Lincoln County War-The Beginning
New Mexico
Lincoln County Conflict Begins



The rivalry in Lincoln was between old-timers and newcomers. It did not take much to start a war between the two groups. What set off the war was a legal matter. In December 1877 some of McSween's clients appeared in Judge Warren Henry Bristol's court in Mesilla, New Mexico. There they signed a complaint against McSween. The complaint charged that McSween had kept money that belonged to his clients. Those signing the complaint were backed by the local district attorney, William L. Rynerson.

Having received this complaint, Judge Bristol issued a warrant for McSween's arrest. In Las Vegas, New Mexico, on December 27, McSween was arrested. New Mexico's United States attorney had sent a telegram to Las Vegas requesting the arrest. This official was none other than Thomas B. Catron. Catron was then and for years to come one of New Mexico's most powerful politicians. Catron, Bristol, and Rynerson were all on the side of Dolan and Riley.

From Las Vegas McSween was taken to Mesilla. There he appeared before Judge Bristol. In January 1878 McSween entered a plea of not guilty. But Judge Bristol ruled against McSween. On February 7 he told the Lincoln County sheriff to take $8,000 in property from McSween. This was the sum McSween's clients had filed for. The sheriff was William Brady.Brady had served with Murphy in the New Mexico Volunteers.

The legal actions against McSween were part of a Dolan-Riley campaign to ruin their rival. But the days of legal actions soon ended. On February 18 Tunstall was shot and killed. A sheriff's posse gunned him down in cold blood on the road to the Tunstall ranch. Sheriff Brady had headed for the Tunstall ranch to enforce a new court order. This order directed the sheriff to take property belonging to Tunstall, McSween's soon-to-be partner. Tunstall had angered the Dolan-Riley group by backing McSween.

Among those who witnessed Tunstall's murder was a young man Tunstall had helpd. He was William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Bonney vowed to seek revenge. And when the territory's legal officers failed to act on Tunstall's murder, revenge became commonplace.

Some of McSween's men shot and killed two Dolan-Riley supporters as they rode toward Lincoln. The on April 1, 1878, McSween's men shot and killed Sheriff Brady and on of his deputies. Billy the Kid took part in this shooting. Three days later Billy and others shot and killed A. L. "Buckshot" Roberts at Blazers Mill.

This revenge did not, however, help the McSween side. For taking Brady's place was a new sheriff, who also favored Dolan and Riley. The new sheriff owed his job to the territory's governor, Samuel B. Axtell. Axtell had borrowed money from Murphy.

After Brady's death things went badly for the McSween group. Judge Bristol and District Attorney Rynerson took more legal action against McSween and his men. At last McSween rode out to the Chisum ranch to seek Chisum's advice. The two decided that McSween would return to Lincoln. He would stand his ground.

McSween arrived back in Lincoln on July 15. Forty-one men joined him on the return trip. McSween took 10 of these men into his own house. The others took up positions around the town. Ready to oppose McSween were Sheriff George Peppin and supporters drawn from all over. Included in their number were 15 Dona Ana and Grant county gunsligners hired by Dolan. Sheriff Peppin swore all these men in as deputy sheriffs.

The "McSween Crowd" and the "Sheriff's Party" battled for the next three days. But the battle was a stalemate. Then on July 19 the commanding officer at Fort Stanton heard from Peppin that a soldier had been wounded in Loncoln. The army now joined the battle. Soldiers entered Lincoln. Their purpose was to protect women and children. Their presence turned the fight in favor of the sheriff's men.

With a warrant for McSween's arrest, the sheriff's men set fire to the McSween house. It was the night of July 19. Still, McSween refused to surrender. In the fighting that followed, McSween and three of his followers were killed. Escaping unhurt from the McSween house was Bonney, alias "Billy the Kid", lived to fight yet another day.



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