The Lincoln County War was a conflict between
rival cattle barons in 19th century
New Mexico Territory.
the early 1870's two men by the names of Lawrence Murphy and
owned the only store in
-- Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking. Soon, another man named
John Riley also entered into the business. At the time, Lincoln
County was the largest county in the nation, covering 1/5 of
New Mexico territory. In addition to the store,
Murphy & Dolan also owned large cattle
Having influential territorial ties to
Santa Fe, the merchants were able to obtain several lucrative
contracts with the military at
The old courthouse in Lincoln,
now serves as a museum. Photo around 1930.
Murphy & Dolan
Mercantile and Banking 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, which included local law enforcement, were
familiarly known as "The House.”
For obvious reasons, Murphy and his allies were disliked by the small
farmers and ranchers 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.
Alexander McSween, a lawyer, and
John Tunstall, a wealthy 24-year old English cattleman and banker,
set up a rival business called H.H. Tunstall & Company near the one
owned by Dolan,
Murphy and Riley.
Supporting them was a
large ranch owner named
John Chisum, who owned more than 100,000 head of cattle.
Furious at this
development, Dolan attempted to goad Tunstall into a gunfight.
However, Tunstall refused to
use violence himself but soon recruited
Billy the Kid, officially, as
a "cattle guard.”
In February, 1878, "The House” proprietors
obtained a court order to seize some of Tunstall's horses as payment
for an outstanding debt. When Tunstall refused to surrender the
horses, Lincoln County Sheriff,
William Brady, formed a posse led by deputy William Morton to
seize them. After protesting the presence of the posse on his land,
Tunstall was shot in the head on February 18, 1878. This incident
started what became known as the Lincoln County War.
the Kid was deeply affected by the murder,
claiming that Tunstall
was one of the only men that treated him like he was
"free-born and white." After
Tunstall's funeral Billy swore: "I'll get every
son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do."
Adding fuel to the fire, it was rumored
that Tunstall had been murdered on the orders of James Dolan
and Lawrence Murphy
However, Billy would not be able to immediately exact
his revenge as he, along with Fred Waite, were briefly jailed by
William Brady. After he was released,
Billy soon joined a posse led by
Dick Brewer, Tunstall's Ranch Foreman, called the
Regulators. The group's primary aim was to hunt for
Tunstall's killer, William Morton.
On March 6, 1878, the Regulators tracked Morton in the countryside near the Rio Peñasco.
After a five mile running gunfight, Morton surrendered on the
condition that his fellow deputy sheriff,
Frank Baker, would be returned alive to
However, on the third day of the journey back to Lincoln, on March 9th,
Billy and another
killed the prisoners, along with one of their fellow Regulators that had tried to stop them.
Three weeks later Billy and several other
Regulators holed up in Tunstall's store while Sheriff William Brady
for the killers of his deputies. They ambushed the sheriff and his men on
April 1, 1878, killing Sheriff Brady
and mortally wounding one of his