Visiting Lincoln, New Mexico | Lincoln County War |
Wortley Hotel in Lincoln, New Mexico.

The town of Lincoln, about 30 miles northeast of Ruidoso, may not be a ghost town, but ghosts are everywhere. Not the people who live there today, of course, but people who occupied this town of 100-plus-year-old houses long before today. Dont be dismayed. Youll find ghosts or ghost stories around the corner of every house if thats what youre looking for.

The Town of Lincoln

The volatile scene in Lincoln 140 years ago makes it a place where you can soak in the colorful, yet horrific, history of territorial New Mexico. There is possibly as much legend as there is fact in this story, but that may make a visit to Lincoln all the more interesting.

Lincoln is a small town with a big history, and today is more like an outdoor museum than a regular town. At one end is the Lincoln County Courthouse. At the other, about half a mile away, is the Anderson-Freeman Visitors’ Center and Museum. They serve as sort of bookends to Lincoln. In between are four other historic buildings.

To understand Lincoln — and, perhaps more interestingly, the Lincoln County War, which is why most people come here — you need to know a bit of its history.

History of Lincoln County

Governor Lew Wallace in a Public Domain image.
General Lew Wallace was the governor of New Mexico and the author of “Ben Hur.” Public Domain image. PD-US-expired

Lincoln sits deep in the valley cut by Rio Bonito as it flows eastward to the grasslands where it merges first into Rio Hondo and farther on into the Pecos River. The Pecos drains into Texas and eventually joins the Rio Grande hundreds of miles away.

For centuries, Apaches lived in the valley, hunting game, gathering plants, and generally minding their own business. The Spanish conquistadors, who concentrated on the Rio Grande valley, had little impact on these nomadic people. It wasnt until Mexicans migrated north into the Rio Bonito valley that trouble began. The Mexicans encountered the Apaches, who understandably fought to maintain their homelands.

Mexicans built small villages along the river. Each village had a plaza, thus their collective name, Las Placitas, but they also built defensive structures called torreóns. Looking like castle turrets, torreóns are cylindrical adobe buildings with thick doors and small holes through which defenders could slip a rifle barrel.

By the early 1800s, cattlemen and other Anglos arrived and turned the largest of these placitas into Lincoln. You may already know about these men: Kit Carson, cattle baron John Chisum, John Pershing who fought Pancho Villa and led American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I, and Lew Wallace, once New Mexicos governor but perhaps better known as the author of Ben Hur. Lest we forget, William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, also played a pivotal role in Lincoln.

The cavalry came to Fort Stanton, about 10 miles away, to protect the settlements, and Lincoln became the county seat, taking that honor from White Oaks near Carrizozo when the gold there played out.

So, there. The stage is set for the Lincoln County War. Unlike many New Mexican wars, the one in Lincoln didn’t focus on who had the right to graze cattle on the range. It was a contest between strong-willed men over who had the right to operate a general store — and supply cattle to the army.

Places to Visit

Anderson-Freeman Museum
Anderson-Freeman Museum is a great place to start a tour of Lincoln.

The Anderson-Freeman Museum is a good starting point. Its exhibits inform visitors of the area’s history from Apache to Anglo, and it extensively portrays the war.

Across the street from the Anderson-Freeman Museum is the adobe house built by José Montaño. After completing his service during the Civil War, Montaño and his family lived in the house, which also was his general store. Unlike the owners of larger mercantile businesses involved in the war, he kept himself neutral, which probably saved his life.

Montaños house is made of some 6,000 adobe bricks and is typical of the style of architecture employed by Mexicans of the period. It has three large rooms in a straight line. Each room has a door with a raised sill. If you shot a gun from one end of the house to the other, the bullet would hit nothing until it struck the wall at the opposite end. Except for a series of informative panels giving the history of adobe, the construction of the house, and the life of the Montaños, it is empty.

The Montaño house in Lincoln.
The Montaño House in Lincoln.

Originally, it had a flat roof, but some years after the war, this was replaced by a peaked roof with gutters that directed rain into a cistern. The adobe today is faced with rose-colored stucco, and the windows and doors are painted blue, maintaining the tradition of using this color to ward off evil spirits. We can’t be certain if these colors were used by Montaño but it certainly would have been a good idea, considering the evil spirits at bay during his lifetime.

Down the street from the Montaño’s is the Spanish mission church, La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. It was built in 1887. There’s a bell tower over the front door, and the nave stretches the length of the long, rectangular building from the front door to alter. Bultos adorn the altar and either side of it. These wooden carvings of saints could very well date to the late 1880s.

Across the street from the church is the torreón. Because of its height — about 25 to 30 feet — Lawrence Murphy’s sharpshooters used the tower to snipe at John Tunstall’s men, who lay prone on the roof of Montaños house during one gunfight.

The Beginnings of the Lincoln County War

The Murphy-Dolan Store in Lincoln, New Mexico.
The Murphy-Dolan Store in Lincoln.

Lawrence Murphy and his partner, James Dolan, opened their mercantile in 1874. Nearly everyone bought on credit, and many paid their debts with crops, which Murphy-Dolan marked up exorbitantly and resold. They also supplied the army but were accused of overcharging and generally bullying townsfolk who didn’t like the idea of Murphy-Dolan having a monopoly.

John Chisum came to New Mexico in 1854 and, within a few years, his immense Jingle-Bob ranch along the Pecos River had more than 100,000 head of cattle. He supplied steers to Murphy and Dolan, who resold them to the army at Fort Stanton. But Murphy and Dolan were shady characters.

Besides Chisum’s livestock, Murphy and Dolan bought cattle from John Riley, who owned a ranch with Las Cruces lawyer William Rynerson. Riley and Rynerson knew the army quartermaster rarely weighed more than a few animals, so they kept some fat steers on hand for him to weigh when accepting delivery of beef.

This wasn’t something John Chisum found to his liking, and he backed Englishman John Tunstall, who opened a competitive mercantile in 1877.

John Chisum, public domain image
Cattle baron John Chisum. Public domain image. PD-US-expired

Alexander and Susan McSween arrived in Lincoln a few years earlier. Alex went to work as an accountant for Murphy-Dolan, who were always pressing him to skew the books in their favor. Eventually, Murphy and Dolan got into financial trouble. They borrowed money from Thomas Catron, the land baron for whom Catron County is named.

There were threats, arguments, and lawsuits between the owners of the two mercantiles. McSween quit Murphy-Dolan and joined Tunstall’s outfit. McSween was even accused of embezzling money.

The arguments got so heated, Murphy sent Sheriff William Brady and a posse to arrest their opponent. Somewhere near Tunstall’s ranch, the posse caught up with him and shot him dead. Then a member of the posse took Tunstall’s gun and fired it to make it appear their shooting of him was self-defense.

When Chisum and McSween found Tunstall murdered in cold blood, they organized a group, including Billy the Kid, who came to be known as The Regulators.

What followed Tunstall’s murder were a series of gunfights and other murders, among which was the killing of Sheriff Brady. The Regulators ambushed Brady, who was found to have been shot as many as a dozen times with bullets coming from as many as six different guns. However, only Billy was charged with the murder. It’s complicated — and it gets even more.

The Lincoln County War Continues 

During one gun battle, the Murphy-Dolan gang trapped McSween and The Regulators in McSween’s home. They held siege on them for five days, allowing only Susan McSween to leave.

At some point, Murphy had his men set the house on fire. The army, then in town, stood by and did nothing. As the flames consumed the house, McSween and his men tried to slip out the back but were shot. Billy and one other person escaped. The house burned to the ground and was never rebuilt. All that remains in Lincoln is the empty lot and a sign explaining this part of the story.

With that, the war was pretty well over, but there is one sidebar to the story. In the Anderson-Freeman Museum, look for an unusual square-design piano — like the one Susan McSween owned. Folklore says she played her piano during those five days of siege to keep up the morale of The Regulators. She went on to remarry, becoming the Cattle Queen of Tularosa Basin, and lived to a ripe old age. Throughout her life, she denied playing piano during that time, but others said otherwise.

The Aftermath

Marker for the place where Robert Ollinger was killed by Billy the Kid.
This marker indicates the place where Robert Ollinger died after being shot by Billy the Kid.

As for Billy, Sheriff Pat Garrett finally apprehended The Kid. Garrett took him to Old Mesilla where he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. He was returned to Lincoln for execution and locked in a second-story room of Murphys mercantile.

Billy seized the gun of James Bell, the man assigned to guard him, and shot him dead. Then he grabbed a shotgun owned by Robert Ollinger. The shotgun was in a gun case across from the jail cell, with, in Pat Garrett’s words, A bum door.” Billy shot his way out of the building. A bullet hole he allegedly made in the wall remains as a testament to his escape.

Across the street, in the Wortley Hotel, Ollinger was having supper. The Wortley was where judges and lawyers handling cases stayed. When he heard gunfire, Ollinger ran into the street. He had been one of those charged with guarding Billy, who shot him with his own shotgun. You can see a plaque on the spot where Ollinger was shot. Bonney had the jail handyman cut his shackles, mounted a horse, and rode away, shouting “Adios, compadres.”

What To See in Lincoln

Tunstall Store Museum in Lincoln
Visit the Tunstall Store, now a museum, in Lincoln.

As you walk the street of Lincoln, examine the Wortley Hotel and the Tunstall house and mercantile, which is now one of the public museums.

Immediately across the street from Tunstall’s is the James Dolan house. These two men, who became bitter, deadly adversaries, could have stood on their respective porches and passed pleasantries with each other.

At some time after the Lincoln County War, the Murphy-Dolan mercantile failed and the building was taken over by the county and used for 33 years. The second floor has a reconstructed courtroom.

The ground floor of the courthouse, also a museum, has displays on the role of sheriffs in Lincoln County from the 1800s to the present. It also has several letters written by Billy to Lew Wallace asking the former governor to come to his defense. Wallace had promised Billy a pardon if he agreed to testify against the Murphy-Dolan gang for Tunstall’s murder. Instead, at the instigation of Carton and Rynerson, he was arrested, and Wallace’s promise was forgotten.

A letter written by Billy the Kid
A copy of a letter written by Billy the Kid.

Billys penmanship and command of English clearly show he was educated and not some ignorant, reckless killer. Of the 21 men Billy was accused of killing, only four can be substantiated. The rest are the grist of legend and lore.

The guns are now silent, and all that remains of the Lincoln County War is its history. 

The Anderson-Freeman Museum, Murphy-Dolan mercantile, and the Tunstall store along with other public buildings are open Thursday through Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Seven are open to the public year-round, two from May 1 to October 1. There is an entrance fee of $7 for adults 17 years and older for three of the museums. Other public buildings require no tickets.

Information is available at New Mexico Historic Sites — Click on Lincoln Historic Site.

Story and photos by Bud Russo • Additional photos by Cheryl Fallstead and public domain

Posted by

Featured Businesses