Lincoln - Wild Wild West Frozen in Time
A walk down Lincoln,
Main Street is a step back into the
Wild Wild West. It was here that such men as
Billy the Kid
Pat Garrett left their marks; here, that
Indians, Mexican American
gunfighters and corrupt politicians made themselves known;
it was in this small settlement that the violent Lincoln County War
erupted, which resulted in the deaths of a number of men and made Billy
the Kid a legend.
And today, it is here, that the modern tourist can still taste the flavor
of those earlier times in century old adobe buildings, hear the tales from
the voices of old-timers, and walk those very same dusty streets that were
made infamous in the late 1800's.
The area that would become Lincoln was roamed only by
Americans until Spanish Pioneers began to settle the lush green valley
of the Rio Bonito around 1849, first calling their new "city” Las Placitas
del Rio Bonito, meaning "the village by the pretty river."
However, when Lincoln County was formed in
1869, and the fledgling settlement became the new County Seat, the town’s
name was changed to Lincoln.
Before long the county and the town
were populated by a number of cattle barons and cowboys, in addition to
the Spanish settlers. In the early 1870's two men, by the names of
Lawrence Murphy and
James Dolan owned the only store in Lincoln County,
the largest county in the nation, covering 1/5 of New Mexico territory. The pair not only owned
Murphy & Dolan
Mercantile and Banking, they also owned large cattle ranches, and having
influential territorial ties to officials in
Santa Fe, the merchants were able to obtain several lucrative
contracts with the military at Fort Stanton.
Before long, the two men
monopolized the trade of the county, controlling pricing, making immense
profits on their goods, and virtually having a hand in nearly every part
of the economy of the large county. The merchants, along with their
allies, who included local law enforcement, were familiarly known as "The
For obvious reasons, Murphy and his
allies were disliked by the small farmers in Lincoln County, as they were
forced to pay high costs for their goods, while at the same time,
accepting low prices for their cattle.
a rival store was set up in 1876 by
Alexander McSween and
John Tunstall called H.H. Tunstall & Company near
the one owned by Dolan and
Murphy, it soon spawned what became known as
Lincoln County War. The feud
between the two factions for political and economic control of the area
would last for the next two years, fought sometimes in courtrooms, but
more often through cattle rustling, gunfights, and murder. The feud came
to a head when John
murdered on February 18, 1878. Battling on the side of Tunstall and
Company, referred to as the "Regulators,” was none other than
Billy the Kid, who had been employed by Tunstall as a ranch-hand.
The feud became an all-out "war” as Tunstall's employees swore to avenge their boss’s murder, and began to
retaliate against the "House.” The Lincoln County War came to a climax in
July 1878 in a five-day battle when the Regulators holed up in McSween's
house and the Ellis Store. Soon, they were besieged by the Dolan faction in a battle that wouldn’t
end until the arrival of U.S. Troops. When the smoke had cleared, five
Regulators, including Alexander
McSween, had been
killed and several wounded. Of the
faction, one man was killed and several wounded. The "House” declared a
victory as the
the area. The famous battle made Billy the Kid not only a house-hold
name, but also a fugitive.
President Rutherford B. Hayes called
Lincoln’s main street "the most dangerous street in America” and in
September, 1878, he removed
New Mexico's corrupt Governor Axtell from office and appointed Lew
Wallace as the new governor. The United States attorney, the sheriff and
the local military commander were also replaced. At first, Governor
Wallace felt that conditions in Lincoln County might call for martial law.
The President, however, advised lawbreakers to return to peace. On
November 13, 1878, Governor Wallace proclaimed an amnesty for all those
involved in the Lincoln County War if they were not already under
indictment. This proclamation; however, did not include Billy the Kid.
The fugitive Billy soon formed a gang, referred to as the "Rustlers"
Billy the Kid's Gang, and survived by stealing and rustling cattle.
Billy and his gang would be actively pursued by
Pat Garrett especially
after Governor Wallace put a $500 reward on his head in December, 1880.
Garrett and his posse finally captured Billy the Kid and his gang of "Rustlers"
on December 23, 1880. After a trial in Mesilla,
New Mexico in April, 1881,
Billy was taken to Lincoln, where he was scheduled to be hanged on May
13th. However, Billy escaped on April 28th, killing both of his guards while
Garrett was out of town.
It would be his last escape; however,
as Garrett tracked him down to
Sumner, where he shot and killed the
outlaw on July 14, 1881.
During Lincoln's violent heydays, more
than 450 people made their homes there and when the town calmed down,
Lincoln continued to serve as a supply center for area ranches and mines
and by 1888, reported a population of about eight hundred residents.
However when the railroad moved to nearby Carrizozo, the town began to
decline in population and by 1909 lost its county seat status to
Over the decades, the population
continued to decline to its current population of only about 75. However,
amazingly, many of its old buildings were preserved. Today, the old
settlement is officially referred to as the
Lincoln State Monument and is
the most widely visited state monument in the state. The historic site
includes 17 structures and outbuildings, three of which are museums.
Representing the Territorial style of
adobe architecture historic buildings line both sides of Lincoln's mile
long Main Street. The gurgling Rio Bonito River still forms the northern
boundary of the town that has not been marred with commercial gas stations
or convenience stores.
The main visitor’s center is located
near the east end of town on the north side of the highway exhibits the
Lincoln's history of Apaches, Hispanics, Anglo cowboys, Buffalo
Soldiers, and details the Lincoln County War. A brief video further
Lincoln's history in an old-fashioned theater.
Lincoln's highlight is the old Lincoln
County Courthouse on the west end of Main Street, which highlights
Billy the Kid's
escapades and his escape from the courthouse, complete with a famous
bullet hole made during his flight.
Other buildings which can be toured
include the Montaño Store, the 1887 La Iglesia de San Juan-Bautista
Mission, which still provides services for parishioners; Tunstall Museum
and post office, which
contains displays of original 19th-century merchandise in the original
shelving and cases.
More old buildings in the town include
Dolan’s old home, the defensive torreón (tower) for the village, and the
Wortley Hotel, once owned by Sheriff Pat Garrett. Here, was where Deputy
Ollinger had his last supper before
Billy the Kid shot him and Deputy J.W.
Bell down. The historic hotel now serves as an inn and restaurant. The
Juan Patron House has been converted into a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Old Lincoln Days, held on the first
full weekend in August, provides living-history demonstrations of
traditional crafts, musical programs, and food booths throughout the
village. An annual folk pageant, The Last Escape of
Billy the Kid,
presented outdoors since 1949, portrays a highly romanticized version of
the Lincoln County War during August weekends. Other special events are scheduled
throughout the year.
From about March to November, visitors can
ride in a four-horse-drawn Lincoln County Overland Stage. The morning and
afternoon rides provide for 2 hours rides, which cover 5 ½ miles of an old
stagecoach route from near Lincoln to the Old Fort Stanton cemetery.
of America, updated July, 2017.
Lincoln State Monument
P.O. Box 36
New Mexico 88338
Murphy & Dolan Mercantile would later
become the Lincoln County Courthouse. Photo around 1930.
McQueen and Tunstall Graves,
Image available for photo prints editorial downloads
Billy The Kid - Teenage Outlaw of the
Lincoln County War by Emerson Hough
New Mexico's Lincoln County War
Pat Garrett - An Unlucky Lawman
Lawrence Murphy - Scoundrel Behind
the Lincoln County War
Towns of New Mexico Photo Print Gallery
Lincoln, New Mexico Slideshow:
All images available for photo prints & editorial downloads
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