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Lincoln County War

The so-called Lincoln County War began in 1878 and dragged on until 1881. At that time Lincoln County covered nearly one-fifth of the entire territory. It was the largest county in the United States. The Lincoln County War was no less bloody than other wars which have struck the area. This particular war arose from conflicts between rival New Mexico cattle barons.

During the 1870s a group of merchants had gained control over the economy of Lincoln County, including a monopoly on filling lucrative contracts from the military at Fort Stanton. L.G. Murphy and J.J. Dolan, who owned huge cattle ranches in Lincoln County, had a monopoly on the cattle and merchant trade. This group and their allies was called The House. The infamous Seven-Rivers gang, of which Jesse Evans, a boyhood friend of Billy the Kid, was a member, fought for the cattle barons.

In 1877, their control was challenged by Alexander McSween, a Lincoln attorney, and John Tunstall, an English entrepreneur -- who were backed by the day's biggest cattle baron, John Chisum. Chisum's employees and supporters were known as The Regulators, and followers of The House violently resisted them. The battle was fought not only in courtrooms but also through gunfights, murders, and cattle rustlings. The war attracted desperados from all parts of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and south of the Rio Grande.

On February 18, 1878 Tunstall was murdered by members of a sheriff's posse after he had surrendered his gun. According to the "code of the West," an unarmed man was not to be shot. The Regulators vowed to take vengeance upon House followers resonsible for killing Tunstall. Among the group of Regulators was a young man known as Billy the Kid, who had befriended Tunstall. o, Billy the Kid rode in and out of the war with the purpose of avenging Tunstall's murder.

In September 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes removed Governor Axtell from office and appointed Lew Wallace as New Mexico's new governor. Wallace was famous for having served in both the war with Mexico and the Civil War. A writer, Wallace became even more famous for his novel "Ben Hur". At first Governor Wallace felt that conditions in Lincoln County might call for martial (military) law. The president, however, advised lawbreakers to return to peace. Wallace offered amnesty to persons involved in the Lincoln County War, open to anyone who had not been charged with or convicted of a crime.

Gov. Wallace put a $500 reward on Billy's head. Billy the Kid was captured by Sheriff Pat Garrett and imprisoned in Mesilla--also called Old Mesilla and La Mesilla. The courthouse in which he was held, tried, and sentenced to be hanged still stands in Old Mesilla at the corner of the Plaza in which the Gadsden Purchase was confirmed in a flag-raising ceremony in 1854. Transferred to Lincoln County for execution, the Kid escaped, killing two deputies in the process. Garrett, later sheriff of Dona Ana County, shot and killed the Kid at Fort Sumner. The Kid was buried in a cemetery at Fort Sumner that still exists. His trial, escape, and death all occurred in 1881.



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