Lincoln County War by Emerson Hough

By Emerson Hough in 1905

Lincoln County New Mexico Courthouse, 1930

Lincoln County New Mexico Courthouse, 1930

The entire history of the American frontier is one of rebellion against the law, if, indeed, that may be called rebellion whose apostles have not yet recognized any authority of the law. The frontier antedated anarchy. It broke no social compact, for it had never made one. Its population asked no protection save that afforded under the stern lordship of the six-shooter. The anarchy of the frontier, if we may call it such, was sometimes little more than self-interest against self-interest. This was the true description of this border conflict.

The Lincoln County War embraced three wars; the Pecos War of the early 1870s, the Horrell War of 1874, and the Lincoln County War proper, which may have begun in 1874 and ended in 1879.

The actors in these different conflicts were all intermingled. There was no blood feud at the bottom of this fighting. It was the war of self-interest against self-interest, each side supported by numerous fighting men.

At that time, Lincoln County, New Mexico, was about as large as Pennsylvania. For judicial purposes, it was annexed to Donna Ana County. Its territories included both the present counties of Eddy and Chaves and part of what is now Donna Ana County. It extended west practically as far as the Rio Grande and embraced a tract of mountains and high tableland nearly two hundred miles square. Out of this mountain chain, to the east and southeast, ran two beautiful mountain streams, the Bonito and the Ruidoso, flowing into the Hondo River, which continues to the flat valley of the Pecos River—once the natural pathway of the Texas cattle herds bound north to Utah and the mountain territories, and hence the natural pathway also for many lawful or lawless citizens from Texas.

At the close of the Civil War, Texas was full of unbranded and un-owned cattle. Out of Paris, Texas, which his father founded, came John Chisum—one of the most typical cowmen that ever lived. Bold, fearless, shrewd, unscrupulous, genial, magnetic, he was the man of all others to occupy a kingdom that had no ruler heretofore.

John Chisum

John Chisum

John Chisum drove the first herds up the Pecos Trail to the territorial market. He held at one time perhaps 80,000 head of cattle under his brand of the “Long I” and “jinglebob.” Moreover, he had powers of attorney from many cowmen in Texas and lower New Mexico, authorizing him to take up any trail cattle he found under their respective brands. He carried a tin cylinder, large as a waterspout that contained, some said, more than a thousand of these powers of attorney. At least, it is certain he had papers enough to give him a broad authority. Chisum riders combed every north-bound herd. If they found the cattle of any of his “friends,” they were cut out and turned on the Chisum range. There were many “little fellows,” small cattlemen, nested here and there on the flanks of the Chisum herds.

What’s more natural than that they should steal from him, in case they found a market of their own? That was much easier than raising cows on their own. There was a market up this winding Bonito Valley at Lincoln and Fort Stanton, New Mexico. The soldiers of the last post, and the Indians of the Mescalero Reservation nearby, needed supplies. Others besides John Chisum might need a beef contract now and then and cattle to fill it.

At the end of the Civil War, there was in New Mexico, with what was known as the California Column, which joined the forces of New Mexican Volunteers, an officer known as Major Lawrence G. Murphy. After the war, many men settled near the points where they were mustered out in the South and West. It was thus with Major Murphy who located as post-trader at the little frontier post known as Fort Stanton, which was founded by Captain Frank Stanton in 1854, in the Indian days.

John Chisum located his Bosque Grande Ranch about 1865, and Murphy came to Fort Stanton about 1866. In 1875, Chisum dropped down to his South Spring River Ranch, and by that time, Murphy had been thrown out of the post-tradership by Major Clendenning, commanding officer, who did not like his methods. He had dropped nine miles down the Bonito River from Fort Stanton, with two young associates, under the firm name of Murphy, Riley & Dolan, sometimes spoken of as L.G. Murphy & Co.

Lawrence Murphy

Lawrence Murphy

Murphy was a hard-drinking man, yet withal something of a student. He was intelligent, generous, bold, and shrewd. He “staked” every little cowman in Lincoln County, including many who hung on the flanks of John Chisum’s herds. These men, in turn, were in their ethics bound to support him and his methods. Murphy was king of the Bonito country. Chisum was king of the Pecos, not merchant but cowman, and caring for nothing that had no grass and water.

Here, then, were two rival kings. Each at times had occasion for a beef contract. The result is obvious to anyone who knows the ways of the remoter West in earlier days. The times were ripe for trouble. As the government records show, Murphy bought stolen beef and furnished bran instead of flour on his Indian contracts. His henchmen held the Chisum herds as their legitimate prey. Thus we now have our stage set and peopled for the grim drama of a bitter border war.

The Pecos War was mostly an indiscriminate killing among cowmen and cattle thieves, and it cost many lives, though it had no beginning and no end. The Texas men, hard riders and cheerful shooters, for the most part, came pushing up the Pecos River and into the Bonito Canyon. Among these, in 1874, were four brothers known as the Horrell boys, Bill, Jack, Tom, and Bob, who had come from Texas in 1872. Two of them located ranches on the Ruidoso, being “staked” therein by Major Murphy, king for that part of the countryside.

The Horrell boys once undertook to run the town of Lincoln, and a foolish justice ordered a constable to arrest them. Jack Gylam, an ex-sheriff, told the boys to put on their guns. Gylam, Bill Horrell, Dave Warner, and Martinez, the Mexican constable, were killed on that night. The dead body of Martinez was lying in the street the next morning with a deep cross-cut on the forehead. From that time on, it was no uncommon thing to see dead men lying in the streets of Lincoln for the next five years. The Horrell boys had sworn revenge.

There was a little dance in an adobe one night at Lincoln when Ben Horrell and some Texas men from the Seven Rivers country rode up. They killed four men and one woman that night before going back to Seven Rivers. From that time on, it was Texas against the law, such as the latter was. No resident places the number of the victims of the Horrell War at less than 40 or 50, and it is believed that at least 75 would be more correct. These killings proved the weakness of the law, for none of the Horrell gang, was ever punished. As for the Lincoln County War proper, the magazine was now handsomely laid. Only the spark was needed. What would that naturally be? Either an actual law court or else—a woman! In due time, both were forthcoming.

Susan Mcsween

Susan McSween

The woman in the case still lived in New Mexico in the early 1900s, sometimes spoken of as the “Cattle Queen” of New Mexico. At that time, she bore the name of Mrs. Susan E. Barber. Her maiden name was Susan E. Hummer, and she was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Susan Hummer was the granddaughter of Anna Maria Spangler-Stauffer. The Spangler family is a noble one of Germany and very old. George Spangler was cup-bearer to Godfrey, Chancellor of Frederick Barbarossa, and was with the latter on the Crusade when Barbarossa was drowned in the Syrian river, Calycadmus, in 1190. The American seat of this old family was in York County, Pennsylvania, where the first Spanglers settled in 1731. From this tenacious and courageous ancestry, there sprang this figure of border warfare in a region wild as Barbarossa’s realm centuries ago.

On August 23, 1873, in Atchison, Kansas, Susan Hummer was married to Alexander A. McSween, a young lawyer fresh from the Washington University Law School of St. Louis, Missouri. McSween was born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and was educated in the first place as a Presbyterian minister.

He was a man of good appearance, of intelligence and address, and of rather more polish than the average man. He was an orator, a dreamer, and a visionary, a strange, complex character. He was not a fighting man and belonged anywhere in the world rather than on the frontier of the bloody Southwest. His health was not good, and he resolved to journey to New Mexico. He and his young bride started overland with a good team and conveyance and reached Lincoln in the Bonito Canyon on March 15, 1875. Outside of Murphy, Riley & Dolan, there were at that time but one or two other American families. McSween started up in the practice of law.

John Tunstall

John Tunstall

There appeared in northern New Mexico at about this time an Englishman named John H. Tunstall, newly arrived in the West in search of investment. Tunstall was told that there was a good open cattle range in Lincoln County. He came to Lincoln, met McSween, formed a partnership with him in the banking and mercantile business, and started for himself, and altogether independently, a horse and cattle ranch on the Rio Feliz, a day’s journey below Lincoln. Now, King Murphy, of Lincoln County, found a rival business growing up directly under his eyes. He liked this no better than King Chisum liked the little cowmen on his flanks in the Seven Rivers country. Things were ripening still more rapidly for trouble. Presently, the immediate cause made its appearance.

There had been a former partner and friend of Major Murphy in the post-tradership at Fort Stanton, Colonel Emil Fritz, who established the Fritz Ranch a few miles below Lincoln. Having amassed a considerable fortune, Colonel Fritz concluded to return to Germany. He had insured his life in the American Insurance Company for $10,000 and had made a will leaving this policy, or the greater part of it, to his sister. The latter had married a clerk at Fort Stanton by the name of Scholland, but did not get along well with her husband. Heretofore no such thing as divorce had been known in that part of the world, but courts and lawyers were now present, and it occurred to Mrs. Scholland to have a divorce. She was sent to  McSween for legal counsel and lived in the McSween house for a time.

Now came news of Colonel Emil Fritz’s death in Germany. His brother, Charlie Fritz, undertook to look up the estate. He found the will and insurance policy had been left with Major Lawrence Murphy. Still, Major Murphy, accustomed to running affairs in his way, refused to give up the Emil Fritz will and forced McSween to get a court order appointing Mrs. Scholland, administrator of the Fritz estate. Not even in that capacity would Major Murphy deliver to her the will and insurance policy when they were demanded, and it is claimed that he destroyed the will. Certainly, it was never probated. Murphy was accustomed to keeping this will in a tin can, hid in a hole in the adobe wall of his store building. There were no safes at that time and place. The policy had been left as security for a loan of nine hundred dollars advanced by a firm known as Spiegelberg Brothers. Few ingredients were now lacking for a typical melodrama. Meantime the plot thickened by the failure of the insurance company!

Alexander McSween

McSween, in the interest of Mrs. Scholland, now went East to see what could be done in the collection of the insurance policy. He was finally able, in 1876, to collect the total amount of $10,000, and this he deposited in his name in a St. Louis, Missouri bank then owned by Colonel Hunter. He had been obliged to pay the Spiegelbergs the face of their loan before he could get the policy to take East with him. He wished to be secured against this advancement and reimbursed as well for his expenses, which, together with his fee, amounted to a considerable sum. Moreover, the German Minister enjoined McSween from turning over any of this money, as there were other heirs in Germany. Major Murphy owed McSween some money. Colonel Fritz also died owing McSween thirty-three hundred dollars, fees due on legal work. Yet, Murphy demanded the full amount of the insurance policy from McSween again and again. Murphy, Riley & Dolan now sued out an attachment on McSween’s property and levied on the goods in the Tunstall-McSween store. The “law” was now doing its work, but a very liberal interpretation was put upon the law’s intent. As construed by Sheriff William Brady, the writ also applied to the Englishman Tunstall’s property in cattle and horses on the Rio Feliz Ranch, which, of course, was high-handed illegality. McSween’s statement that he had no interest in the Feliz Ranch served no purpose. Brady and Murphy were warm friends. The lawyer McSween had accused them of being something more than that—allies and conspirators. McSween and Tunstall bought Lincoln County scrip cheap, but when they presented it to the county treasurer, Murphy, it was not paid, and it was charged that he and Brady had made away with the county funds. That was never proven, for no county books were ever kept! McSween started the first set ever known there.

There was working for Tunstall on the Feliz Ranch the noted desperado, Billy the Kid, who a short time formerly had worked for John Chisum. The latter at this stage of the advancing troubles appears rather as a third party, or as holding one point of a triangle, whose other two corners were occupied by the Murphy and McSween factions.

Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid

Whether or not it was a legal posse which went out to serve the attachment on the Tunstall cattle—or whether or not a posse was necessary for that purpose—the truth is that a band of men, on February 13, 1878, did go out under some semblance of the law and in the interests of the Murphy people’s claim. Some state that William S. Morton, or “Billy” Morton, was chosen by Sheriff Brady as his deputy and as leader of this posse. Others name different men as leaders. Indeed, the band was suited for any desperate occasion. With it was Tom Hill, who had killed several men at different times and had been heard to say that he intended to kill Tunstall. There was also Jesse Evans, just in from the Rio Grande country, and, except for Billy the Kid, was the most redoubtable fighter in all that country. Evans had formerly worked for John Chisum and had been the friend of Billy the Kid, but these two had now become enemies. Others of the party were William M. Johnson, Ham Mills, Johnnie Hurley, Frank Baker, several ranchers still living in that country, and two or three Mexicans. All these rode across the mountains to the Ruidoso Valley to the Rio Feliz.

They met, coming from the Tunstall ranch, Tunstall himself in company with his foreman, Dick Brewer, John Middleton, and Billy the Kid. When the Murphy posse came up with Tunstall, he was alone. His men were at the time chasing a flock of wild turkeys along a distant hillside. When called upon to halt, Tunstall did so and came up toward the posse. “You wouldn’t hurt me, boys, would you?” he said as he approached, leading his horse. When within a few yards, Tom Hill said to him, “Why, hello, Tunstall, is that you?” and almost with the words fired upon him with his six-shooter and shot him down. Some say that Hill shot Tunstall again, and a young Mexican boy called Pantilon beat in his skull with a rock. They put Tunstall’s hat under his head and left him lying there beside his horse, which was also killed. His folded coat was found under the horse’s head. His body lashed on a burro’s back, was brought over the mountains that night into Lincoln, 20 miles distant. Fifty men took up the McSween fight that night, for, in truth, the killing of Tunstall was murder and without justification.

Richard "Dick" Brewer

Richard “Dick” Brewer

That was the beginning of the actual Lincoln County War. Dick Brewer, Tunstall’s foreman, was now the leader of the McSween fighting men, known as the Regulators. McSween, of course, supplied him with the color of “legal” authority. He was appointed “special constable.” Neither party had difficulty in obtaining all the legal papers required. Each party was presently to have a sheriff of its own. Meantime, there was an accommodating justice of the peace at Lincoln, John P. Wilson, who was ready to give either faction any legal paper it demanded. Dick Brewer, Billy the Kid, and nearly a dozen others of the first McSween posse started to the lower country, where many of Murphy’s friends, small cowmen, and others lived there. On the Rio Peñasco, about six miles from the Pecos, they came across a party of five men, two of whom, Billy Morton and Frank Baker, had been present at the killing of Tunstall. Baker and Morton surrendered under the promise of safekeeping and were held for a time at Roswell. On the trail from Roswell to Lincoln, at a point near the Agua Negra, both these men, while kneeling and pleading for their lives, were deliberately shot and killed by Billy the Kid. There was with the Brewer posse a buffalo-hunter named McClosky, who had promised to take care of these prisoners. Frank MacNab, of the posse, shot and killed McClosky in cold blood. In this McSween posse were “Doc” Scurlock, Charlie Bowdre, Billy the Kid, Henry Newton Brown, Jim French, John Middleton, with MaNab, Wait and Smith, besides McClosky, who seems not to have been loyal enough to them to sanction cold-blooded murder. These victims were killed on March 7, 1878.

There had now been deliberate murder committed upon the one side and the other. There were many men implicated on each side. These men, in self-interest, now drew apart together. The factions, of necessity, became more firmly established. It may be seen that there was very little principle at stake on either side. The country was now simply going wild again. It meant to take the law into its own hands, and the population was divided into these two factions, to one or the other of which every resident must perforce belong. A choice, and sometimes a quick one, was an imperative necessity.

Blazer Mill Ruins, 1934

Blazer Mill Ruins, 1934

The next killing was that of Buckshot Roberts, at Blazer’s Mill, near the Mescalero Reservation buildings, an affair described in a later chapter. Thirteen men, later of the Kid’s gang, led by Dick Brewer, attacked Roberts, who killed Dick Brewer before he himself died. The death of the latter left the Kid chief of the McSween forces.

A great bloodlust now possessed all the population. It wanted no law. There is no doubt about the intention to make away with Judge Warren Bristol of the circuit court. Knowing of these turbulent times in Lincoln, the latter decided not to hold court. He sent word to Sheriff William Brady to open court and then at once to adjourn it. This was on April 1, 1878.

In walking down the street toward the dwelling-house in which court sessions were then held, Sheriff Brady was obliged to pass the McSween store and residence. Behind the corral wall, there lay ambushed Billy the Kid and at least five others of his gang. Brady was accompanied by Billy Matthews, George Hindman, his deputy, and George Peppin, later sheriff of Lincoln County. The Kid and his men waited until the victims had gone by. Then a volley was fired. Sheriff Brady, shot in the back, slowly sank down, his knees weakening under him. “My God! My God! My God!” he exclaimed as he gradually dropped. He had been struck in the back by five balls. As he sank down, he turned his head to see his murderers, and as he did so, received a ball in the eye and so fell dead. George Hindman, the deputy, also shot in the back, ran down the street about one 150 yards before he fell. He lay in the street and few dared to go out to him. A saloon-keeper, Ike Stockton (himself a bad man, and later killed at Durango, Colorado), offered him a drink of water, which he brought in his hat, and Hindman, accepting it, fell back dead.