- Historic Sites
Billy the Kid Country
The legend of the most famous of all outlaws belongs to the whole world now. But to find the grinning teen-ager who gave rise to it, you must visit the New Mexico landscape where he lived his short life.
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
Fire destroyed the original Wortley Hotel, but it has been reconstructed on the old foundations and now functions, under state auspices, as a hotel whose rooms are adorned with iron bedsteads and other Victorian furnishings. The food is splendid, and there is no finer way to savor the atmosphere of the old town than to while away the sunset hour in a rocking chair on the tree-shaded front porch.
The Tunstall store, now stocked with quaint merchandise, provided the setting for an episode with fateful consequences for Billy Bonney. On the morning of April 1, 1878, Billy and five companions rose from ambush behind the adobe wall of the store’s corral and gunned down Sheriff Brady. Three years and two weeks later, in a ramshackle adobe building that still stands on the plaza of the old Mesilla, the Kid heard Judge Bristol pronounce the sentence of death on him for Brady’s murder. None of Billy’s accomplices in the deed even stood trial; indeed, no other man on either side was convicted of any offense committed during the Lincoln County War.
Lincoln formed the battleground for the decisive event of the war: the Five-Day Battle, July 15-19, 1878. The course of the conflict may be easily traced today, with interpretive signs aiding in the reconstruction. The Wortley Hotel and the torreón furnished the strongholds of Sheriff George Peppin and his posse, while the Regulators holed up in the McSween house and the Tunstall, Montaño, and Ellis stores. In the end, however, the fight resolved itself into a siege of the McSween house.
Billy insisted that the Regulators must either burn to death or make a break for the riverbank.
This occurred on July 19, when Lt. Col. Nathan A. M. Dudley marched a column of U.S. soldiers into Lincoln from Fort Stanton. Dudley had orders to stay out of the troubles in Lincoln, but he convinced himself that the lives of noncombatants depended on his presence. His arrival, however, favored the sheriffs gunmen by intimidating all the Regulators except those in the McSween house with Billy to abandon their positions and flee the town.
McSween, with Billy and fourteen men, held his spacious U-shaped adobe dwelling adjacent to the Tunstall store. Early in the afternoon possemen succeeded in setting it afire. It burned slowly, room by room, until by nightfall only one room remained. Billy insisted that the Regulators must either burn to death or make a break for the river. Flames illuminated the open space between the house and the Tunstall store, but he and three others sprinted through a blizzard of bullets to safety in the trees on the riverbank. Behind, in what one of the deputies called the “big killing,” McSween and three more died while others crawled away wounded.
Lincoln itself is not the only reminder of the Lincoln County War. Ten miles to the east stands the picturesque adobe village of San Patricio. Here Regulators and Dolanites fought two important skirmishes. At the mouth of the Rio Hondo, where it flows into the Pecos fifty miles to the east, stands Roswell. On the edge of the city is the site of South Spring ranch, headquarters of the legendary John Chisum. The “cattle king of New Mexico” supported the McSween faction, and his ranch was the scene of an Independence Day exchange of gunfire between Billy and some Regulator friends and pursuing deputies. West of Lincoln, nine miles up the Bonito, Fort Stanton occupies a mountain-rimmed plain. Now a state mental hospital but still exhibiting many early military buildings, it played a key role in the war even before Colonel Dudley marched on Lincoln. And over the mountains some forty miles to the southwest is the site of Blazer’s Mills and the Mescalero Apache Indian Agency.
The sawmill, gristmill, and big house of the Iowa dentist Joseph H. Blazer defined another battleground of the Lincoln County War. There, only three days after the killing of Sheriff Brady, a classic Old West shoot-out erupted when Regulators tried to arrest a game little fellow known as Buckshot Roberts. Pumping his Winchester from the hip because of a bad arm, Roberts hit three of the Regulators before taking a bullet in the groin and barricading himself in Dr. Blazer’s office. Waiting until Roberts had emptied his rifle, Billy Bonney rushed to the porch, thrust his own rifle toward Roberts, and fired. At the same instant, however, Buckshot shoved the muzzle of his empty weap on into the Kid’s midriff, knocking him breathless. The bullet smashed the doorjamb, and Billy beat a hasty retreat. After Roberts blew off the top of the Regulator captain’s skull, his assailants drew off, leaving him to die in peace.