A central player in the violent Lincoln County War of 1878-81, the cattleman John Chisum dies at Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Born in Tennessee in 1824, Chisum moved with his family to Paris, Texas, when he was eleven years old. For several years he worked as construction contractor, but in 1854, he decided to go into the cattle ranching business. By 1875, Chisum was running over 80,000 head of cattle near the Pecos River in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Inevitably, such a large herd ranging over a vast and isolated area attracted the interests of rustlers, and Chisum claimed to have lost nearly 10,000 head to thieves. Fed-up, Chisum joined forces with two other New Mexico cattle kings to do battle with the small cattlemen and merchants they believed were behind the thefts. In particular, the big ranchers targeted two Irishmen who owned a large general store, called the House, in the town of Lincoln. Besides giving aid to the rustlers and small ranchers that Chisum despised, the House also managed to gain control over most of the government contracts for supplying beef to Army posts and Indian Reservations, undercutting the ability of the big ranchers to sell their cattle directly to these buyers at high profits.
When a deputy sheriff under the control of the House murdered one of Chisum’s allies in 1878, the Lincoln County War erupted. The battle was about more than that murder, though—it was a struggle for economic and political control of the region. Chisum and the big ranchers turned their cowboys into gunslingers—including a friendly young man named William Bonney, better know as Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid became one of the ranchers’ most loyal and fierce allies, playing a role in the murder of many of the supporters of the House. When the House eventually emerged from the war victorious, Bonney turned to Chisum for help, demanding $500 in wages for his murderous work. When Chisum refused, Billy turned against the rancher and took payment by stealing Chisum’s cattle and horses. Suddenly abandoned by Chisum and the other powerful interests that protected him from the reach of the law, Billy the Kid’s days were numbered. His one-time friend, Pat Garrett, murdered him in 1881.
Devastated by the Lincoln County War and the continuing losses of his cattle to rustlers and Indians, Chisum lost much of his wealth and power. Nonetheless, when he died at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, three years after the Lincoln County War ended in 1881, he left an estate that was still worth half a million dollars, a striking indication of the massive wealth he had accumulated.