When you first arrive in Lincoln you will need to pay the $5.00 admission fee, which includes entry to the four historical properties open between November 1st and March 31st, or the six open from April 1st to October 31st. You can do this as we did at the Visitor Centre, located at the east end of the town, or in the Courthouse if you approach from the west, and you will need to retain your ticket as you may be asked to show it when you go in the various buildings (we were asked at the Tunstall Store and Courthouse but not elsewhere).
But don’t just pay your fee at the Visitor Centre and leave, as it’s an attraction in its own right. I had seen many references to the Lincoln County War while travelling around New Mexico, and especially in our encounters with Billy the Kid, but it was only on the next to last day of our trip, when we came here to Lincoln and to this very informative Visitor Centre, that I was able to put together the pieces and understand the full story.
The war started in November 1876, when Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween opened a store in Lincoln, setting themselves up in competition with existing store owners Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan. The latter had had a monopoly on selling goods not just in the town but also supplying beef to nearby Ft. Stanton and the Mescalero Indian Reservation. When Murphy and Dolan challenged the newcomers Tunstall was killed, forming the catalyst for all-out battle between the two sides. Tunstall’s cowhands (who included Billy the Kid) and some other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder, knowing that they could not rely on the official criminal justice system which was controlled by allies of Murphy and Dolan.
A whole series of killings on either side ensued, culminating in a three day battle here in Lincoln in July 1878. Tunstall’s Regulators were surrounded in two different positions, the McSween house and the Ellis store. Many of the key figures in the war died in this battle, including McSween himself. It was eventually halted by the intervention of the US Army. Those not already killed scattered, including Billy the Kid and other Regulators, who turned to a life of cattle rustling and other crimes. It would be December 1880 before Billy was tracked down by Sherriff Pat Garrett, arrested, and tried in Mesilla (where we were to go the next day).
In April 1881 the Kid was convicted of killing Sheriff Brady, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War. He was sentenced to be executed, and held under guard at Lincoln Courthouse to await his fate. But he escaped from there, only to be tracked down again by Garrett, in Fort Sumner, and shot dead.
The Visitor Centre tells this story in a series of informative panels. It also covers other aspects of the history of this area. Chris and I were especially interested in the display about the Buffalo Soldiers. We know the Bob Marley song, of course - hence our interest. But we didn’t really know much about who they were until our visit here. The name was a nickname given to African-American troops by the Native Americans they were fighting against in the Indian Wars. The name may have originated in the Indian’s respect for the fierce fighting ability of these soldiers, or perhaps because their dark curly hair resembled a buffalo's coat.
Other exhibits show pueblo culture and life in Lincoln County during the early years of settlement, with items of furniture and household goods. It’s all very well done, and just the right size to be able to take it in without feeling overwhelmed.
The first of the historic buildings we went into was the Montano Store, almost opposite the Visitor Centre. I confess I was a little disappointed, as it has not been restored as a store but instead houses display panels relating to the history of the building, the store’s owner at the time of the Lincoln County War, José Montaño, and describing adobe construction and the Hispanic way of life. It was all pretty interesting, and there were some fascinating old photos, but I had hoped for more in the way of exhibits and was concerned that Lincoln would prove less interesting than I had thought. I need not have worried however, as some of the other buildings had more to offer.
Meanwhile though we enjoyed getting to know a bit about Montaño. He tried to stay neutral during the War, but the store was used as a shelter by McSween gunmen during the battle that took place here. It was here that one of the most famous examples of marksmanship in Western lore took place. Fernando Herrera, using a Sharps 45-120-555 rifle, fired a shot 756 yards from the roof of the store, fatally wounding Charlie “Lallacooler” Crawford. Crawford’s belt buckle deflected the bullet, but he died from the wound a week later. Eventually the US Army forced the gunmen who were holed up here to abandon the store, which led in part to the killing of McSween himself and burning of his house and store just up the street.
At the height of Lincoln’s prosperity as a town Montaño’s was one of four stores here. It sold tools, whiskey, calico, seeds, nails and everything else that was needed in a mid 19th century Western town. It hosted weekend dances and was probably also used as a bar. Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, spent time socialising here.
Montaño died in 1903 and his wife sold the business to family members, who in turn sold it to another family, the Romeros. It was they that sold it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, in 1967, to be operated as museum.
This Roman Catholic church (full name La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, or Church of John the Baptist) was built in 1887 and is still in use today. It is one of the six (four in winter) buildings to which your ticket provides admission. However when we visited, that admission was restricted to the first few yards inside the door, after which there was a barrier. A shame, as I would have liked to have looked round properly. I don’t know if that is the usual practice or if it was because they were already winding down for the end of the season, but I have seen a photo on theinternet, taken in July last year which has the same blue rope preventing full access.
I have not been able to find out much about the church, but I think it can’t be a coincidence that it was built soon after the Lincoln County War and the battle that took place here on the main street of the town. Maybe an earlier church was damaged or destroyed at that time? Or maybe there was no church, and that contributed to the lawlessness of the community?
The church was restored by the New Mexico State Monuments in 1984, hence its good condition.
The Torreon is one of the oldest structures still standing in Lincoln. It was built in the 1850s to protect the Spanish settlers here during Apache raids. In the three day Lincoln County War battle that took place in the town, this tower was used as a base for Murphy’s sharpshooters. It was restored in 1937, and I couldn’t see that it was possible to go inside at all.
Do check out the spinning and weaving shop next door to the tower, La Placita. When we were there a lady was demonstrating the technique of spinning by hand, and there were several looms set up. The shop sells the wool, which is all dyed with natural dyes such as those that would have been used by early settlers – browns from the leaves of walnut trees, yellow from wood shavings, green from avocado skins, and so on. If you’re at all interested in knitting or weaving you are sure to be tempted here!
Of all the old buildings in Lincoln, this is one of two (the other being the Courthouse) that must rate as the most historically significant and the most interesting to visit. It was the opening of this store by Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween, in November 1876, which triggered the Lincoln County War, as there were seen as a threat by the owners of what was until then the only store in the area, Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan.
Today the store is set out just as it would have been back in the 1870s. You could happily peer around here for some time, as all the shelves are stacked with everything a settler would have wanted for daily life in the home and on the land: tools, china and glass for the house, seeds, fabrics, flour and sugar, biscuits, tea, clothing and hats, and of course ammunition. These are displayed in the original shelving and cases, which are incredibly well-preserved considering their age and all that has happened here. I also loved the old cash register (photo four) and rather battered safe (photo five). Photography is allowed in all the buildings, by the way, but no flash. You can wander all over the shop, although you are asked to stay on the areas of floor laid for the purpose and not to stray on to the original floorboards, in order to help preserve them.
This is one of only two places where were asked to show our admission ticket. The lady on duty was very friendly and full of information about the store, pointing out several details that we had missed. At one end a separate room has larger items for sale, such as wagons and carriages – all authentic to the period, as far as I could tell.
The Courthouse was the last building we visited in Lincoln and was one of the most interesting. It was once the Murphy-Dolan store, holding a monopoly in the area until Tunstall and McSween arrived to set up their rival business, and was also Dolan’s home, but was later converted into the courthouse.
Ironically, given the animosity between him and Dolan, this is where Billy the Kid was imprisoned, on the upper floor, while awaiting execution for the murder of Sheriff Brady. He was guarded by two deputies, and yet he managed to escape. You might wonder how, and the answer is that he pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – the “I need to go to the lavatory” one! It helped that only one of his guards was present at the time – the other having taken the remaining, less dangerous prisoners, out to dinner. Yes, you read that correctly – apparently they were in the habit of taking their meals in the Wortley Hotel almost opposite the Courthouse, and were there at the time of Billy’s break for freedom.
Pat Garrett new that the Kid would find it easy to escape from the regular town jail, so he kept him shackled hand and foot and guarded around the clock in the room behind his own office at the county courthouse, which had been the old Murphy-Dolan store. On the day in question Billy asked the one deputy left on duty, James Bell, if he could use the bathroom, which of course in those days was outside behind the main building, and the guard agreed, allowing him to do so though still in his leg-irons and chains and with handcuffs still on. When they returned to the Courthouse Billy made his move, shooting the deputy as he followed him up the stairs (it is not clear how he managed to get his hands on the gun, which probably came from the Courthouse’s own stock). Bell staggered outside but died from his wounds as soon as he got there. The other deputy, Bob Olinger, heard the shots from the saloon across the road and came running, to see the Kid at an upstairs window. That deputy too was killed, and Billy was free to make his escape, aided by some of the townsfolk sympathetic to his cause. Today you can still see the damage made by one of the bullets on the wall at the foot of the stairs (photo three), while plaques outside mark the spots where Bell and Olinger fell.
As well as all this history directly associated with the Lincoln County War, one ground floor room here is dedicated to the former lawmen of Lincoln County, including Pat Garrett, and models show how the uniform has changed over the years. Personally though I found this much less interesting than the material on Billy the Kid, whose trail we had been following all over the state.
There are a number of other historic buildings in Lincoln not included in the State Monument admissions ticket. These are either commercial businesses (and therefore free to enter when open) or private residences (and therefore not open at all). Some of the ones that caught my eye were:
The Thomas W Watson House (photos one and two): I have seen some websites suggesting that this is one of the buildings open to the public but it was closed when we were there and appeared to be undergoing restoration. It was built in the 1880s and served as Doctor Watson’s home and drug store from 1903-1920, hence the name. It is next door to the Tunstall Store.
The Dolan Outpost (photos three and four): This shack and the blue door in the wall next to it are part of the Dolan Outpost property. The house was built in 1883 and 1884 by Elijah Dow, carpenter, and George Peppin, stonemason, who also built the San Juan Church and the Court House. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the house was known as the Bonito Inn and it is claimed that Lew Wallace wrote some of Ben-Hur on its porch. The house is nowadays a privately owned tourist attraction, with old farm machinery, gold-panning and blacksmith demonstrations, but had already closed for the season when we were there. You can get more information on the Dolan House website.
The former Curry Saloon (photo five): Here, as in the Wortley Hotel next door, the judges from the Courthouse opposite used to dine. The saloon takes its name from George Curry, a Territorial Governor of New Mexico and later Congressman, who ran the saloon in the late 1880s. It is now a deli serving light meals and cold drinks, but despite the open sign was closed when we tried it. Luckily the Wortley was not – see my restaurant tip.
Lincoln is a sleepy little town in the hills of New Mexico. It was once the home to Billy the Kid (William H. Bonney). The town itself is only one road and has about 15-20 buildings on it. The majority of the buildings are museums that have some connection with Billy the Kid and the Regulators (no, not the scuba diving club you were a member of in High Schoo.....nerd!)
You can get a pass for all the museum's at any of the buildings. That will save you some coin. More and more tourist are coming to Lincoln every year and the place is being somewhat "renovated" to increase that flow of tourist.
If you like westerns, then come down to Lincoln and see and feel it. It's a great friendly little town.
Once a year the inhabitants of Licoln re-enact the last escape of Billy the kid from Licoln County Jail, outdoors, with live horses and guns! The local people make up the casts and some are actually descendents of those they play!
Check the internet for the date in July.
The Lincoln County Courthouse/jail
The Lincoln County Courthouse was once the Murphy-Dolan store. Billy was jailed here but he managed to escape on 25 th of April 1881. Maybe you remember the shootout in the store from the John Wayne movie 'Chisum' that tells the Hollywood story of the 1878 Lincoln County War.
Watch the duke in action in the trailer for CHISUM. 'Young Guns' is the other great movie tale of Billy's life and times, I think in that one they blew up the store!