The Lincoln County War


We last left young Kid Antrim heading for Lincoln County as a member of a rough gang led by Jesse Evans. Shortly after arriving, the gang became allies for the county’s dominating force, the L.G. Murphy & Dolan Co. and just in time too, because tensions were building between the Company and their new competition, John Tunstall. The Lincoln County War was not a range war, but it was built up of numerous feuds that had erupted involving other parties since the late 1860s.  But the bitter feud between Englishman John Tunstall, against Irishman James Dolan was the most notorious and caused the most bloodshed.

Both Dolan and Tunstall had one objective, to form a monopoly in Lincoln County. But the Murphy & Dolan Co. had already established their enterprise, and they had the Santa Fe Ring, the county sheriff and now the “Boys” backing them up. In 1877 before the outbreak of the Dolan & Tunstall feud, Murphy  became ill and went into a hospital in Santa Fe and would die of cancer a year later. This of course discredits the common belief that Murphy was the antagonist in the war against the Englishman, but in reality he was in a hospital bed dying. Instead it was Murphy's protégé, James Dolan, who took his place and became head of the faction. A native of Ireland, Dolan was a feisty young businessman and wouldn't tolerate anything getting in his way and most wouldn't dare to do so -but one man did. His name was John Tunstall, he was a young cocky newcomer who had a get-rich-quick scheme and believed he had the sophistication and brains to out wit these Westerners. He wrote home to his father about his plans:

“Everything in New Mexico that pays at all (you may say) is worked by a ‘ring’ there is the ‘indian ring’ ‘the army ring’ ‘the political ring’ ‘the legal ring’ ‘the Roman Catholic ring’ ‘the cattle ring’ ‘the horse thieves ring’ and half a dozen rings. It is necessary either to get into a ring or make one for yourself. I am at present at work making a ring.” He goes on to write, “I propose to confine my operations to Lincoln County, but I intend to handle it in such a way, as to get half of every dollar that is made in the county by anyone.”

Tunstall was not exactly a honest man struggling to start his own business in a corrupt town, but he too was as greedy as Dolan and wanted to form a monopoly; it was only the difference between who was going to out do the other. So with his father’s money and taking on attorney Alex McSween as a partner, Tunstall started his own ranch, opened a town store, and quickly became a thorn in Dolan’s side.  Tunstall knew he was shaking a hornet's nest, because he built his store like a fort and hired gunmen as ranch employees, so he was expecting trouble, but he believed the law would protect him. Unfortunately for him, he didn't understand -until it was too late- that Dolan and the Santa Fe Ring were the law.

John Tunstall's Store
Photo from R.G. McCubbin Collection

James Dolan took possession of the store after the Lincoln Count War.
This photo was taken around the 1890s.

Dolan was already having financial problems with the Murphy & Dolan Company, which was on the verge of going bankrupt,  and now with Tunstall’s competition and gaining support from the locals and from cattle baron John Chisum, it was creating a huge threat to his struggling enterprise. Dolan lashed out by getting McSween arrested on phony embezzlement charges and having Jesse Evans and his gang steal horses from Tunstall’s ranch. Tunstall struck back by exploiting Sheriff Brady for default in tax collecting in the editorial of the Independent.

Meanwhile, the Boys were getting a bit much even for the Kid, and at one point he separated himself from the gang and met some of the locals, such as the Jones family and two cousins, Frank and George Coe. The Kid’s relationship with Jesse Evans was getting rocky and some members of the gang didn’t like having a kid tagging along, particularly Bill Morton, who bullied and kicked the Kid out of camp one evening -as the story goes, the Kid was getting too friendly with Morton’s girl. The Kid then bounced back and forth from the Boys and the Jones family, until he was arrested and charged with the theft of Tunstall’s horses and thrown in the town jail, which was nothing more then a hole in the ground.

John Tunstall knew the Kid was a member of Evans’s gang and after meeting the boy in confinement, instead of pressing charges, he offered the Kid employment. It was either out of pity or plans to use him as a witness against the rustlers (or a little of both). The Kid knew he was no longer welcomed by the gang and had nowhere else to go, so he took Tunstall up on his offer. The Kid was released from jail and hired on. The 17-year-old teenager hoped this was a new beginning for him, so he was now going by a new name, William H. Bonney.

This vagabond youth, who had no where to fit in since his mother's death, now finally found his niche. He was welcomed aboard and immediately clicked with his new friends. George Coe would later remember, “He was the center of interest everywhere he went, and though heavily armed, he seemed as gentlemanly as college-bred youth. He quickly became acquainted with everyone, and because of his humorous and pleasing personality grew to be a community favorite.” George’s cousin Frank, would also remember, “He was about seventeen, 5ft 8in, weight 138lbs and stood straight as an Indian, fine looking lad as ever I met. He was a lady’s man and the Mexican girls were all crazy about him. He spoke their language well. He was a fine dancer, could go all their gaits and was one of them. He was a wonder, you would have been proud to know him.”


Dolan was getting frustrated. He was doing everything he could to get rid of John Tunstall, from bad-mouthing him, threatening him (even pointing a gun in his face), rustling his livestock and had the sheriff levy his property for McSween’s debts, who was just released from jail on bond, but it still wasn’t driving the Englishman away. Tunstall knew his rights and it made him more determined to fight back, unfortunately, Tunstall’s stubbornness and holding out would cost him dearly, including all of those around him.

On February 18, 1878, Sheriff Brady sent Deputy Bill Mathews and a posse to Tunstall’s ranch to attach the cattle in the embezzlement case against McSween. Tunstall would allow them to take the cattle, but not his horses. So Tunstall, and a handful of his men herded the horses to Lincoln. Upon arriving at Tunstall’s ranch, Deputy Mathews then formed a sub-posse led by Bill Morton to go after Tunstall and the horses. Among the posse, was Jesse Evans, Tom Hill, Frank Baker, and George Hindmann. Ironically, half the men who rode with the posse were members of the Boys and were wanted outlaws.

In the afternoon, the Tunstall group rode towards a canyon. The Kid and John Middleton rode drag about 300 yards behind pushing the horses, while Tunstall, Brewer, and Rob Widenmann led the way. A flock of wild turkeys got the attention of Brewer and Widenmann. Pulling out their rifles, they loped after them, leaving Tunstall alone. Suddenly, the Kid saw the posse galloping towards. While the Kid spurred his horse forward to warn Brewer and Widenmann, Middleton rode towards Tunstall and yelled out, “For God’s sake, follow me!” as he and the others all headed for cover behind some rocks. “What John…what?” was Tunstall’s last words.

The posse of outlaws easily caught up with John Tunstall and shot him down in cold-blood. The following day Brewer and the Kid swore out affidavits to Justice of the Peace J. Wilson, who then issued warrants for the assassins. Constable Martinez deputized the Kid and Fred Waite to aid him in serving the warrants against the men, who were at Dolan’s store. When they walked in Sheriff Brady was present and refused to permit the arrest of his men. Instead he took the constable and his two deputies prisoner. The men confiscated their weapons, including a Winchester rifle Tunstall had given the Kid and cursed and abused them. After a couple of hours, only Martinez was free to go. The Kid and Fred Waite were released two days later and had missed out on Tunstall's funeral, so the story of the Kid swearing revenge over his employer’s grave at the funeral is just myth.

Wilson then deputized Brewer, who formed his own posse called the “Regulators.” One of the first members he recruited was the Kid, who prove himself to be a very dependable solider due to his loyalty and fighting capabilities. Frustrated by Sheriff Brady’s interference and Governor Axtell turning a blind eye to what was going on in the county, the Regulators were unable to do things the "law way" and had no choice but to fight fire with fire.


First, Bill Morton and Frank Baker were killed (possibly execution style) after surrendering to the Regulators, who rightfully believed that if the prisoners were turned over to the sheriff, they would be released. During the killing, they also shot William McCloskey, who was on friendly terms and sympathetic towards Morton and Baker and who may have been a spy. Then six Regulators, including the Kid, ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady and his deputy George Hindmann. The Kid would later confess to Mrs. McSween, that he was aiming at Deputy Bill Mathews, who narrowly escaped the shooting. The Kid felt Mathews was most responsible for Tunstall’s death by sending the sub-posse to go after them and that Mathews knew there was going to be a killing, which explains why most of the men in that sub-posse were murderous outlaws. But instead, Mathews got the last laugh when the Kid stepped out in the street to reclaim his rifle, which lay next to Brady's corpse, and leveling his rifle at the Kid, Matthews fired, but the bullet only clipped the Kid in the hip.

Soon afterwards another Dolan gunman fell victim, Buckshot Roberts, but not before he killed Dick Brewer and wounded two others; even the Kid was grazed in the arm by a bullet. Though Charlie Bowdre gave Roberts his fatal wound, the Kid would be blamed for it.

Now it was Dolan’s turn to draw blood with the help of Colonel Dudley and the Fort Stanton Army.  The Kid and several Regulators, along with Alex McSween, were trapped and surrounded in McSween’s home in Lincoln by Dolan’s men and soldiers and after a five-day siege, the house was set on fire. Alex McSween fell in despair, and the other men started to panic.  The Kid, up until that point, was a follower, but now he stepped forward and took leadership.  The plan was that he and four others would make a break out the back door and run towards Tunstall’s store through a gate on the east side of the yard and drawing the line of fire to them.  Meanwhile, McSween and the others would run to the rear wall, through a back gate and lose themselves in the dark by the river. 

It was about 9 o’clock at night when they made their move.  The Kid would recall that the flames from the fire “made it almost as light as day for a short distance around.”  The Kid led his group towards Tunstall’s store as planned, but were met by gunfire coming from the store, so they made a quick dash for the river to meet the others.  Meanwhile, McSween and his group ran for their lives towards the back gate and they too received a volley of bullets.  It was pure pandemonium, guns blazing from all around and men falling dead or wounded. When the smoke cleared, the war was over.

After the shooting, McSween and four other Regulators were dead. On the Dolan side, they lost one man named Robert Beckwith, whose death was pinned on the Kid, even though he was no where near him and was fleeing in another direction.  Following the aftermath, the victors got drunk and looted Tunstall’s store, while the Kid and the survivors slipped away into the darkness.

The Kid had hoped for a better future by joining Tunstall’s side, but now it was blowing away with the ashes from McSween’s house. The only future he had now, was to be the whipping boy for this senseless war. Out of everyone who fought in the Lincoln County War, the Kid would be the only one punished. From here on out, he would be a wanted man.

  (to be continued….)


Bell, Boze Bob      The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid, Second Edition
                              Tri-Star- Boze Production, Inc.  1996

Fulton, Maurice G.  History of the Lincoln County War, A classic account of 
                               Billy the Kid,
Edited by Robert Mullin, The University of
                               Arizona  Press Fifth Print   1997
Horan, James   The Authentic Wild West: The Gunfighters  
                       (Chapter One “Billy the Kid”)  Crown Publisher, Inc  New York

Nolan, Frederick   The Lincoln County War, A Documentary History 
                              University of Oklahoma Press, Norman  1992   

Nolan, Frederick   The West of Billy the Kid University of Oklahoma Press,  
                               Norman   1998

Tuska, Jon   Billy the Kid: His Life and Legend   University of New Mexico Press,
                     Albuquerque 1994

HOME        Part  3        Map       Back to Biography