McColl Map

Largely as a result of the Lincoln County War and the notoriety of Billy the Kid, numerous histories have been written about Lincoln. The historical background presented below is therefore only a basic overview of the history of the community, the events of the Lincoln County War, and community’s subsequent development and decline.

The Jornada Mogollon

The Sacramento Mountains feed several streams, including the Rio Bonito, that flow from their eastern slopes towards the Pecos Valley. The wide valleys with moderate temperatures, good soil, year-round water, and lush meadows provide an ideal environment for agriculture. Native Americans were the first to realize the riches of the area. Along the Bonito, Hondo and Ruidoso Rivers of Lincoln County, small pit house villages and later larger pueblos were scattered throughout.

Originally farmers with a sedentary lifestyle, transitioned to a hunter-gather way of life. Prominent in the area are the Lower Stanton Ruin, a prehistoric pueblo site, and Feather Cave dating from between AD 1311 and 1430 are located in the Rio Bonito Valley approximately six miles west of Lincoln.

The region was nearly abandoned by the late 1400’s and archaeologists theorize many may have moved north along the Rio Grande, joining their northern neighbors in various Pueblos that also survived the influx of ancestral pueblo people (Anasazi) moving south to escape the devastating drought in their lands. Other, smaller groups may have drifted to northern Mexico.

Arrival of the Mescalero Apache

Following the abandonment by the Jornado Mogollon, the Apache people migrated into the area and remain today, mainly on the Mescalero Apache reservation southwest of Lincoln. Known for their fierce, warlike nature, the Mescaleros considered the area around Sierra Blanca their homeland and ranged through the Lincoln area.

Although there were many bands of Apaches scattered throughout the Southwest, those who dominated the lands within Lincoln County were the Mescalero. Named by the Spanish for their gathering of the mescal plant and major food source, they became known as mescal gatherers or Mescalero.

In 1854 Governor Meriwether dispatched troops against the Mescalero culminating with a short fight near the present village of Mayhill where Captain Henry Stanton was killed. Nearby Fort Stanton established in 1855 was named in honor of Captain Stanton.

Even with the establishment of Fort Stanton, times were still tumultuous as recorded by two incidents in the immediate area of Lincoln. With the coming of the Civil War and abandonment of Fort Stanton by Union forces, there was little protection for the settlers. Though Confederate forces occupied the Fort for about a month in August and September 1861, they soon retreated back to Mesilla. Before they did, the defended La Placita on rainy night on September 10, 1861. In a second recorded incident, Apaches massacred a group of settles who had the left the area and were returning to their farms.

Of a less violent note, “Apache Farms” is an area about five miles southeast of Lincoln on the Rio Bonito. The area was cultivated for many years by prehistoric inhabitants and the Apaches were said to be using the area when the Hispanic settlers arrived in the area in the 1850s. The Mescaleros probably just continued using the fields that had been established by others. The fields were not tended constantly. Instead they were planted and checked on periodically, while the Mescalero were hunting and gathering.

European Settlement

European settlement in the area was slow and tenuous due to the ever-present threat of Indian attacks. Though some Hispanic settlers had arrived as early as the 1700s, significant numbers did not arrive until the early to mid 1850s. Migrating from the Manzano Mountains, they formed several small farming villages in the Rio Bonito and Rio Ruidoso valleys. The village which would later become Lincoln was named La Placita del Rio Bonito. That the threat of Indian attacks remained real is demonstrated by the construction of the Torreón in Lincoln. In 1855, Fort Stanton was established nine miles upstream as one of a series of forts built throughout the New Mexico Territory by the United States in order to provide security from Indian attack and to open the area up to settlement.

Other placitas were established at this time, most notably Los Choas to the east and Torres Ranch to the west of the village.

By 1868 the village had grown to support about 15 buildings. Most of these structures were single story adobes which were flat roofed and angular in shape. Behind many of the houses were jacals made of juniper or cedar posts with mud filling the spaces between the posts. The village was still prominently Hispanic who tended fields up and down the Bonito River on both sides of Lincoln. Jose Montano operated a store and saloon and Jacinto Sanchez operated a store. Enrique Trujillo was the most prominent citizen in town and Captain Santurino Baca lived west of town.

The Military and Fort Stanton

Fort Stanton was occupied for just five years before the outbreak of the Civil War. The war led to the temporary abandonment of the fort, and an aborted effort by the Confederacy to burn it down. After the war, the United States government, through its systems of forts, increasingly became a major influence on the frontier. In order to control the Indians, reservations were established. The Indians, who were now denied their former hunting grounds, were often unable to feed themselves. Lucrative contracts were awarded to private contractors to supply the government with food, clothing and other supplies for both the army and the Indians.

With the establishment of Fort Stanton, Lincoln took on a new role and it was the “host” for the soldiers on liberty. The Fort was pivotal to the survival and economic well being of the Placitas. There is at least one incident of a soldier who got into trouble with the local citizens after several days of drinking and refusing to pay his bill. He was murdered after an altercation with locals.

With the invasion of New Mexico by the Texans in 1861, Union forces set fire to Fort Stanton and retreated north to Fort Union. Locals from Lincoln aided by a thunderstorm put out the fire and salvaged what they could from the fort. The Fort was occupied by the Confederates for only one month. The Fort was soon reoccupied by Union Forces lead by Kit Carson who subjugated the Mescaleros and sent to them to a reservation at Fort Sumner.

The chance to benefit from the new frontier money-economy attracted a mixed bag of opportunists seeking a new future. Among those that would become involved in the Lincoln County War were disillusioned civil war veterans, immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany and Canada. Of particular significance to the future of the region was the arrival of cattlemen from Texas. Led by ranchers, the most notable of whom was John Chisum, they would transform the agriculture in the region from subsistence farming to large-scale industrial ranching.

Originally part of Socorro County, Lincoln County was established by the Territorial Legislature and named for President Abraham Lincoln. The enabling legislation was sponsored by Saturnino Baca. The territory included “that territory between the 343th parallel of latitude on the north, the Texas boundary on the south, and the 104th of longitude on the east and the eastern slope of the San Andres Mountains on the west.” It comprised over 27,000 acres and was of greater size that that of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont combined. La Placita de Rio Bonito was renamed Lincoln and became the new county seat.

These rapid changes brought tremendous social pressure to Lincoln, and set the stage for conflict between peoples from very divergent socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. While many of the people could be described as “law abiding”, the presence of a large outlaw element, and the general lack of law enforcement and courts in Lincoln County triggered the many conflicts and general lawlessness that were to follow. Robert Utley summarized the atmosphere of the 1870s in Lincoln County.

(1) “In drunken disputes, in quarrels over “soiled doves” or wifely attentions, men shot one another down with rifle or pistol. Outlaws stole horses and cattle and killed or got killed in the process. Farmers and ranchers who toiled for a living indulged in occasional lawlessness, either against their neighbor’s herds or their neighbor himself. Powerful men like Murphy and Chisum advanced or defended their interests with hired Winchesters. Indians slipped away from the agency to raid stock in the mountain valleys and on the Pecos Plains. Army patrols rode in pursuit and sometimes clashed with the raiders. Still more racial antipathy arose when elements of the Ninth Cavalry, black troopers under white officers, took station at Fort Stanton.”

In 1873 Lawrence Murphy was expelled from Fort Stanton and he brought his operation into Lincoln. As a result, the two-story house was built on the west end of town in 1874 and Murphy continued his operations from that building, which would later become the county court house and would figure prominently in the Lincoln County War. Since the construction of the building it has been a general store, the site of Masonic meetings, a bar, a billards hall, sheriff’s office, jail, living quarters, courthouse, city and county offices.

Texas immigrants continued to come to the area and in 1873 a group of brothers attacked locals in what has become known as the Horrell War. One day Ben Horrell along with Lewis “Jack” Gylam and Dave Warner were drinking in Lincoln. They were approached by Deputy Sheriff Juan Martinez who asked them to surrender their weapons. Instead Warner drew his pistol and fired at Martinez who simultaneously fired his at Warner. Both men fell dead.

Local Hispanics tracked Horrell and Gylam down and killed them both. Shortly after the original killings, the Hispanic community was having a baile one night when the Horrells and their followers surrounded the Convento where the dance was being held and fired blindly into the building. Four men, Juan Padilla, Yisdro Patron, David Balisan and Jose Candelaria were killed and one woman, Apolonia Garcia was wounded.

The result was a race war between the Hispanics and the remaining Horrell brothers and their associates ranging up and down the valleys with more men on both sides being killed. The Horrells finally retreated to Roswell in an effort to regroup and return to continue the fight, but smarter heads prevailed and they returned to Texas.

On August 2, 1875 a Democratic Convention was held in Lincoln. While in town for the convention, Robert Casey, the proprietor of a mill in the Hondo Valley was murdered by William Wilson, a recent employee of Casey’s. It seems that Casey organized opposition to Murphy and Dolan and they hired Wilson to murder Casey.

Wilson was apprehended and tried in October when he was found guilty and sentenced to hang on November 11th. Rumors of a planned escape abounded and Wilson was held at Fort Stanton until the day of execution. While Wilson was waiting to be hanged, he verbally implicated Murphy in the incident. At the hanging, Murphy kicked the lever to the trap door open to cut Wilson’s comments short.. Wilson dropped, and after a short time was cut free of the noose. It was soon discovered that he was still alive. Murphy claimed that Wilson had been hanged as required by law and should be let free, but Casey supporters prevailed and Wilson was hanged a second time until it was sure he was dead.

The 1870 Census showed a population of 223 residents living in 88 houses in the village. Ten years later, in the 1880 Census, the town had grown to 638 persons living in 157 dwelling; most of the population was Hispanic.

The Lincoln County War

The Lincoln County War of 1878 and 1879 was the climax of the hostilities and grudges that had been building for the previous decade. Though often described as a “cattle” or “range” war, it was in fact a conflict between powerful political factions aligned with merchants seeking economic domination. The complete breakdown of civil order received national and international press attention.

Lawrence Murphy and partner Emil Fritz opened L.G. Murphy & Company at Fort Stanton in 1866 in order to profit from the government contracts to provide beef to the Army. Due to allegations of corruption in trading with both the military and the newly-formed Mescalero Apache Reservation, they were expelled from Fort Stanton and opened a new store in Lincoln. In 1874 Murphy built the structure, now known as the Courthouse, to serve as his residence, a billiard hall and Masonic lodge. That same year Fritz left the business and returned to Germany where he died the following year.

One of the leading Texas cattlemen, John Chisum arrived in the Pecos Valley in 1874. His expanding cattle empire quickly became major competition for Murphy. Despite the “wealth” that existed in the territory, it was a very cash-strapped economy based mainly on credit; and Murphy had placed his business in a monopolistic position by being the primary extender of credit. Murphy retired in 1877 due to poor health. However, the business, known as the “Big House”, was taken over by James J. Dolan and John H. Riley, and reestablished as J.J. Dolan & Company, but it continued to fail. It remained in business, principally through the support of the powerful Santa Fe businessman, Thomas B. Catron, the leader of the Santa Fe Ring.

In 1875, Alexander McSween, an attorney born on Prince Edward Island, Canada, arrived from Atkinson, Kansas, along with his wife Susan. The following year saw the arrival in Lincoln of John Henry Tunstall, the son of a wealthy English family, who had come to make his fortune in America. By 1877, McSween represented the competing forces of Murphy and Chisum, but he saw an opportunity to put them out of business by teaming up with Tunstall. Eager to develop his business, Tunstall was at work building his store and adjoining bank and law office. Also in 1877, McSween who had remained the attorney for Emil Fritz collected the insurance money from Fritz’s death. He retained the money in his personal possession, alleging that he was holding it pending the settlement of the estate. But Dolan tried to collect the money, claiming it was owed to the company from debts Fritz had left behind when he had returned to Germany.

Leaving for St. Louis in December of 1877, McSween and Chisum got only as far as Las Vegas, where Dolan had McSween arrested on grounds that he was not going to turn the Fritz insurance money over to the heirs. McSween was transferred to Mesilla, and after an inconclusive hearing, returned to Lincoln, arriving on February 10, 1878. Sheriff Brady, a supporter of Dolan had attached all of McSween’s property with orders to hold McSween in custody until he could meet bond. For no legal grounds, Tunstall’s livestock was also attached. On February18, Tunstall, while returning from his ranch with four hands was shot and killed by Sheriff Brady’s posse. Not anxious to finger his own men, Sheriff Brady did not investigate the shooting. Known as “The Boys”, Sheriff Brady’s posse consisted of numerous outlaws. To counter The Boys, the Tunstall supporters quickly organized into a group known as the “Regulators”. A key member of the Regulators was William Bonney, who would soon become known as Billy the Kid. Loyal to his boss, Bonney had been with Tunstall when he was shot and vowed revenge. The Regulators soon captured and killed two of Brady’s posse that had shot Tunstall.

Territorial Governor Samuel B. Axtell, at the Request of Catron, made a hasty three hour visit to Lincoln in March, and asked President Hayes to authorize the troops from Fort Stanton to assist the civil authorities in maintaining law and order in Lincoln. But widespread unrest and lawlessness continued in the following months. On April 1, 1878, Sheriff Brady and a deputy were ambushed and killed on the street by six of the Regulators firing from the corral of the Tunstall Store. Among the shooters was Bonney. Three days later, the violence escalated with the shootout at Blazer’s Mill at South Fork. There the Regulators cornered and killed Andrew “Buckshot” Roberts, a Dolan supporter who had been in the posse that killed Tunstall. While public support had originally been generally behind the McSween faction and against Dolan, the killing of Brady, followed by that of Roberts in what was seen as a very unfair shootout, cast doubt on whether either faction was “in the right.” By this point however, each faction had committed numerous crimes, but in the fullest meaning of the word, each side had come to see the situation as a war, and believed that their position was right.

On April 4, 1878, the same day as the shootout at Blazer’s Mill, Lieutenant Colonel Nathan A.M. Dudley took command of Fort Stanton. In what would become a fateful decision, Dudley received orders from Washington not to interfere in civil matters. However in May, Dudley did send soldiers to protect the town, but the War Department deemed it an illegal action, and ordered them removed, leaving the town with no law enforcement.

The turning point of the war was what was to become known as the Five-Day Battle. On July 14, after leaving town to reorganize his forces, McSween returned with 45 of his supporters who fortified themselves in the McSween House, the Montaño Store and the Ellis House (Store). Sheriff Peppin sent to Fort Stanton for aid, which Dudley, in compliance with the War Department’s orders, refused to grant. But after a four-day standoff, during which thousands of shots were fired to little effect, a courier from Fort Stanton was fired at, allegedly by the McSween men. Using the firing upon of a soldier as justification, Dudley arrived from Fort Stanton with a column of soldiers, a howitzer and a Gatling gun. Although Dudley’s allegiance was with the Dolan faction, they followed orders not to intervene in civilian affairs and stood by. In the early afternoon of the nineteenth, a slow burning fire was lit to the McSween house, and by nightfall, the house was fully ablaze. Realizing the desperation of the situation, shortly after 9:00 p.m. a group of the men holed up in the house, including Bonney, decided to make a run for the Rio Bonito, which ran behind the house. One was killed in the shower of bullets, but once again the Kid escaped. The remainder tried to escape, but when McSween declared that he would never surrender, a melee of close-range firing commenced that resulted in the death of McSween and four of his supporters. Sheriff Peppin’s men celebrated all-night and looted the Tunstall Store.

During the rest of 1878, the area remained lawless. In December some McSween men reoccupied Lincoln, causing Dolan and some of his followers to take refuge at Fort Stanton. In the months following the five-day battle, Billy the Kid continued to lead the Regulators in outlaw activities, including the stealing of a herd of horses from the Fritz Ranch, and driving them to Texas to sell. In the fall, Lew Wallace, a regular Army general was appointed Territorial Governor. President Hayes selected him because he believed a military man could clean up the mess in New Mexico. Soon after his appointment, in order to clear the records of the multiple indictments and charges, some legitimate and many not, Wallace issued a general amnesty to all those involved in the War.

But the violence was not yet over. Susan McSween had retained a lawyer, Huston Chapman, to settle her and the Tunstall’s affairs. On February 18, 1879, Chapman was murdered in the street in Lincoln by a drunken party mob of former adversaries from the two factions who had gotten together to patch up their differences. Among them was Billy the Kid, who made a point of quickly getting out of town. At the pleading of the townspeople, Dudley this time sent troops to restore the peace and maintain order. After a delay of six months, during much of which he was working on his novel Ben Hur, Governor Wallace made his first visit to Lincoln in March of 1879. He arrested Dolan for the murder of Chapman, and met secretly with the Kid to promise him a pardon in exchange for testimony against Dolan. A plan was made whereby the Kid would be arrested and then pardoned by the governor after giving testimony. Billy followed through with the plan, but the promised pardon never came.

Billy the Kid

The end of the Lincoln County War signaled a gradual return to normalcy to Lincoln. But it was only the beginning of an episode that would eventually achieve legendary status – the final days of Billy the Kid. The Kid and his outlaw companions continued rustling cattle, including from John Chisum. The Billy the Kid Gang routinely stole cattle in Texas, herded them to Lincoln County where they sold them, and then completed the “trade” by stealing Lincoln County horses to sell in Texas on the return trip. Late in 1880, with the backing of Chisum, Pat Garret was elected sheriff on the expressed promise that he would arrest Billy the Kid. In the spring of 1881 the Kid was arrested for killing Sheriff Brady and taken to Mesilla where he was tried and found guilty. Thus Billy became the only protagonist in the Lincoln County War to be tried and convicted for his participation in the War.

Returned to Lincoln for hanging on April 21, 1881, he was, ironically, imprisoned in the new Courthouse, which had been the Murphy-Dolan “Big House.” On April 28, the famous breakout occurred. Billy overpowered and killed Deputy Sheriff J.W. Bell, and with a double-barrel shotgun, he shot Deputy U.S. Marshall Bob Olinger from a second floor window, to once again make a daring escape from certain death. But the Kid’s luck ran out when he entered the house of Pete Maxwell in Fort Sumner on the night of July 14, 1881. Possibly, armed only with a butcher knife and apparently on a mission to help himself to some meat, Bonney entered the bedroom where Pat Garrett was crouched in conversation with Maxwell. After recognizing Billy’s voice, when he asked “¿Quien es?,” Garrett fired twice and the Kid fell to the floor.

The legend of Billy the Kid has only grown over time in popular history and fiction. The first major work to gain attention was The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns and published in 1926. A film version of the story, Billy the Kid, was produced in 1941, followed by Left Handed Gun in 1958, and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid in 1973. Retelling of the story through various television programs, and the continued speculation about whether Garrett really shot Billy that night in Fort Sumner continues to fuel the legend that keeps Billy the primary tourist draw for Lincoln.

End of Hostilities and Prosperity

Despite the violence of the previous decade, the 1880 census figures show that the population nearly tripled over the course of the decade, reaching a total of 638. A revealing statistic of the census was that over 23% of the households were headed by widows, a reflection on the toll taken by the violent decade. The transition from small scale farming to ranching was reflected in the greatly increased number of male heads of household (89 %) who listed themselves as laborers as opposed to the 52 % who listed themselves as farmers a decade earlier. Although ranching had become the dominant economic force, it too was coming under pressure. It was more prone to the effects of droughts than was irrigated farming, and the land began to suffer from overgrazing. But perhaps most significantly, the coming of the railroad brought competition from grain-fed cattle that were now being transported from the Midwest into the region for slaughter. The 1880 census also showed a significant increase in the tilled acreage in the Lincoln area, primarily planted in corn, alfalfa, and wheat. Orchards were also becoming prevalent in the valley. The other major event that changed the area was the discovery of gold at White Oaks, and then at Nogal, Vera Cruz and Rio Bonito. Although none of the discoveries were large and played out quickly, they brought yet another new faction to what was quickly becoming a diverse economy. And significantly, the newcomers demanded a higher level of personal safety and law than the County had provided during the turbulent 70s.

Life in Lincoln settled down to that of a small county seat and commercial center for the growing county. Law and order were maintained by a series of effective sheriffs. Dolan with the help of Emil Fritz’s brother Charles, bought the Tunstall Store, as well as being a partner in the ownership of the Tunstall Ranch. Reflective of his new position and as the only survivor of the major players in the Lincoln County War, Dolan built a large stylish home, directly opposite the Tunstall Store. He later lost the store to Thomas B. Catron due to a mortgage foreclosure. The first school (1885) was also built during the decade. Many new stores and even a photo studio opened. During the decade, in addition to gaining numerous new buildings, many of the town’s older buildings, such as the Tunstall Store and the Wortley Hotel, were modernized through the addition of pitched roofs and porches.

In 1869 the Diocese of Santa Fe recognized the new parish of Rio Bonito. The first recorded services in the village were conducted by Rev. Taylor Ealy who arrived in town the same day John Tunstall’s body was brought into the village. In 1884 Rev. J. M. Garnier established the first church in Lincoln in the old courthouse. An 800-pound bell was cast for the church and arrived in March 1885. In June of 1887 the San Juan Mission was dedicated and today it is part of the state historic site system.

Lincoln experienced a building boom during the 1880s. Much of the building was done by Les Down and former sheriff George Peppin. Among the buildings they constructed were the Courthouse, the Dr. Woods House and the Dolan house. Many people think the period immediate after William Antrim’s escape from the Courthouse was the start of the village’s becoming a ghost town when, in fact, it was the most prosperous period, at least economically.

In 1885 the Golden Era newspaper was in operation and printing significant amounts of local news. J. J. Dolan was the power in town and had built a spacious new house across the street from the Tunstall Store. The year 1886 saw the hangings of John Janes and D. C. Johnson without the problems of the Wilson execution eleven years earlier. By 1900 the population had shrunk to about 300 people.


Two events beyond the valley of the Rio Bonito sealed the fate of Lincoln to that of a small, rural community – the building of railroads in the region and the development of agriculture in the Pecos Valley. In 1894 the railroad arrived in Roswell and in 1899 in Carrizozo. Along with the railroads, the drilling of artesian wells and the development of irrigation brought a boom to the Pecos Valley in the last decade of the Century. Roswell began to siphon both people and wealth out of Lincoln, and in 1889, the eastern three-fifths of Lincoln County was split off to form Chaves and Eddy counties. By the 1890s, the tide had changed for Lincoln and it was beginning to stagnate as a small community, existing by providing the necessities of life to the local population and serving as the county seat for the semi-annual terms of the court. The population appears to have been in decline by 1890. The 1896 closure of Fort Stanton as a military post put additional strain on the local economy. In addition to gold, coal was discovered at White Oaks, and also near Capitan. Both communities continued to prosper, providing further competition for Lincoln as the dominant community in the county. However, both the coal and gold mines would soon play-out, and these communities too went into decline, but the location of railheads in Capitan and Carrizozo was to give these communities a major economic advantage over Lincoln in the coming years.

The Twentieth Century

Carrizozo was not formally founded until 1907, but as a railroad division terminal with extensive repair shops, it prospered and grew quickly. Only two years later, the Lincoln County Commission received a petition to make Carrizozo the county seat and in an election in August of 1909, the majority voted in favor of Carrizozo over Lincoln. But Lincoln followed with an injunction to stop the move. After four years of legal maneuvers, which reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and led by Lincoln’s famous attorney, Thomas B. Catron, the community lost. In 1913, the county seat was moved to the new courthouse that had been constructed in Carrizozo. Lincoln went into an even more pronounced decline, with the 1912 population of approximately 250 dropping to about 100 in the 1930s.

The Lincoln Historical District was added to the National Historic Register in 1966 and to the State Register in 1968. In 1972 the Lincoln County Commission established the Lincoln Historical District and enacted legislation that ensured strict architectural limits on building in the village and surrounding areas.

Lincoln had changed very little from the late 1880s through the time that the county seat was moved in 1913. While the relocation of the county seat signaled the end of Lincoln as a center of business and commerce, it had the effect of freezing the community in time. The highway was not paved until the early 1940s. The Lincoln that we see in photographs from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is essentially the same Lincoln that has survived to this day. Fortunately, concurrent with the town’s decline as a governmental and economic center, interest began to grow in its colorful history. Many participants of the Lincoln County War lived well into the 20th Century to provide a valuable link to the historians who were starting to take an interest in this chapter of the turbulent western frontier.

(1) Utley, Robert M., High Noon in Lincoln, Violence on the Western Frontier, University of New Mexico Press, 1987, p. 23.