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Lincoln County War

New Mexico 1895
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Big Jim French was by Billy the Kid's side when Sheriff William Brady was killed and when Alexander McSween's house was set on fire, yet little else is known about the one-time 'Regulator.' French was noted primarily for his participation in the Lincoln County War, during which he aligned with the Tunstall faction alongside Billy the Kid, Henry Brown, and other vicious killers. French was a member of the posses which killed Frank Baker and Billy Morton in March. 1878, and Buckshot Roberts the next month. He was also one of the men who ambushed Sheriff William Brady, and he shot his way out of Alexander McSween's burning store. For a short time thereafter he joined Billy the Kid's gang of stock thieves, but he soon decided to leave turbulent New Mexico, and Jim French faded into obscurity.

The Lincoln County War was a lawless episode in New Mexico history that is best remembered today for having triggered the legend of Billy the Kid. On April 1, 1878, during that bitter business feud, the Kid and other so-called Regulators killed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. New Mexico Territory Governor Lew Wallace never got around to giving Billy a pardon for killing Brady or for his other Lincoln County War escapades. After more than 120 years of media attention, interest in the Kid remains so high that the current governor of New Mexico has been considering giving Billy a posthumous pardon. But the Kid's story has been so romanticized that it has obscured the truth about the Lincoln County War.

For years historians have been trying to sort out fact from fiction through a concerted effort to track down each individual prominent in the conflict, to determine what motivated them. One such character is Big Jim French, a figure whose shadowy past has spawned illusive tales by writers more intent on relating a good yarn than accurately describing history. It's high time some of those myths were put to rest, to clear up the often cloudy picture of that 1870s fracas.

An uncomplicated explanation of the Lincoln County War is that it was a feud involving two competing groups, termed "rings," intent on monopolizing trade, politics and vast stretches of land in New Mexico Territory. One ring, known as "the House," was a firmly entrenched local commercial empire, so named because most of its business dealings were conducted out of a store that resembled a house, and because the name appealed to the men operating its various nefarious enterprises. The House, besides holding a monopoly on domestic trade, often fulfilled beef contracts for the military through purchasing beef stolen by a band of outlaws known as "the boys," and used this gang as enforcers when necessary. By all accounts, the passel of Irishmen associated with the House--originally led by Lawrence G. Murphy--was as ruthless a band of brigands as ever existed in American commerce, as ready to terminate their detractors and competitors as they were to fleece customers.

In his early teens D. L. Anderson, usually known as "Billy Wilson," moved with his family from Ohio to South Texas; after a short period as a cowboy he went to White Oaks, New Mexico, where he bought a livery stable in 1880. Within less than a year he sold his operation, supposedly was paid in counterfeit money, and began to pass the bogus bills in Lincoln. When he was indicted, he joined Billy the Kid's band of fugitives and rustlers.

Along with several cohorts, Wilson was arrested by Pat Garrett at Stinking Springs. Convicted in 1881, he soon escaped from custody in Santa Fe. Reverting to his real name, D. L. Anderson, he returned to Texas, started a ranch in Uvalde County, married, and began raising two children. Pat Garrett and others helped him to obtain a presidential pardon in 1896. He worked as a U.S. customs inspector for a time, then became sheriff of Terrell County, where he was killed in the line of duty in 1918.

John H. Beckwith was a native of New Mexico who, along with his brother Bob, started a cattle ranch on the east side of the Pecos River in the Seven Rivers country of Lincoln County. When the Lincoln County War erupted, the Beckwith boys were deputized to fight Billy the Kid and the rest of the McSween "Regulators." Bob was killed during the climactic battle in Lincoln in 1878, and John was shot to death the following year by John Jones.

Robert W. Beckwith was the son of a Southerner who had settled in New Mexico and who eventually established a ranch in Lincoln County. By 1876 Bob and his brother John were running a spread of their own, but when the Lincoln County War started a couple of years later the Beckwith brothers became involved with the Dolan-Murphy faction. Bob received an appointment as deputy sheriff, but was killed before his twentieth birthday during the big shootout in Lincoln.

A close cohort of Billy the Kid, Charlie Bowdre aligned with the "Regulators" in the Lincoln County War, participating in the assassination of Frank Baker, Billy Morton, and William McCloskey. A few weeks later he fired the shot which killed Buckshot Roberts at Blazer's Mill, and in July, 1878, he played a relatively minor role in the climactic shootout in Lincoln. He then became briefly involved with the Kid's band of rustlers and was inaccurately accused of the murder of Indian agency clerk Morris Bernstein.

But by this time Bowdre had married a native New Mexican and had begun trying to mend his fences. He became foreman of a ranch in the vicinity of Fort Sumner and soon acquired part ownership. A few weeks before his death he met with Pat Garrett to discuss the possibility of exoneration. But a federal warrant still demanded his arrest, and he rejoined the Kid and a handful of other fugitives, leaving his wife in Fort Sumner.

After nightfall on December 19 the half-dozen outlaws rode into Fort Sumner for a brief vacation, but they were jumped by Pat Garrett and a posse. Tom O'Folliard was killed, and so was Dave Rudabaugh's horse, but Rudabaugh vaulted onto Billy Wilson's mount, and the five fugitives escaped safely. They secured a horse for Rudabaugh and secluded themselves in a rock house near Stinking Springs, where Bowdre was killed by the posse on December 23. Bowdre was buried beside O'Folliard at Fort Sumner, and a few months later the two were joined by the remains of the Kid.

As a young bachelor Frank Coe drifted to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he found employment with several relatives as a farmer and ranch hand. Frank and his cousin George, who regularly served together as the fiddlers at local dances, jointly invested in the county's first thresher. But just as their financial situation was improving, the Lincoln County War broke out, and both cousins found themselves fighting with the McSween faction.

When the shooting subsided, the Coes moved to San Juan County, then left New Mexico completely. In 1884 the Coes returned to Lincoln County, and Frank and his wife of three years settled on a ranch which in 1873 had been leased by the murderous Horrell brothers from Lampasas, Texas. Coe lived on this ranch until his death in 1931; he was survived by six children and his wife of fifty years.

The son of a Civil War veteran who had migrated to a Missouri homestead, George Washington Coe in 1874 went to Fort Stanton, New Mexico, to work on the ranch of a cousin. By 1878 Coe had leased his own spread in Lincoln County, but the area was on the verge of all-out war, and Coe soon found himself arrested unjustly by Sherif William Brady. While he was in custody he was subjected to physical torture, and upon his release he bitterly determined to seek revenge. In the subsequent Lincoln County War he fought with the Regulators, figuring prominently in the gunfight with Buckshot Roberts and in assorted other shooting scrapes.

When the hostilities died down, Coe moved with his relatives to San Juan County, where he had further trouble with outlaws and where he acquired a wife. Eventually Coe obtained amnesty from Governor Lew Wallace, and, after brief sojourns in Nebraska and Colorado, in 1884 he returned to Lincoln County to make his permanent home. He homesteaded what became known as the Golden Glow Ranch and also operated a store there. Coe became a staunch family man, and, following a conversion to Christianity, he hung up his guns for the rest of his long life.

Jesse Evans left his Missouri home at an early age, was employed as a cowboy in Lampasas County, Texas, and then in 1872 migrated to New Mexico and soon found work on John Chisum's spread. Within a few years he turned to outlawry, robbing stores and isolated camps and organizing a band of rustlers which included, at various times, Billy the Kid, Tom Hill, Frank Baker, and numerous other ruffians. Evans was briefly jailed, and he was constantly under indictment. He became an early member of the Murphy-Dolan faction in the Lincoln County War. The country soon became too hot for him, however, and he shifted his rustling activities to Southwest Texas. In 1880 he killed a Texas Ranger-during a general shootout, and he was sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. He escaped from a work gang in May, 1882, and tereafter disappeared from verifiable history.

George W. Hindman was a Texas cowboy who drifted into New Mexico in 1875 with a cattle herd and decided to stay. After a nonfatal gunfight with his bosses, Hindman broke away and hired on at the Lincoln County ranch of Robert Casey. Shortly thereafter Hindman encountered a huge grizzly bear, and although he shot the creature, he entered a somewhat uneven wrestling match with it, which resulted in a severe mauling and the permanent crippling of his hand and arm. A couple of years later Sheriff William Brady appointed him a deputy, and in February, 1878, he was a member of the "posse" which assassinated John Tunstall, thereby triggering the Lincoln County War. A few weeks afterward, Hindman and Brady were gunned down in the streets of Lincoln by Tunstall sympathizers.

One of ten children of Heiskell Jones, John Jones moved with his family from Iowa to Colorado in 1861, and five years later from Colorado to Lincoln County, New Mexico. The Joneses operated several different spreads and on one occasion sold out to the homicidal Horrell brothers from Texas. John became dissatisfied with the tranquil life of a cowhand, and by 1878 he had become involved with rustlers and with the Murphy-Dolan crowd during the Lincoln County War. He killed Bill Riley and John Beckwith in quarrels over land and cattle, respectively, but was himself gunned down by peace officer Bob Olinger in 1879.

Billy Matthews was a native of Tennessee who fought through the Civil War with Company M of the Fifth Tennessee Cavalry. After the war he drifted west, and by 1807 he had become a miner in Elizabethtown, New Mexico. In 1873 Jacob B. Matthews moved to Lincoln, where he served as circuit court clerk and found employment with L. G. Murphy and James J. Dolan. He eventually worked up to a partnership with Dolan and John H. Riley - just in time to become embroiled in their feud with Alexander McSween and John Tunstall.

As a deputy of Sheriff William Brady, Matthews led the posse which assassinated Tunstall. He also was a principal in the gunfight which resulted in the deaths of Brady and George Hindman. In addition, he fought in the climactic four-day shootout in Lincoln, and he was later indicted for murder in the death of lawyer H. J. Chapman.

Years after Lincoln County had settled down, Matthews moved to Roswell, where in 1898 President McKinley appointed him postmaster. He was reappointed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, but he died two years later.

John Middleton drifted into New Mexico from Kansas sometime in the 1870's. He was described by rancher John Tunstall as "about the most desperate looking man I ever set eyes on (& that is not saying a little.) I could fancy him doing anything ruffianly that I ever heard of, that is from his appearance, but he is as mild & composed as any man can be, but his arms are never out of his reach."

Perhaps because he was a hard case, Middleton was hired by Tunstall on the eve of the Lincoln County War. He was only a short distance away when Tunstall was killed, and he was member of the posse of "Regulators" who murdered Frank Baker, Billy Morton, and William McCloskey in retribution. Middleton was one of the men who ambushed Sheriff William Brady and Deputy George Hindman for further revenge, and a short time later he was severely wounded in the shootout at Blazer's Mill.

This brush with death apparently quenched his thirst for violence: he went to Fort Sumner to recuperate, then migrated to Sun City, Kansas, where he opened a grocery store. In later years he lived in several Kansas towns and continually, and unsuccessfully, tried to wheedle money out of Tunstall's father in England. In 1885 he was busy in Oklahoma with Belle Starr, whose husband Sam was temporarily absent. But that spring Middleton was ambushed and shot to death.

Born in Uvalde, Texas, as the son of an Irish immigrant, Tom O'Folliard moved with his parents to Monclova, Mexico, before the Civil War. But Tom's parents soon died in a smallpox epidemic, and he was reared in Uvalde by relatives.

In 1878 the young man drifted into New Mexico, fell into bad company, stole some horses from Emil Fritz, a member of one faction in the Lincoln County War, and thus found himself entangled in the bloody feud. He quickly became friends with Billy the Kid, shot his way out of Alexander McSween's burning home with the Kid, and joined the Kid's band of rustlers.

O'Folliard and the Kid submitted to arrest together, and they also escaped custody together. For months they were active as stock thieves, ranging as far as the Texas Panhandle. During this period O'Folliard witnessed the murder in Lincoln of one-armed lawyer Huston Chapman at the hands of Jesse Evans, William Campbell, and Billy Matthews. On another occasion Pat Garrett's posse drew within three hundred yards. and after a furious chase, during which there was a heavy exchange of shots, O'Folliard outdistanced the lawmen.

Although O'Folliard's uncle, Texas Ranger Thalis Cook, tried to persuade him to surrender, O'Folliard remained a hunted fugitive until late in 1880, when he was shot and killed by Garrett's posse.

John Wallace Olinger was a brother of Bob Olinger, who was killed by Billy the Kid in a jailbreak. Both brothers became involved in the Lincoln County War, being deputized by Sheriff George Peppin to fight against Alexander McSween's "Regulators." One month after the big four-day shootout in Lincoln, Wallace participated in a gunfight on behalf of his ranch partner, but from that point on he led a quiet existence.

Bob Olinger moved with his family from Ohio to Oklahoma, then drifted into New Mexico about 1876 and obtained the position of town marshal of Seven Rivers in Lincoln County. Robert A. Olinger ("The Big Indian") was suspected of aiding local outlaws, and he soon turned to punching cattle for a living. Olinger also was involved in the Lincoln County War, playing a minor role as one of the besiegers of Alexander McSween's store in July, 1878. He later pinned on a badge again as one of Pat Garrett's Lincoln County deputies, and in January, 1881, he received an appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal, although months later he was arrested in Las Vegas for illegally carrying arms.

Olinger was killed by Billy the Kid during a bold jailbreak from the Lincoln courthouse. At the time of his death Olinger had completed arrangements to rent an irrigated farm for three thousand dollars per year, but he was gunned down before he could pursue those plans.

Yginio Salazar's primary notoriety as a gunfighter stems from his participation in the Lincoln County War. Although just fifteen years of age, he signed on with the Alexander McSween faction, which was enlisting anyone willing to brandish a gun. He was in only one fight - the climactic battle in Lincoln in which he enjoyed a miraculous escape from death. After recovering from his wounds, he joined Governor Lew Wallace's "Lincoln County Riflemen," which existed briefly to assist the authorities in restoring order.

At about that time Salazar furnished Billy the Kid with a file and other tools which the outlaw used to free himself from his shackles just before he shot his way out of custody in Lincoln. When the hostilities finally ceased, Salazar remained in Lincoln for the rest of a long and peaceful existence.

After a killing in his native Tennessee, Josiah G. Scurlock ("Doc") fled to South America, then worked his way back toward the States through Mexico. Scurlock appeared in New Mexico during the 1870's as a cowhand on John Chisum's huge ranch. (The two men had known each other in Tennessee, and Chisum tried to have Scurlock cleared of murder charges.) In 1876 Scurlock was involved in the shooting of his friend Mike Harkins, but it was determined that the latter's death was accidental.

Scurlock married a native New Mexican and acquired a tiny spread of his own, but when the Lincoln County War erupted, he hired his gun to the McSween "Regulators." He was a member of the possee which killed Frank Baker and Billy Morton, and he was present at the battle at Blazer's Mill which resulted in the deaths of Dick Brewer and Buckshot Roberts. He was a participant in the big shootout in Lincoln, then joined Billy the Kid's band of fugitives and cattle rustlers. He seemed to realize the futility of this way of life, however, and he soon rejoined his family and found employment on Pete Maxwell's Fort Sumner ranch. But his reform proved to be temporary, and he was killed in a gunfight in 1882.

There are some historians that say that Doc Scurlock lived past the gunfight of 1882. This could be more of the Billy the Kid myth, but I did recieve the following email: I am a genealogist & writer and thought you might want to know that there are census records of Doc, very much alive, after 1900. I can email them to you if you need proof. Doc went straight and lived to be 90 or so. Have a photo of the old gent as well. You can make up your own mind.

A quarterblood Cherokee, Frederick T. Wait ("Dash Wait," "Dash Waite") married an Indian woman and settled in Lincoln County, New Mexico. He was employed by English rancher John Tunstall just before the outbreak of the Lincoln County War. Wait followed Billy the Kid during the ensuing skirmishes, and when the Kid left New Mexico, Wait went with him to the Texas Panhandle. On one occasion, while riding alone in the Panhandle, Wait was jumped by a posse and escaped lynching only by flashing the secret distress signal of a Freemason. When the Kid and Tom O'Folliard decided to return to New Mexico, Wait went back to his home in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. There he served as a tax collector, dying in 1895 at the age of forty-two.

Richard M. Brewer moved with his family in 1860 to a farm in Wisconsin. At the age of eighteen he left home and went West, arriving in Lincoln County in 1870. He established a farm, and his interest in horse breeding brought him in close contact with a neighbor, Englishman John Tunstall. He became foreman of Tunstall's ranch, and when his employer was murdered he led the so-called Regulators in revenge until he was himself killed.

A Texan, Lon Chambers wore a badge in the Panhandle, then drifted into New Mexico during the manhunt for Billy the Kid. Chambers was with Pat Garrett's posse when they ambushed the Kid in Fort Sumner, resulting in the death of Tom O'Folliard. A few days later the posse caught the Kid and his four surviving cohorts in an isolated rock house. They killed Charlie Bowdre and forced the rest to surrender. Within a year or two, however, Chambers decided that the rewards of carrying a gun for the law were not commensurate with the risks. Following a train robbery in Kansas, he won acquittal and disappeared from notoriety.

William H. Johnson, a Confederate captain during the Civil War, drifted to New Mexico after the war and married the daughter of fellow Southerner Henry Beckwith. By 1876 Johnson was part owner of a ranch with Wallace Olinger, but when the Lincoln County War erupted two years later, both partners entered the fighting on the side of the Seven Rivers Crowd. Johnson served for a time as one of Sheriff William Brady's deputies, and he survived the general hostilities only to be shot to death by his father-in-law as a result of a family feud.

John "Jack" ("Long John") Long was first involved in shooting troubles in Texas, where he killed two men at turbulent Fort Griffin. He then gravitated to Lincoln County, New Mexico, managing to secure an appointment as deputy sheriff. Long inevitably became involved in the Lincoln County War; he was a member of the posse which assassinated John Tunstall, thus triggering the conflict, and he was a prominent figure in the climactic four-day battle in Lincoln. Following these violent events. Long apparently retreated from the gunman's role, for his name was connected with no further shootouts.

A cowboy by trade, Frank McNab was employed by cattle king John Chisum and eventually became one of the foremen on Chisum's South Spring Ranch in New Mexico. When the Lincoln County War broke out, McNab naturally aligned with the Chisum-McSween "Regulators." He was instrumental in the revenge murders of Frank Baker, Billy Morton, and William McCloskey, and after Dick Brewer was killed at Blazer's Mill, McNab became a leader of the Regulator's. A short time later, however, he was shot to death by a large posse of his adversaries.

Reared in Decatur, Texas, Tom Pickett got into trouble at the age of seventeen for stealing cattle. His father, a member of the state legislature and a former Confederate officer, mortgaged the family home and paid the heavy fine. Pickett then served briefly with the Texas Rangers, trailed a cattle herd to Kansas, and became a gambler in the wide-open cowtowns. He met rustler Dave Rudabaugh and followed him to New Mexico. There Tom served as a peace officer for a short time in Las Vegas and in White Oaks before hiring on as a cowhand for Charlie Bowdre in the Fort Sumner area. He soon fell into rustling with Bowdre, Rudabaugh, Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson, and Tom O'Folliard.

In December, 1880, O'Folliard was killed by Pat Garrett's posse in Fort Sumner, and Pickett and the others galloped away in a panic. A few days later they were captured after a siege in an isolated rock cabin. Released on three hundred dollars' bail, Pickett hung around Las Vegas for a while before drifting into northern Arizona. There he caught on with the Hash Knife outfit and participated in the GrahamTewksbury feud.

After receiving a serious leg wound, Pickett returned to punching cattle. In 1888 he married Catherine Kelly, whose mother ran a boarding house in Holbrook, Arizona. A year later, however, his wife died in childbirth, along with the baby, and Pickett again began wandering.

Pickett gambled professionally, tended bar, prospected for gold, worked as a cowhand, and served as a deputy U.S. marshal during the Wilson administration. At last he was forced to have his leg amputated, and he returned to northern Arizona. He died at seventysix in Pinetop and was laid to rest in Winslow.

A native of the South, Andrew L. Roberts ("Buckshot") had a widespread but rather vague reputation as a desperado and gunman. He was rumored to have been an army deserter, a convict, a Texas Ranger, and an enemy of Texas Rangers. Supposedly he had come to New Mexico after having a shootout with the rangers, and his body movements were permanently impaired because he had been severely wounded in some obscure gun battle. He was lame and fired his rifle from the hip because he was unable to raise it above waist level.

Roberts acquired his sobriquet because he like to use a shotgun, because he carried a load of buckshot in his body, or because he had left Texas with shotguns blazing at his fleeing figure. He was a member of the Lincoln County posse which assassinated rancher John Tunstall, and a short time later he was himself shot to death by another posse in a bloody shootout at Blazer's Mill.

Known in Texas as Tom Chelson, by the late 1870's Tom Hill was in New Mexico as rustler Jesse Evans' right-hand man. In October, 1877, Evans, Hill, and two other desperadoes raided the Tunstall and Brewer ranches in Lincoln County, and subsequently the bandits were chased down, captured, and incarcerated in Lincoln. But within weeks thirty-two of their cohorts boldly galloped into town and freed them from the unlocked jail. A few months later Hill was instrumental in the death of John Tunstall, which ignited the the murderous Lincoln County War. But Hill was not around for the rest of the fighting; within two weeks he was shot and killed while trying to rob a sheep camp.

Albert Jennings (he later added Fountain to his name) traveled abroad extensively as a youth before settling in California in the 1850's. In 1859 he became a journalist for the Sacramento Union and covered William Walker's filibustering activities in Latin America. During the Civil War, Fountain joined the First California Infantry Volunteers, and in 1862 he came to New Mexico as a member of Carleton's California Column. In Mesilla he married fourteenyear-old Mariana Perez, who eventually bore him a dozen children.

When the war ended, Fountain organized a militia company to fight Indians, and he was severely wounded in a skirmish in 1865. Soon he moved to nearby El Paso, where he became a deputy collector of customs, county surveyor, and attorney, with time out to fight in Mexico with Benito Juarez as a colonel of artillery. In 1868 he won election to the Texas Senate. Soon he was selected president of that body, and Governor E. J. Davis appointed him brigadier general of the Texas State Police. Fountain was involved in a fatal gunfight in 1870, his political career was turbulent, and in 1875 he moved back to Mesilla.

Fountain was a colorful and controversial lawyer, and at different times he served as an assistant U.S. district attorney and as a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives. On occasion he led Mexican supporters (who were derisively termed "Fountain's Greasers" by Anglos) against outlaw gangs and marauding Apaches.

In 1875, Fountain served for a short time as a district attorney, during which time he greatly opposed the Santa Fe Ring and their crooked dealings. He became copublisher of the Mesilla Valley Independent in 1877 and often used the newspaper as a platform to blast the Santa Fe Ring. In 1879, Fountain left the newspaper. He remained a lawyer and was friends with many men on the Tunstall side in the Lincoln County War. Fountain was appointed to serve as the lawyer for Billy the Kid in the Kid's trial for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. Needless to say, Fountain lost this case and Billy was sentenced to death. On Feb. 1, 1896,

In the late 1880's Fountain began a bitter power struggle with Albert B. Fall, who in time became secretary of the interior and a key villain in the notorious Teapot Dome scandal. Fountain and Fall first duelled through opposing newspapers, but soon the feud grew violent. In 1886 Fountain and his youngest child, nine-year-old Henry, were killed in the White Sands while returning to Mesilla, creating one of the great mysteries of the Southwest. Their bodies disappeared, an extensive manhunt and subsequent court proceedings failed to reveal the killers, and the subject remained obscure and dangerous to discuss.

Attempting to usurp the stranglehold of the House was John Henry Tunstall, a young man with cold, hard cash supplied by his father, a London businessman. By hook or crook, Tunstall was determined to be a success in America, and he came prepared with a bag of tricks that included a combination of Machiavellian tactics and pure capitalism.

Tunstall was supported by an able captain, Alexander McSween, an attorney not overly concerned with business ethics and bent on making his own fortune. Through McSween, Tunstall met John Simpson Chisum, a legendary cattle baron with a finger in many pies, who was willing to invest in Tunstall's plans because they held the promise of securing the borders of his empire and ending the rustling that was cutting into his profits.

The trio formed a loose association, wherein Tunstall would anchor the territory around Lincoln; Chisum would supply beef, funds, men and the force and integrity of his reputation; while McSween handled the legal affairs of the group. With the formation of this ring, the stage was set for a conflict, one that should have been waged on ledgers, but instead eroded into as bloody a fight as ever hit the Southwest.

In the opening gambits, the Tunstall-Chisum group opened a bank and store to compete with the House. These economic challengers worked out agreements with the small farmers and ranchers, contracting for all livestock feed raised in Lincoln County. Then agreements were reached with various settlers that would provide Tunstall control of water rights--which in desert country provided the holder sway over pasture for miles around. As capitalism was practiced in Europe, such tactics would not have caused a ripple. But in the American West, economic advantage was largely a matter of forcing one's will on another, and the House quickly realized the danger of Tunstall's schemes and organized a resistance.

Tunstall naively expected the battles to be fought in court, as economic wars were waged in Europe and Eastern America. He never dreamed that when his business acumen began to ruin his opponent that Murphy's forces would react so aggressively. By underestimating their resolve and methods, Tunstall wound up dead--shot to death on February 18, 1878, by a sheriff's "posse" composed of outlaws and minions of the House sent to attach livestock as bond for a lawsuit.

Immediately after the posse had shot down Tunstall, Alexander McSween gathered around him a cadre of the toughest men he could find. Some were already on the Tunstall payroll, some were sent by Chisum and some joined because they had a grudge against the House--all were bad men to mess with. Among the group was a drifter known as Big Jim French.

Exactly why Big Jim was in New Mexico Territory and how he managed to get involved in the Lincoln County War has never been clearly understood, but the evidence points very strongly to happenstance. Old-timer Frank Coe, who fought in the war, said in the 1870s that French had been a drifter from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) who had begun working for Chisum. Coe added that he suspected Chisum had sent French along with several others to support the McSween faction. No other participant ever made a statement to explain French's presence.

Chisum was known to purchase cattle and horses throughout Indian Territory and Texas to fulfill contracts, and some writers have asserted that in December 1877, Tunstall went with Chisum to purchase horses that were to be delivered to Chisum and held until Tunstall was ready for them. If such a buying trip did happen, it's possible that French was one of the riders hired to escort the herd and that he gained temporary employment with Chisum before being sent to Lincoln.

The theory is plausible and fits the timing of French's entry into Lincoln. As to why the man got involved in the fighting, old-timers have hinted that McSween hired men to protect himself and his family. As French's movements during the war can be traced by following the movements of the McSweens, it's probable that French began his career in Lincoln as one of those paid bodyguards.

It has also been speculated that McSween offered a bounty for the elimination of the men responsible for Tunstall's death. This bounty and the need for revenge seem to be the reasons the self-styled Regulators began operating in the area. French attached himself to this group. The two killings he participated in during the war were both rumored to be assassinations based on the promised bounty offered by McSween. French was probably in the dangerous game simply for the money.

Florencio Chaves was a member of the Regulator posse that captured Frank Baker and Buck Morton, two of the men responsible for the murder of John Tunstall. After the posse captured the pair, according to Chaves, posse member Bill McCloskey aroused the ire and suspicion of several in the party because of his refusal to allow any harm to befall Baker and Morton. Chaves said that a plan was devised to kill McCloskey.

It seems the Kid, Jim French and Fred Waite were riding ahead of the prisoners on March 9, 1878, while Doc Scurlock, McCloskey and Henry Brown were riding behind. Waite dropped back beside Scurlock and asked McCloskey, "How's the best way to kill those sons a bitches?" By insisting the pair be taken to the sheriff, McCloskey sealed his death warrant, because French immediately dropped back, placing his horse in McCloskey's path, effectively boxing him between Waite and Brown. Without a word, Brown pulled out his six-shooter and shot McCloskey, killing him instantly.

The prisoners, according to Chaves, now knew for sure what was in store for them, so they tried to make a run for it and were shot to doll rags. Chaves' version makes more sense than the cover story that McCloskey was shot by the prisoners and Baker and Morton were shot trying to escape.

The second killing French participated in was a premeditated murder, for French and several others opened up from concealment, with Winchesters, on Sheriff Brady's party as it passed down the street of Lincoln on April Fool's Day. The excuse used to justify this act was that Brady was thought to be in cahoots with the House, and Deputy George Hindman was a part of the posse that had eliminated Tunstall less than two weeks earlier.

During the fighting, Billy the Kid and French ran out to rifle the bodies of the victims, and each was wounded in the hip. French's injury was serious enough that he could not ride. He was given first aid by the Rev. Taylor F. Ealy. Clerk Sam Corbet, who had been one of Tunstall's staunchest supporters, then hid French beneath the floor of the Tunstall store while men searched the building.

Later, French was moved to a cabin behind Frank Coe's place where he convalesced for several days. After recovering, French confined his activities to protecting the McSweens, a role he took seriously. In mid-July the so-called Five-Day Battle took place. The McSween house was under siege, and there was sporadic shooting. French remained inside the home, shouting profanities at the forces of James J. Dolan, who had replaced the seriously ill Murphy as head of the opposing faction. After five days of siege, Dolan's men set fire to the house and the gunfire increased.

On the night of the 19th, five of the defenders--Billy the Kid, José Chávez y Chávez, Harvey Morris, Tom O'Folliard and French--broke out of the house, trying to create a distraction that would allow McSween and the others to escape. Morris and McSween were among the casualties that night. French, who, like the Kid, got away, later returned to Lincoln to protect McSween's widow, Susan.

Few folks have offered any hints as to what happened to French after the Lincoln County War. U.S. Army Captain G.A. Purington included in an 1879 field report a rumor that French had been killed during a quarrel over the distribution of stolen cattle. Nearly 60 years later, Herbert Cody Blake related that he understood French left for South America after the fighting. Fellow Regulator Frank Coe insisted that French had returned to what would become Oklahoma and was shot there around 1924.

Researchers have largely accepted at face value the allegation made by Frank Coe that French was a Cherokee Indian. In 1870s Lincoln, however, most men thought to have Indian blood were apparently labeled "Cherokee," including a Navajo herder.

Researching Oklahoma Indian heritage is relatively simple. When the federal government decided to end tribal governments, the Dawes Commission was created in 1893 to identify by blood all Indians, so that lands and resources could be distributed among tribal members. The records created by the commission were preserved and are easily accessible.

Motivated by the thought of free land, practically every person residing in the Choctaw Nation at the time filed a claim. In 1896 the eldest female member of a French clan, Lucinda French, did attempt to enroll for Choctaw tribal membership on the basis of "always having lived in the Choctaw Nation." Additionally, her declaration included a son, James French, with a birth year of 1851, some 25 years before things heated up in Lincoln County.

The document also included names and ages of siblings, the name of Jim's first spouse, and the names and ages of four children and one grandchild. One of the children is much older than the others, with a birth year of 1873. The others were born in 1887, 1892 and 1894. This discrepancy suggests that French was remarried in 1886, or returned home after a long absence. (A direct descendant of the older daughter has said that French's first wife died about the time he appeared in Lincoln County and that their child was placed for adoption by a family in Denton County, Texas.) Supportive affidavits from relatives and friends suggest that the family was thought to be a mixture of white, Choctaw and Cherokee.

However, the family could not have "always" been in the Choctaw Nation. The 1870 census of Big Creek Township, Sebastian County, Ark., shows French, his wife and a month-old son were in dwelling 178, while his parents and siblings were in dwelling 176. The child, named Fredrick L., was not found in later information.

By 1873, the French clan, according to a description given in a Federal Court case, was living in the Poteau River bottom of the Choctaw Nation. Other information shows that his siblings, except Alfred, list their birthplaces as Texas. Furthermore, Choctaw records prepared in 1884, a decade before the Dawes Commission, list members of the family as white intruders. This persona non grata status was quite likely a reaction caused by the family's predatory acts on prominent Choctaws. What is certain is that the intruder label led to the rejection of the clan's claim of citizenship in the Choctaw Nation. The ruling was not appealed; thus the truth about French's Indian blood is uncertain.

Just why Chisum selected French to go to the aid of McSween in Lincoln has never been explained, other than an oft-quoted theory that Big Jim was a crime-toughened outlaw--a statement no one seems to have followed up on with facts. Part of the problem in doing so is the fragmentary records preserved from the old Federal District Court of Western Arkansas, the court of the famed hanging judge, Isaac C. Parker, which had jurisdiction over the area purported to be French's stamping grounds. Those records are organized by crime rather than by individuals, making research of the criminal activity of a specific individual an exceptionally difficult process.

But if one has names of family members, one can cross-reference the various criminals within the records. In this manner, some 20 cases of members of the Lucinda French family were identified, demonstrating that Big Jim was but a single member of a family of Indian Territory outlaws. Two cases associated with this family provide a specific location for their home from 1887 to 1896, at a site within four miles of present-day Keota--thus establishing for the first time a supportive link with a specific Jim French and the community of Keota.

Another court case establishes a possible reason for French's presence in New Mexico Territory during the Lincoln County War. In 1875 a warrant for horse theft was assigned to Oliver French, a brother, and it also includes an alias warrant for "one" French, which may have been Big Jim. The warrant was never served, but simply being the subject of a Federal warrant has certainly been sufficient cause for men to head for parts unknown.

In addition, another case supports the tradition that French returned to Indian Territory in the fall of 1878. French appeared before U.S. Commissioner James Brizzolara on July 5, 1879, to answer a larceny charge of selling the hide of a cow belonging to a man named Mitchell who rented from Edmund Burgevin, a wealthy intermarried citizen farming in the Cache Creek bottom west of Skullyville (sometimes spelled Scullyville), Indian Territory. During the trial, Mitchell testified he had last seen his cow in the fall of 1878 and had discovered the hide near the J.L. Tibbetts Store in Skullyville in March 1879. Tibbetts recalled his clerk had bought a "green hide," meaning one that was not tanned, from French during the spring.

In response to a question from the court, Burgevin declared French was "a white man, not a citizen of the Indian Country by nationality or adoption." The significance of this announcement is that a recognized tribal leader clearly established the court's right to hear the case. This case was the first of many involving Burgevin and the French family, and is probably the source of the loathing Burgevin felt; it also explains why Burgevin was probably the tribal authority who listed them as intruders.

Commissioner Brizzolara discharged French, dismissing the charge as unfounded after a reliable witness testified that it was the custom of the country for anyone discovering a dead cow to have the privilege of skinning the animal and selling the hide, regardless of actual ownership, and no testimony had been presented that Jim had actually killed the cow. But Jim was not quite done with court, for later in the day he and his parents testified on behalf of brothers Patrick J. and William Oliver French, who were being examined for stealing a team of horses from a widow.

Nor was Commissioner Brizzolara finished hearing cases involving the French clan. In July 1886, brothers Pat, Oliver and Jim French were the subject of a criminal warrant for assault following threats against the life of their brother-in-law Charles Glenn, a man who had been the backbone of their defense in two earlier trials. Glenn's affidavit declared, "I do believe and fear that they will attempt to carry out this [murder] threat...."

From this allegation forward, Jim does not appear in territorial court records as a defendant, probably because he remarried and settled down. But French may not have been as inoffensive as the lack of records seem to indicate; it's possible that Jim was no longer in Indian Territory. There is a cryptic notation in Big Jim's biographical information that observes, though there was no known connection, a man known as Jim French was wanted on felony charges in Grayson County, Texas, in 1886. Neighboring Denton County is where Jim French placed his infant daughter with an adoptive family, and didn't French disappear from the Oklahoma scene about the same time as this other fellow was charged in Texas?

The rest of the family certainly did not become model citizens. Brothers Oliver, Pat, Al, Steve and Tom French continued to make frequent appearances in court, defending against such crimes as assault, kidnapping, whiskey peddling and theft. Eventually, Steve and Tom French were sent to Federal prisons. Although it has been established that one-time Regulator Jim French lived until at least 1905, a search of area resources failed to confirm the claim that French was killed in Oklahoma circa 1924. No verified photo of Big Jim French has surfaced. Much about his life will have to remain shadowy, and what became of him in the 20th century is simply unknown. Anyone for a Jim French posthumous pardon?

The law was twisted and used by both sides to further their ends, and when that failed to serve, unadorned murder took its place. Head of the House ring was Tom Catron, Santa Fe's prosecuting attorney and one of the most powerful politicians on the frontier; in Mesilla, seat of Dona Ana County, the ring was represented by Colonel William L. Rynerson, a giant Tennesseean who had fought on the Rio Grande for the Union.

The Murphy mercantile firm was headed by Major Lawrence G. Murphy, an immigrant Irishman who had enlisted in Kit Carson's famous New Mexico Volunteers. After Appomattox he joined forces with Lieutenant Colonel Emil Fritz, a German soldier of fortune, and the two built a stone store at Fort Stanton. When the army paid them $8,000 for the store and its supplies, the partners built a bigger headquarters known as "The House" in the western part of Lincoln County.

Jimmy Dolan, like Murphy, was an Irish immigrant. Before he enlisted he had worked in a dry-goods store back east. Following his discharge at Fort Stanton, he was hired as a clerk in Murphy's store. He was bright, efficient, and knew how to keep account books. As the years passed he became indispensable to Murphy; by 1877 he controlled the firm's many enterprises in the cattle country. Jimmy Riley, another aggressive young Irishman, bought his way into Murphy's firm with a $6,000 investment and helped Dolan boss the business and the cow camps.

About the time the Kid arrived at the Coe ranch, Lieutenant Colonel Fritz, Murphy's partner, died in Stuttgart, Germany, leaving a $10,000 insurance policy to his sister and brother who had settled on the Rio Bonito, eight miles from Lincoln. The policy would have a strange effect on the Kid's destiny.

At the Coe ranch Billy also met Dick Brewer, undisputed leader of the small ranchers who were fighting Chisum's land monopoly. Sitting around the large, rough-hewn table in the Coe's main house, the Kid heard Brewer describe how he and his fellow ranchers had been victimized by Murphy's high rate credit system. Brewer also disclosed that two new faces had appeared in the county within the last year: Alexander A. McSween, an attorney with offices in Lincoln, and John Tunstall, an Englishman who had established a ranch at the headwaters of the Rio Feliz (Felix) and had opened a store in Lincoln to compete with the Murphy mercantile business.

Many of the small ranchers had transferred their accounts to Tunstall, who had a reputation for honesty and fairness. As a result, Murphy's business, heavily mortgaged to Tom Catron, head of the Santa Fe Ring, was in financial difficulties.

Jesse (Jessie) Evans's gunmen had threatened several of the ranchers, Brewer revealed, and there had been some near confrontations. The volatile county was near bursting into flame. It is believed Brewer, who was Tunstall's foreman, introduced the Kid to the Englishman who immediately hired the eighteen-year-old drifter. Many years later Frank Coe recalled: "Tunstall saw the boy was quick to learn and not afraid of anything ... he made Billy a present of a good horse, saddle and a new gun ... my, but the boy was proud ... said it was the first time in his life he had ever had anything given to him ..."

In Silver City Billy had adopted Mrs. Truesdell, the kindly boardinghouse owner as a surrogate mother; the cultured Englishman from a different world now became a father image.

Frank Coe also saw an example of Billy's skill with a six-shooter. One day the Kid met Coe to help him cut oats on the Brewer ranch. As they rode through the valley, Billy pointed to a row of cowbirds sitting on a branch. As Frank said, he never saw Billy draw but he did see the birds tumble off their perch. As in all tragedies, the peculiar knack that brings success also brings ruination ...

Billy could understand Tunstall who, for all his funny accent and a library valued at $3,000, was also familiar with horses and cattle and loved the majestic country of the Feliz, but McSween made him uncomfortable.

The lawyer was a townsman, frail, round-shouldered, with dark hair, smoldering dark eyes, and a deep, rolling voice that sounded like a preacher's when he spoke of the evils of Murphy, Dolan, Riley, their hired gunmen, and the corrupt men who headed the Santa Fe Ring.

McSween, a graduate of Saint Louis University, had first practiced in Kansas but chronic asthma brought him to the arid plains of New Mexico and finally Lincoln. He had led Tunstall to the county, warned the Englishman that Dolan and Murphy were trying to sell him untitled land, then advised him to buy the Rio Feliz ranch.

McSween was retained by the late Lieutenant Colonel Fritz's brother and sister to collect the $10,000 insurance policy. During the winter of 1877 McSween traveled to New York to collect the money and made side trips to Kansas, combining the Fritz family business with transactions he was doing for John Chisum.

During his absence Jimmy Dolan persuaded the Fritz relatives to sue McSween for failing to turn over the money, although the lawyer had made it clear he was still trying to determine if there were additional heirs in Germany who might lay claim to the policy. Significantly, Tom Catron's firm, Catron & Thornton of Santa Fe, was retained by the Fritz family in their action against McSween.

During the winter of 1877 and 1878, the Dolan-Murphy-Riley group instituted a series of legal maneuvers against McSween, aided by the political power of the Santa Fe Ring. Christmas saw the lines drawn in Lincoln County: McSween-Tunstall against Murphy & Co., its junior partners, Dolan and Riley, aided by Jesse Evans's band of outlaws and Lincoln County's sheriff, William Brady, who admitted to McSween in a moment of frustration, "Murphy controls me."

Billy, now known as the Kid, gradually emerged as leader of the hands on Tunstall's ranch. It was the day of the gun and not only the Englishman's riders but also those who worked the range for Dolan and Murphy had seen or had heard about the boy's extraordinary skill with a six-shooter.

Billy was still the lighthearted youngster George Coe had first met, but now there was also a tense alertness about him. He still laughed a lot and delighted in dancing with the Mexican girls at the neighborhood baile, but his friends noticed the blue eyes could suddenly become cold and hostile when strangers approached the Tunstall spread or when he escorted his employer on the long ride to Lincoln.

In February the Murphy group made its first move. Billy Mathews, deputized by Sheriff Brady, and the Jesse Evans gang, all sworn in as a "sheriff's posse," rode to the Tunstall ranch.

A few days before, Brady, armed with a writ of attachment, had confiscated McSween's private and personal property. Now with another writ Mathews and his gang attempted to take over Tunstall's cattle and horse herds on the tenuous charge that Tunstall was McSween's business partner.

Mathews and his men found the ranch "forted up" with Billy warning them they were ready to shoot it out. Mathews retreated but promised to return. That afternoon Bob Widenmann, Tunstall's friend who sometimes tended his steers, rode to Lincoln to warn Tunstall.

The following morning the Englishman returned to his ranch and ordered Billy and the others to leave; rather than risk their lives he had decided to turn over his cattle and horse herd to the sheriff's posse and seek redress in the courts. Billy urged him to go back to Lincoln and let them defend his ranch and property but Tunstall was adamant; he had faith in America's democracy and laws, he told the angry boy; all the steers and horses in the West weren't worth a man's life.

The next day they headed back to Lincoln: Tunstall, Billy, his best friend, the half-Cherokee Fred Waite, Dick Brewer, Bob Widenmann, and John Middleton, a young cowboy. They had with them nine horses, all personal property and not included in the writ of attachment.

Unknown to them Dolan, with another large "sheriff's posse," arrived at the Tunstall ranch a short time later. When Tunstall's old cook, Godfrey (George) Gauss, told him his boss had left for Lincoln, Mathews selected a dozen riders under the leadership of Billy Morton, Dolan's new camp foreman, to bring back the horses.

The light was purpling when Morton's posse caught up with Tunstall's party on the desolate mountain trail. Billy, in the rear, pulled up short at the sound of rifle fire. When he looked back he saw thirteen men outlined on the crest of a small rise. Suddenly with shouts and cries they started galloping down the road. Billy shouted a warning. All of them scattered, riding hard to reach a small hill dotted with boulders where the Kid later said "we could make a stand."

When they reached the hill's peak they were dismayed to find Tunstall who - Middleton later testified was "excited and confused" - had remained behind and riders were surrounding him. There were shots and moments later the softspoken Englishman who had hoped to find a "new life," as he called it, in the American West, was dead and the Lincoln County War had begun. The framework of the events of the Lincoln County War have been told many times but only the lean, stark surviving accounts of those who were there, including Billy, tell the real story.

Mike Tower. Uncovering Myths of the Lincoln County War. Wild West. December 2004.


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