History Timeline 1870s

Photo above: President U.S. Grant. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Valley of the Yellowstone, 1871, by William Henry Jackson, Hayden Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1870s

The Centennial Decade. The Lincoln County War.

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  • Timeline

  • 1878 - Detail

    February 18, 1878 - The Lincoln County War begins in New Mexico between two groups of wealthy businessmen, the ranchers and the Lincoln County general store. William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, fought alongside the ranchers in a dispute over seizure of horses as a payment of an outstanding debt.

    Lincoln County War

    It began over a monopoly of dry goods and cattle in the New Mexico Territory, as if Target and Walmart were battling over territory in a county for stores and there were steer involved. The Lincoln County War of 1878 was not a long conflict and the term war is likely a stretch, but it was a conflict that occurred many times with varied circumstance in the wild west. But this time, this war, included someone who was famous in western lore long before and after the brief territorial war ended, William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid.

    There was a long standing monopoly for supplies in the county run out of a general store called the House. It was run by James Dolan with backing by James Murphy, a county strongman. In 1876, newcomers to the area, backed by a veteran cattleman John Chisum, opened a competing store. That store was run by John Tunstall and Alexander McSween. The newcomers were not a shy bunch, organizing an armed posse called the Regulators to defend them, with officials such as the town constable and a Deputy Marshall on their side, plus Billy the Kid as a ranchhand. Dolan was backed as well by the Lincoln County Sheriff and a gang known as James Evans. Jesse Evans was a rustler and outlaw with around ten men. They began the conflict by rustling the cattle and horses of Tunstall and McSween.

    On February 18, 1878, the skirmishes ignited into murder when the Jesse Evans gang, sent by Sherrif Brady to arrest Tunstall over controvery in an estate case, killed him. On March 9, 1878, payback came. The Regulators backing Tunstall and McSween caught the outlaws of the Jesse Evans gang and killed three. On April 1, 1878, the Regulators, including Billy the Kid, waited behind Tunstall's Lincoln store, then attacked Sheriff Brady and his deputy, killing both.

    The battles and revenge continued at Blazer's Mill and Fritz Ranch, until culminating in the Battle of Lincoln on July 15, 1878. McSween had been a non-participant in most of the opening affairs, supporting the Regulators with Chisum, but remaining out of the fray. On the 15th, he returned to Lincoln with forty-one men. Once the Dolan-Murphy group gained knowledge of the force, they marshalled their own men and headed to the McSween house. Through July 18, the forces traded fire, with unknown casualties, before the U.S. Cavalry from Fort Stanton arrived, putting a stop to the fight.

    A contingent of McSween's Regulator's were still inside the McSween house, including Billy the Kid, when night fell. A fire was set on the house on the afternoon of July 19, forcing McSween and others to try an escape the next morning. They were killed. Billy the Kid and Jim French would succeed and flee the area.

    Billy the Kid Before

    Billy the Kid. William H. Bonney. Henry McCarty. All the aliases of the New Mexico and southwest outlaw. McCarty was born in 1859 in New York City. Early life moved from New York to Indiana (1868) to Kansas (1870) to Colorado (1872) before residing in the New Mexico Territory circa 1873. Within two years of that move, he was arrested for stealing food, then ten days later robbed a Chinese laundry. He escaped from jail two days after that. Now a fugitive, Billy the Kid worked as a ranchhand in the Arizona Territory, gambled, and stole horses. In 1877, he killed his first man in an argument over poker, and escaped before law enforcement could arrive. He moved to New Mexico Territory and eventually began working for John Tunstall.

    Billy the Kid After

    Billy the Kid and Jim French escaped the Battle of Lincoln and McSween's house, moving toward the Mescalaro Indian Agency. During the same time period, U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes dismissed the New Mexico Territory Governor and replaced him with Lew Wallace, the Civil War General and hero of the Battle of Monocacy. They were determined to reduce the outlaw presence in the state. Wallace issued an amnesty proclamation to those involved in the Lincoln County War, but not to those with prior arrest warrants. Billy the Kid was still on the run. Wallace and Billy the Kid met, at Bonney's request, on March 15, 1879, to discuss amnesty in exchange for information about other crimes. He allowed himself to be captured, but feared that Wallace would not go through with the amnesty, and escaped again.

    By December 13, 1880, Billy the Kid had been involved in a variety of other battles, including the murder of Joe Grant, and Governor Wallace had had enough. He issued a warrant and $500 reward for his arrest, and the posse of Pat Garrett set about his capture. This occured only ten days later when he was captured, tried for the death of Sheriff Brady, and sentenced to death. While awaiting his fate, Bonney escaped again, killing two lawmen. A new bounty was placed on Billy the Kid by Governor Wallace. Garrett and his men pursued. On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid walked into a room where Garrett was; Garrett shot him and the era of Billy the Kid was over at the age of twenty-one.

    Photo above: The Torreon, an early Lincoln County structure used as a post for sharpshooters of Murphy/Dolan, 2006, courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: Portion of the engraving of the cover of Pat Garrett's, An Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the noted Desperado of the Southwest, 1882. Source: Library of Congress. Info Source: Wikipedia Commons; Billythekid.com.

    Billy the Kid

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