Central New Mexico

The famous outlaw of Lincoln, New Mexico

This small town is famous as the place where Billy the Kid shot the sheriff and escaped from the courthouse.

William Henry McCarty

Lincoln, New Mexico, is a small village with a population of 50 people and the entire village is classified as a state monument. The village is 57 miles (92 kilometres) west of Roswell, New Mexico, on Highway 380. Lincoln has changed little since 1881, other than the main street is now paved, with many of the 48 buildings declared historic. Some of the important buildings include the Lincoln County Courthouse (the House), Tunstall’s Store, the San Juan Bautista Church and the 20-foot-high round torreon or defensive tower.  

The village was first established by Hispanic farmers and the torreon was used for defense against the Apache Indians.
In honor of Abraham Lincoln, the town’s name was changed in 1869. The area around Lincoln was suitable for agriculture, ranching and some gold mining. What Lincoln ultimately became famous for, however, was Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid

To write a factual history of Billy the Kid or William Henry McCarty would be impossible, as historians cannot agree on the basic facts. They disagree on when and where Billy was born, how many men he really killed and if he was more a victim than a villain. The best descriptive word for the short life of Billy is ambiguity. His life as a notorious outlaw was very short, starting when he killed his first man in August 1877 at age 17, to his own death in July 1881. In a period of just less than four years, Billy would kill nine men.

Billy was probably born in New York City in 1859 and when his mother remarried to William Antrim he moved west to Silver City, New Mexico. By the time he was 15, Billy had lost his mother and was rejected by his stepfather. By all accounts Billy was not a problem young man but was described as “pleasant and honest.” He had to make a living and rustling cattle and horses was profitable.

By 1877 Billy arrived in Lincoln City, where he was known as known as William Bonney and was part of the Boys Gang. He worked at many different jobs, from itinerant ranch hand to saloon staff, but his life changed dramatically when he was hired as a gunman during the Lincoln County War.

Lincoln County War

The Lincoln County War was a range war in New Mexico that dragged on from 1878 through 1881. It was a conflict for control of the cattle business, government beef contracts, retail monopoly and intrigue reaching into the governor’s office. The two sides were James Dolan vs. John Tunstall of the Regulators, and Billy fought on both sides. When he joined John Tunstall, his friends nicknamed him Billy the Kid because of his youthful appearance. Merchant John Tunstall was killed on February 18, 1878, touching off the next stage of the Lincoln County War.  The problem was that Billy, on the losing side of the war, was charged with the killing of Sheriff Brady, and in fact Billy was the only person ever charged in the senseless war. 

In the next two years, Billy was tracked, arrested and found guilty of murder. Even a written pardon from Governor Wallace for Billy’s testimony in another court case could not guarantee his freedom. By Friday, May 13, 1881, Billy was back in Lincoln to be hanged for murder. The jail was on the second floor of the Lincoln County Courthouse, also known as the House. Guarding Billy were two deputy sheriffs, James Bell and Robert Ollinger. How Billy obtained a gun to kill James Bell and then a shotgun to kill Robert Ollinger is of historical debate. Historians do agree that Billy killed two lawmen, stole a horse and fled Lincoln. This would be the last great escape for Billy.

Over the next three months, Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked Billy to Fort Sumner, approximately 140 miles to the northeast. Billy was staying at the Maxwell Ranch and on July 14, 1881, was killed by the sheriff. There is no shortage of details on how Garrett killed Billy with a single shot in the dark. 

Billy was buried at Fort Sumner but his legend lives on, making him into a national folk hero. The same mystique surrounds the village of Lincoln. Walk the main street and imagine Billy in the Curry Saloon, in Tunstall’s Store or the Fandango Stables.  
History is very much alive and well in Lincoln and the town is worth a visit.

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