Lincoln County War
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.
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 ChÃ¡vez y ChÃ¡vez, 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.
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