Checking in from Lincoln, NM …
We apologize that this blog has been delayed. Internet access is spotty and often unavailable in central New Mexico.
The terrain finally changed as I wound down from the high plains on Sunday, June 24 and arrived in the beautiful Hondo Valley. Small sparsely covered mountains rim the fertile, green valley floor which has been occupied by humans for over 12,000 years. The earliest occupants with a recorded history were the Jordana Mogollon people who lived in round, semi-subterranean houses from about 900-1450 AD. Apaches followed and controlled the area until the mid-1800s when the ranchers and farmers moved into the valley supported by the US Army.
Three small rivers (Rio Ruidoso, Rio Bonito and Rio Hondo) wind through the lowlands, but the lushness is also attributed to an extensive network of acequias (a-seh-key-ahs) or irrigation canals that have evolved over the centuries. The acequias are well maintained to this day and are owned by a cooperative of the local farmers. Over the years, the valley has been a grazing area for goats, sheep, cattle and horses and a rich producer of corn, wheat, beans and cabbage. In recent years, it has also proven to be an excellent orchard property with groves of apple, pear, peach, lemon, lime and cherry trees.
For a cowboy buff like me, however, the historical centerpiece of this area is the town of Lincoln, home to the famed Lincoln County War (1878-1881). Most historians consider Lincoln “the most unchanged and authentic old west town remaining in the US.” Due to the Lincoln County War, Lincoln also has the dubious distinction of being “the most violent town in western American history.” President Rutherford B. Hayes called the single street that runs through town (now Highway 380) “the most dangerous street in America.”
The War was a capitalist struggle brought about when wealthy Englishman John Tunstall opened a mercantile general store in Lincoln to compete with the monopoly of the L. G. Murphy Company store while Murphy was also losing a major contract to cattle baron John Chisum to supply beef to the Mescalero Apache Indians and the US Army at nearby Fort Stanton. Murphy and his protégé James Dolan, backed by Santa Fe politicians, deputized a group of gunmen known as “the Boys” to try to protect their interests. These so-called deputies murdered Tunstall and began systematically rustle Chisum’s herds. Tunstall’s partner Alexander McSwain and Chisum sought revenge and formed their own arm of the law called “the Regulators” with the approval of the US Marshall. One of the Regulators was a 19 year old named William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid). County residents quickly chose sides, and mayhem and anarchy followed. Murder, thievery, rustling, rape and destruction of rival property were the order of the day.
Of all the crimes that took place during the Lincoln County War, only one man, Billy Bonney, was ever tried, convicted and sentenced for his actions. All the rest received a pardon from New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (who also achieved later fame as the author of the book Ben Hur). The Kid’s crime was the murder of Sheriff Will Brady, one of the Boys. Billy was sentenced to hang in Lincoln on May 13, 1981, but he made his famous escape from the jail on April 28, killing his two guards. Billy rode out of town and headed to Fort Sumner in neighboring Chaves County. His former mentor, cattleman John Chisum, turned on Billy and sent new Sheriff Pat Garrett to bring the Kid back dead or alive. Garrett ambushed and killed Billy the Kid as he was visiting a girlfriend in Fort Sumner—the last casualty of the Lincoln County War.
Lincoln is as billed, very much unchanged but well maintained. The little town has six museums and almost all of the original buildings including the jail and courthouse from which Billy escaped, Tunstall’s mercantile and Murphy’s store. In addition to Billy Bonney and Pat Garrett, tiny Lincoln’s former residents have included the scout Kit Carson and General John “Blackjack” Pershing. A trip to Lincoln is a step into the old west and a must-see stop for any western history and cowboy fan. Needless to say, this has been a favorite stop for Brenda and me.
From Lincoln, we continue on Highway 380 through Capitan and Carrizozo and on to higher elevations and points west. We are thoroughly enjoying the rugged and changing scenery.