Murder ignites Lincoln County War - HISTORY
Year
1878

Murder ignites Lincoln County War

Long simmering tensions in Lincoln County, New Mexico, explode into a bloody shooting war when gunmen murder the English rancher John Tunstall.

Tunstall had established a large ranching operation in Lincoln County two years earlier in 1876, stepping into the middle of a dangerous political and economic rivalry for control of the region. Two Irish-Americans, J.J. Dolan and L.G. Murphy, operated a general store called The House, which controlled access to lucrative beef contracts with the government. The big ranchers, led by John Chisum and Alexander McSween, didn’t believe merchants should dominate the beef markets and began to challenge The House.

Tunstall, a wealthy young English emigrant, soon realized that his interests were with Chisum and McSween in this conflict, and he became a leader of the anti-House forces. He won Dolan’s and Murphy’s lasting enmity by establishing a competing general merchandise store in Lincoln. By 1877, the power struggle was threatening to become overtly violent, and Tunstall began to hire young gunmen for protection, including the soon-to-be-infamous William Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.

Early the next year, The House used its considerable political resources to strike back at Tunstall, winning a court order demanding that Tunstall turn over some of his horses to pay an outstanding debt. When Tunstall refused to turn over the horses, the House-controlled Lincoln County sheriff dispatched a posse-with William Morton, another House supporter, at the head-to take them. Billy the Kid and several other Tunstall hands were working on the ranch when they spotted the approaching posse. Outnumbered, the men fled, but they had not gone far before they saw Tunstall gallop straight up to the posse to protest its presence on his property. As Billy and the others watched, Morton pulled his gun and shot Tunstall dead with a bullet to the head.

Although he had not worked for Tunstall long, Billy the Kid deeply resented this cold-blooded murder, and he immediately began a vendetta of violence against The House and its allies. Lincoln County became a war zone, and both sides began a spree of vicious killings. By July, The House was prevailing, having added McSween to its lists of victims. However, fighting would continue to erupt sporadically until 1884, when Chisum died of natural causes, and The House finally regained full control of Lincoln County. By that time, Billy the Kid had already been dead for three years, gunned down by Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Pluto discovered

Pluto, once believed to be the ninth planet, is discovered at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, by astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh.The existence of an unknown ninth planet was first proposed by Percival Lowell, who theorized that wobbles in the orbits of Uranus and ...read more

Know-Nothings convene in Philadelphia

The American Party, also known as the “Known-Nothing Party,” convenes in Philadelphia to nominate its first presidential candidate.The Know-Nothing movement began in the 1840s, when an increasing rate of immigration led to the formation of a number of so-called nativist societies ...read more

J. Robert Oppenheimer dies

On February 18, 1967, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” dies in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 62.An expert in quantum theory and nuclear physics, he was enlisted into the fledgling U.S. atomic weapons program in 1941. In 1942, the “Manhattan Project,” ...read more

De Valera resigns

After 16 years as head of independent Ireland, Eamon de Valera steps down as the taoiseach, or Irish prime minister, after his Fianna Fail Party fails to win a majority in the Dail Eireann (the Irish assembly). As a result of the general election, the Fianna Fail won 68 of the ...read more

Toni Morrison’s birthday

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, is born this day in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio.Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford to a welder father and homemaker mother. She graduated from Howard University in 1953, then took a master’s in literature at Cornell. She married ...read more

First Academy Awards announced

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the winners of the first Academy Awards on this day in 1929. It was a far cry from the suspense, glamour and endless press coverage surrounding the Oscars today: The first award recipients’ names were printed on the back ...read more

Avalanche kills 26 in British Columbia

Twenty-six people are killed in a glacial slide and avalanche on this day in 1965 in British Columbia, Canada. The victims were miners who were removing copper ore from underneath a glacier.The Granduc Mining Company camp was in the town of Stewart, near the border of British ...read more

Arsonist sets fire in South Korean subway

On this day in 2003, a man ignites a gasoline-filled container inside a subway train in Daegu, South Korea. The blaze engulfed the six-car train, before spreading to another train that pulled into station a few minutes later. In all, 198 people were killed and nearly 150 others ...read more

Lewis Armistead born

On this day in 1817, Confederate General Lewis Armistead is born in New Bern, North Carolina. Armistead is best known for leading Pickett’s Charge at the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,where he was mortally wounded.Armistead’s father, Walker Keith Armistead, and his five ...read more

Dale Earnhardt killed in crash

On this day in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Sr., considered one of the greatest drivers in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) history, dies at the age of 49 in a last-lap crash at the 43rd Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Earnhardt was driving his famous black ...read more