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On Walkabout In: Lincoln, New Mexico

For those interested in American Old West history there are few towns with as much historical significance as Lincoln, New Mexico.  Just about everyone in the US has heard of the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, but probably few know that the region he roamed was in the southeastern corner of New Mexico and in particular Lincoln County.  The city of Lincoln was the then center of the mercantile and political activity for the county:


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The town of Lincoln was at the epicenter of what became known as the Lincoln County War that brought William Bonney AKA, Billy the Kid to national prominence.  This war was caused by competing business factions in Lincoln County.  The town for many years was controlled economically and politically by Lawrence Murphy who owned a large store in town.  Then in the late 1870’s a British man by the name of John Henry Tunstall moved into the area and opened a store with attorney Alexander Sween.  Murphy and his business partner J.J. Dolan were intent to run Tunstall and Sween out of town to keep the monopoly they once had.  In the middle of all this in 1877 the young man William Bonney rode into town and allied himself with the Tunstall-Sween faction.  After the murder of Tunstall by the Murphy-Dolan faction Bonney executed his revenge that sparked the Lincoln County War which saw the unknown youth become most arguably the most famous outlaw in American history.  You can read more about the Lincoln County war here.

The only confirmed picture of Billy the Kid.

The exploits of Billy the Kid have been the subject of numerous books and movies with the most notable being the blockbuster Young Guns starring Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen:

I actually saw the movie set used to depict Lincoln in the film when I visited the old village of Los Cerrillos just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Lincoln was established by Spanish speaking settlers in the 1850’s after the US Army setup the Mescalero Apache Reservation.  These settlers first called the town Las Placitas del Rio Bonito.  In 1869 the town name was changed to Lincoln when Lincoln County was established and named after the then deceased President Abraham Lincoln.  Like I mentioned before that few people probably know that this area is where Billy the Kid roamed, even fewer probably know that another American icon, Smokey Bear is also from this region.  The city of Lincoln is located at the base of the Capitan Mountains where the legend of Smokey Bear began:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The mascot for fighting forest fires, Smokey Bear was developed in 1944 in an effort to protect the American woodlands at a time when World War II was still happening and America’s forest were a precious natural resource for the war effort.  Eventually the ad campaign would develop in the post-war years to include the now famous phrase from Smokey, “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires”.  As successful as this ad campaign would be the Forest Service lack a real life mascot for Smokey.  Well that would change when a bear cub was rescued during the Capitan Gap Fire in the spring of 1950 in the Capitan Mountains pictured below:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The bear cub was nursed back to health by New Mexico wildlife officials who eventually settled on the name Smokey for him. Eventually the media picked up on this story and this cub became a national celebrity. The cub was eventually flown to the National Zoo where he lived for 26 years until his death in 1976.  A short drive from Lincoln is the village of Capitan where the Smokey Bear Historical Park is great place to visit. Most people visit Lincoln by driving through Capitan so it is a great idea to combine a trip to both locations.

Here is a picture of Highway 380 traveling towards Lincoln from Capitan:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Here is what the Capitan Mountains looked like as we drove into Lincoln:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

These various hills and mountains pictured above are where Billy the Kid and his gang would have been hiding out during their outlaw days around Lincoln.  Here is the view as we drove into Lincoln with the old Lincoln County Courthouse pictured to the right:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

At the rear of the courthouse there is a large parking lot which is where my wife and I decided to park at and from here explore the town:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

My wife and I walked to the front of the courthouse to enter the museum which is what the building has now become.  Across from the courthouse we saw what appeared to be an old historic homestead:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Inside the old Lincoln County Courthouse is a very interesting museum that provides a great overview of the Lincoln County War that Billy the Kid and his gang were fighting in:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Speaking of Billy the Kid’s gang, here is a historical picture of his gang called The Regulators:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The museum also has a memorial to all the Lincoln County lawmen that have been killed in the line of duty to include at least six from the Lincoln County War:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

All around the museum are informative displays like this one below that describes the involvement of New Mexico’s Governor Lew Wallace with Billy the Kid:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The museum also had plenty of firearms on display that showed the types of weapons that were used back during the Billy the Kid era:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

I especially liked viewing all the historical photographs of Lincoln that show what the city looked like back in its hey day.  This picture below shows how small of a town Lincoln is that these large groups of men were fighting over:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Here is another picture from the early 1900’s of Lincoln:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Something of significant historical interest is this stairway in the courthouse:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

At the bottom of the stairs the bullets that Billy the Kid used to kill Sheriff Deputy James W. Bell:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

It is believed that Billy the Kid after being taken from the outhouse and marched up these stairs back to his jail struck the deputy over the head and during the scuffle was able to grab the deputy’s gun.  Billy fired down the staircase killing Deputy Bell.  Before he died Deputy Bell was able to stagger out this door looking for help before he collapsed and died on the lawn outside:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The 2nd floor of the building is where the courthouse was located:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

There wasn’t really a jail upstairs but rather small rooms where prisoners were chained in.  It was in one of these rooms that Billy was kept with leg and hand irons.  Inside the courthouse they have on display one of the restraints that was used on Billy:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Another Deputy Robert A. Olinger had taken other prisoners to eat dinner at the Wortley Hotel across the street.  When he heard the gunshots he headed towards the courthouse to see what was going on.  Olinger had left his loaded shotgun in the courthouse while he took the prisoners to dinner.  Billy picked up the shotgun and spotted Deputy Olinger through this courthouse window:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Billy unloaded both barrels of the shotgun into Olinger killing him.  After killing Olinger, Billy found a prospector’s pick to break the chains of his restraints and rode out of town with a shocked populace looking on.  Besides having the courthouse upstairs the local Masonic lodge met up here as well:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Something I didn’t realize until I visited Lincoln was that the Lincoln County Courthouse building was actually the headquarters of the Murphy-Dolan faction of the Lincoln County War.  The bottom of the building is where the store was located while upstairs is where the courthouse is located:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Here is a closeup view of the window where Billy fired and killed Deputy Olinger with his own shotgun:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Here is the site of where the old Wortley Hotel was located that Deputy Olinger rushed from and was shot and killed in the middle of the street by Billy:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Just a short walk from the courthouse is the Tunstall Store:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

By visiting Lincoln I realized the close quarters the rival factions lived with.  The Murphy-Dolan Store and the Tunstall Store are nearly across the street from one another.  I would think these guys must have had to use the back doors to exit their stores because of fear of being shot by a sniper from across the street.  The inside of the Tunstall Store has been turned into a small museum that shows what his store would of looked like and what it would have sold all those years ago:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Right next to the Tunstall Store is this open field which was once the McSween House:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

McSween was a lawyer that moved to Lincoln in 1875 and rebuilt an old adobe home into a 10 room house.  The house was burned down on July 19, 1878 when it was seiged by forces loyal to Murphy-Dolan faction:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

McSween was shot and killed when trying to escape the burning house, but Billy and his regulators were able to escape.  The escape from this burning home only further added to Billy’s legend.  There are plenty of other old buildings to look at in town that doesn’t have the colorful history that has made some of the other buildings so famous:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Some of these historic buildings appear to be homes or abandoned while others have been turned into small businesses like this gallery:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Here appeared to be the old Lincoln school house:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

This home below was called the Dr. Woods house and was built in 1876:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

This structure was built in the 1880’s as the home for Dr. Thomas Watson:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Watson used this building as his home and town drug store from 1903-1920.

Here are a couple of pictures of the Dolan House:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

The house has been turned into a modern day cafe, but once again it just goes to show the close quarters the enemies of the Lincoln County War lived from one another considering the McSween House was located across the street from the Dolan House:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

This torreon is one of Lincoln’s earliest structures when it was constructed in the 1850’s.  It was built by Spanish-Americans to protect themselves during Apache raids:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

These torreons are actually not unusual in New Mexico considering I saw the remains of another one at Quarai Pueblo which is just a couple of hours drive from Lincoln. This torreon actually saw action during the Lincoln County War when Murphy-Dolan faction sharpshooters occupied the torreon.

Here is a picture of the La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista Church:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

At the eastern edge of town is the Lincoln State Monument Visitor Information Center:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

Inside the visitor center is a number of displays that explains the historical significance of Lincoln.  The people working inside I found to be very helpful and informative. What I found interesting about this building, which is known as the Luna-Chavez Building is that it was once owned by Regulator Florencio Chavez.  Despite being a Regulator Chavez was married to Theodora Brady, the daughter of Sheriff William Brady who was murdered by a group of Regulators led by Billy the Kid on April 1, 1878.  I think this kind of brings home how small of town this was back then and how closely intertwined all these people were that were trying to kill each other.

Another building on the edge of town is known as the Montano Store:

Picture from Lincoln, New Mexico

This was a general store operated by the Montano family that remained neutral in the Lincoln County War.  During the war however this building was occupied by 25 of McSween’s men led by Martin Chaves.  They were driven out of the building by troops led by Colonel Dudley from Ft. Stanton.

With that, this ended our walking tour of Lincoln.  We walked fully from one side of town to the other.  If you are into Old West history you can easily spend an entire day checking out the town but most people could probably complete a tour of this town in half a day.  We both really enjoyed touring the town and have a much better feel of what it must have been like all those years ago in Lincoln. If anyone has any further information about the buildings pictured please feel free to share with everyone in the comments section.

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