Home News Vision Historically Speaking: The Lincoln County War in letters

Historically Speaking: The Lincoln County War in letters

Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Tunstall murder site" — date and person unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Following is an article I found in the Roswell Daily Record, dated Oct. 30, 1931. This article is about a presentation Maj. Maurice Garland Fulton gave at the regular meeting of the Chaves County Historical Society. (The society was the forerunner of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico.) On this date, he is speaking about the events of the Lincoln County War. He garnered the information from letters that Alexander McSween and later, Susan McSween, widow of Alexander McSween, wrote back to England about the events and happenings during the Lincoln County War.

Fulton was a professor of English and history at the New Mexico Military Institute for three decades. He co-authored and edited many books and during his tenure, he became an authority on the Lincoln County War and southwestern history.

He was an active speaker of the Chaves County Historical Society, giving regular talks of the true events of the local history here, as it was.

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For those of you who know the history of the Lincoln County War, or have attended the Billy the Kid Days pageant in Lincoln and heard the story, one of the things you may not realize is the very young age of some of the main players of the war. Alexander McSween was only 35 years of age at the time of his death, John Tunstall was 24 years old when he was gunned down by the Murphy-Dolan faction, and Billy the Kid was only 21 years old at the time of his death.

Vision Editor’s comment: Maurice Garland Fulton has the military title major in the following article. However, he served in the U.S. Army in World War I, achieving the rank of a colonel, which was above the rank of lieutenant colonel and major. His obituary in the Roswell Daily Record, Feb. 14, 1955, confirms his rank, naming him Col. Maurice G. Fulton. His services were held at Ballard Chapel and he was laid to rest in South Park Cemetery.

Roswell Daily Record

Oct. 30, 1931

McSween Letters Vividly Describe Events Of War Days In Lincoln County

“Major M.G. Fulton Presents Proof That Historic Lincoln County Conflict Is Not Bound in Mystery As Believed By Many For More Than A Half Century

“Dispelling the beliefs that for more than a half a century the events and motives of the Lincoln County War were shrouded in mystery and would never be fully known, Major M.G. Fulton, of the New Mexico Military Institute, last night at the regular meeting of the Chaves County Historical Society, presented a mass of documentary evidence bearing directly on the happenings of those days in Eastern New Mexico when Lincoln County was at war.

“Pulling the curtains of uncertainty aside, Major Fulton presented a series of letters written during these early days by active participants, which threw new light on the romantic events of the Lincoln County War, and placed the spotlight on the events leading up to the conflict during which many on both sides lost their lives.

“Major Fulton spent a number of years digging deep into the records of this period and he knows the subject as no other man. To obtain the real facts, preparatory to publishing an authentic account of the war, Major Fulton has gone to the records at Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Washington, military records at Fort Stanton, and away to England the former home of John H. Tunstall whose murder near Lincoln precipitated the beginning of open warfare.

“Letters of A.A. McSween to the parents of Tunstall in England following the death of John Tunstall and dramatic and vivid descriptions of many of the battles of the Lincoln County War were read to the large audience last night at the meeting.

“These letters showed that John Tunstall as a young man had drifted from his home in London to Canada. He was the only son of very wealthy parents and from Canada he went to California, later coming to New Mexico believing that the great Southwest offered great opportunity for a young man.

“Arriving at Lincoln, he met A.A. McSween, of Scottish and English extraction, a gifted attorney and a man deeply religious. Between the two there began a strong friendship and a partnership was formed, Tunstall abandoning his plan of entering the stock business.

“Tunstall opened a store at Lincoln and McSween became his partner.

“John Chisum was on the Pecos River at the time with his ‘Jinglebobs’ and the Murphy-Dolan combination was furnishing meat to the government at Fort Stanton and to the Mescalero Indians on the reservation.

“The letters showed that the Riley-Murphy-Dolan combination became immediately jealous of the Tunstall-McSween operations and a bitter enmity resulted. The allegations in various of the letters were that Murphy and Dolan were stealing cattle from Chisum in order to fulfill their government contracts at Fort Stanton and Mescalero at an unusual profit.

“Conditions went from bad to worse and the feeling between the two became more and more strained, according to these letters, which showed that both Tunstall and McSween feared for their lives.

“Tunstall was young, twenty-four years of age at the time of his arrival at Lincoln and with a born instinct of right, took his pen in hand and through his political and family affiliations appealed to powerful influences. This seems to have been the real beginning of his end, according to the McSween letters, and returning from his ranch near Lincoln, Tunstall was killed.

“John Tunstall, the young Englishman was dead, and the Lincoln County War was on.

“John Brady was sheriff of Lincoln County and the rest of those charged with the murder of Tunstall were not forthcoming. McSween appealed to President Hayes and Governor Axtell. Various newspapers within the state took up the fight and for a time the Murphy-Dolan-Riley faction, the letters said, disappeared from Lincoln County.

“Naturally, it was possible last night to present only a portion of the letters and documents which he believes will throw a new light on the events of those early days in Lincoln County.

“McSween and the Tunstall family in England offered rewards aggregating $5,000 for the bringing to justice of those responsible for the murder of John Tunstall, this appearing to have been the largest reward ever offered in New Mexico for a like crime.

“Fights at Blazers Mill, the Fritz ranch and other historic conflicts of Lincoln County War were graphically described in these letters written by McSween to the parents and sisters of Tunstall in England.

“Heretofore history has recorded that Buckshot Roberts, who met his death at Blazers Mill during a fight in which George Coe, now of Ruidoso, lost a finger, was a newcomer to Lincoln County. It was heretofore believed that Roberts just ‘rode in’ and, being a stranger during these warring days, was under suspicion and for want of something better to do, he was killed.

“According to the McSween letters, Roberts was one of 20 men who overtook Tunstall on a lonely road returning from his ranch to Lincoln and there riddled his body with bullets. The fight at Blazers Mill, located just west of the headquarters of the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation, was according to these letters, one of the direct results of the killing of John Tunstall.

“Frank B. Coe, one of the active participants in the Lincoln County War who died here several weeks ago (1931), was many times mentioned in those letters to the Tunstalls in England, told that Frank and George Coe were among those who placed the body of John H. Tunstall in its last resting place at Lincoln, and their names were mentioned frequently in connection with various fights of the war.

“Major Fulton says that these letters and other documents connected with the Lincoln County War show that the name ‘Billy the Kid’ must have been attached to William H. Bonney during later years.

During the Lincoln County War and before and after, the man who was later known as ‘Billy the Kid’ was referred to as William Bonney, William Antram and sometimes ‘The Kid.’

“Bonney was a fighter on the side of Tunstall and McSween. The documents show that he began his active connection with the Lincoln County War following what he described as the foul murder of John Tunstall.

“Later letters of A.A. McSween to relatives in London show that by this time the Scottish attorney began to fear for his life. Brady, Sheriff of Lincoln County, according to the McSween letters, was a sympathizer with the Murphy-Riley-Dolan crowd, members of which were charged with the murder of Tunstall.

“Then there comes a break in the story and a letter from Mrs. A.A. McSween to the Tunstalls in England telling of the death of her husband and the burning of their home and store. Mrs. McSween was later Mrs. Sarah Barber, who died only a few months ago at her home in Carrizozo.

Other letters written to those in hiding, following the close of the Lincoln County War by some who remained behind in Lincoln, tell of subsequent events.

“The big audience at the Carnegie Library last night listened intently to Major Fulton as he unfolded the story of the early days when Lincoln County was rocked to its foundation and when the life of no man was safe.

“There are two sides to this picture of the late 1870s and early ’80s in Southeastern New Mexico, a glimpse of both sides was revealed last night by Major Fulton, who has for many years been a deep student of the events connected with this era.

“The McSween letters are eloquently and vividly written. The man who later lost his life in the Lincoln County War was a scholar and gifted in description. These letters were real word paintings of the battles and feelings on either side.”

Maurice G. Fulton’s collections, including these letters, are housed at the University of Arizona Library, in Tucson.

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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