no victors in the Lincoln County War, made worse by a significant void in leadership.
The response by the Territorial government proved inadequate, allowing outlaws free rein to roam throughout Southeastern New Mexico, stealing cattle and killing citizens.