In the heart of the American Wild West, amid the sun-baked deserts and rugged landscapes of New Mexico in the late 19th century, a bitter and bloody feud erupted, forever engraving the name Lincoln County into the frontier’s history.

The Lincoln County War, a conflict fueled by greed, power, and personal vendettas, transformed a seemingly peaceful frontier town into a lawless battleground, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.

Let’s Bring It Back to the Late 1800s

The story of the Lincoln County War is inseparable from the rugged backdrop of the American frontier during the late 1800s.

Lincoln County, situated in the southeastern region of New Mexico Territory, was a place where dreams of fortune and fame collided with the harsh realities of life on the edge of civilization. Towns like Lincoln and Las Vegas were brimming with diverse and colorful characters – cattle ranchers, homesteaders, outlaws, and drifters – all seeking their own piece of the American dream in this untamed land.

The Powder Keg

At the heart of the Lincoln County War lay a complex web of rivalries and disputes, but the powder keg was ignited by the competition between two general stores: the Murphy-Dolan Store and the Tunstall-McSween Store.

The former was owned by Irish-Americans Lawrence G. Murphy and James J. Dolan, a pair of influential businessmen who held sway over the county’s economic and political affairs. In contrast, the latter was run by John Tunstall and Alexander McSween—ambitious newcomers determined to challenge the established order.

As tensions mounted, the feud began to escalate. The war took on a personal dimension when Tunstall, a young English emigrant who became a beloved figure among the local youth, was gunned down in cold blood by Sheriff William Brady and his posse in February 1878.

John Tunstall, Billy the Kid
Portraits of John Tunstall (left) and Billy the Kid (right) / (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

This event galvanized Tunstall’s supporters, known as the Regulators, into action, with Billy the Kid, then a teenager named Henry McCarty, emerging as one of its most infamous members.