(BILLY the KID – continued)

home | 18-19th centuries index

LAW and DISORDER (2 of 4)

previous | next

Billy Arrives in Lincoln County

On the run, Henry Antrim found companionship and perhaps a sense of protection riding with a group of outlaws led by Jesse Evans, a cowboy from Missouri and, according to Michael Wallis, a thief and "scruffy barroom brawler." After "the kid" had begun his run from Arizona Territory he drifted into new associations in Lincoln County in southeastern New Mexico. He had invented an alias: William H. Bonney, the William and middle initial H from the name of his stepfather. With the adopted name of William came the name Bill or Billy.

Billy was put into jail in the town of Lincoln for stealing a team of buggy horses from a newly established ranch, but the ranch owner, John Tunstall, age 24, had him released. He put Billy on his payroll as a cowboy gunslinger attached to a team of other young men, and it is said that Billy was delighted by the opportunity to "go straight." He respected Tunstall because Tunstall treated him with respect.

Tunstall was from England and wealthy and trying to build a cattle empire. He faced hostility from a rival ranching and trading empire headed by Lawrence Murphy, an Irish immigrant who disliked the idea of Tunstall, an Englishman of all people, muscling in on what he had created. Murphy had started his operation back in 1869 after his discharge from the army in New Mexico. He had a stranglehold on government beef contracts and the county's major merchandise store, and he had a banking operation. As the greatest commercial power in Lincoln County he influenced local law enforcement. He rigged the legal system, and with unscrupulous banking had wrested land from Hispanic ranchers. He had taken on a partner, James Dolan, who was also unscrupulous.

Murphy by 1877 at the age of forty-six became incapacitated by alcohol, and he would die in 1878. As the primary power in Lincoln County, Murphy's former partner, Dolan, had a lot of allies. Tunsdall had allies. One was Alexander McSween, a married man of Scottish descent from Canada, a former teacher and lawyer who had earned the hostility of the Murphy-Dolan group and was also trying to build a cattle empire. Turndall's other ally was John Chisum, 53, a Texas cattle baron with interests and a presence in New Mexico.

The environment into which Billy the Kid was immersed, New Mexico Territory, is described by Michael Wallis as sparsely populated but by the 1870s accounting for "at least 15 percent of all murders in the nation." Wallis writes that by 1880 "the homicide rate in New Mexico Territory was forty-seven times higher than the national average, with gunshot wounds as the leading cause of death." note62  Wallis adds that "Much of that violence occurred in Lincoln County."

Wallis quotes historian Warren Beck, who writes,

Life was cheap and killing was not considered a particularly heinous crime. Men hardened by shedding blood during the Civil War found it difficult to break the habit of fighting. Killing became an accepted means of settling disputes. note63

Billy's destiny, until circumstances intervened, would be tied to his employer, John Tunstall. In November 1877, Billy turned eighteen. He was getting three meals per day and had a regular place to sleep. Wallis writes that he had a good horse and wages that allowed him "to procure a dime novel or two." Wallis writes of a former drifter from Missouri, Frank Coe, describing Billy as losing "no time in getting to know other people in the valley."

Coe writes:

He was the center of attention everywhere he went, and though heavily armed, he seemed as gentlemanly as a college-bred youth. note64

Billy spent time with his Tunstall buddies earning extra money hunting turkey and deer and trading the meat at Fort Stanton (8 miles west of Lincoln). He visited friends and went to dances. Coe writes, "He was a mighty nice dancer and what you call a ladies' man... The Kid danced waltzes, polkas and squares and almost always requested that the musicians play 'Turkey in the Straw.'"

Unlike some other young men, Billy's good instincts kept him from joining in the common swilling of liquor. And the Kid is described as having shunned tobacco.

There had been tensions between Anglos and the old-family Hispanics. Back before Billy's arrival in New Mexico the tensions had turned to bloodshed. There had been the Horrell War in Lincoln County in early 1874, instigated by renegades from Texas. News of that war had reached the president, Ulysses S. Grant, but his administration had not intervened to stop it. The Horrell War had died down, and the Horrell gang had lost favor among their fellow Anglos. Among the Anglos hostility toward Hispanics remained, but not with Billy, who spoke good Spanish. Hispanic ranchers, with their normal inclination of hospitality toward people they considered decent had helped him when he was on the run.

Billy the Kid (1 of 4) | Billy the Kid (3 of 4)

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.