Locations, Western Life

New Mexico – The Wild West Era

Located in the southwestern region of the United States, New Mexico became the 47th State of the Union on January 6, 1912. After the American-Mexico War, Texas ceded much of the land they had previously laid claim to and congress acknowledged New Mexico as part of America in September 1850.

The History of the Cowboy

This area had been predominantly inhabited by the Spaniards after colonization, and they named both Mexico and New Mexico after the original natives, the Mexica. Being a part of the Spanish Empire led the way for the development of the cowboy, as an extension of bullfighting in the motherland. These vaqueros, or cowmen, had been rounding up stray cattle in the area for at least 250 years before the beginning of the Wild West Era.

During the 1800s, New Mexico continued to play a major role in the growing ranching movement of the west. The vaqueros were hired by the criollo caballeros to move cattle from New Mexico to Mexico City. Their dominion over the area decreased as more settlers came west and unmonitored behavior and rivalry meant that many people were killed with ‘their boots on,’ meaning they had become victims of the cowboy lifestyle.

The Civil War

Battles with the Native Americans had resulted in several military forts being built in New Mexico and, during the Civil War, both confederate and union forces controlled parts of the state. In 1862, after the Battle of Glorietta Pass, the power of the confederates was demolished and the 8000 union soldiers who had come from the area were able to reclaim their home.

Lincoln County War

The general belief in the 19th century was wherever there were cowboys there was fighting; sometimes on a small scale and sometimes on a larger one. One of those that escalated from a personal rivalry to include a large number of people was a disagreement between Lincoln County’s two largest cattle barons. 

During the 1800s the county consisted of 1/5 of the entire area of New Mexico. Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan were privileged enough to own and run Lincoln’s only store. In addition, they were also large cattle ranchers. Their monopoly created unrest among the small farmers and ranchers in the area, and they weren’t very popular. The general politics of the county worked in favor of those that were wealthy and had good connections, however, and Murphy and Dolan continued to enjoy success in all areas. 

Their way of life was threatened in 1877, when another business was established by Alexander McSween and John Tunstall, with monetary backing from John Chisum. Jealousy spurred a rivalry and Dolan challenged John Tunstall to a gunfight. The latter refused to partake but subsequently hired Billy the Kid as a ‘cattle guard,’ and was rarely seen without him. The Murphy/Dolan duo, with the help of the authorities, was able to arrange the killing of Tunstall over outstanding debt for horses. This was the beginning of the Lincoln County War.

After Tunstall’s death, a group known as ‘The Regulators’ formed, with the exclusive purpose of finding his killers and delivering justice. Billy the Kid became one of its key members, and the hunt began. The Regulators killed several deputies causing the sheriff, Brady, to stage an ambush during which he was also killed. After a new sheriff, George Peppin, was appointed he led a group of his men to McSween’s house. They set the residence on fire, killing him and other unarmed men as they fled from the smoke and flames.

The senseless deaths continued and after nineteen, on November 3, 1878, the governor of New Mexico proclaimed an amnesty for all those who had been involved except for Billy the Kid. This ended the Lincoln County War and began a manhunt for the outlaw himself. 

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