We’ve finally arrived. The Wild West that we learned about in school and watching Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, Rawhide.
As we drove from Roswell to Three Rivers, we passed through an interesting looking town called Lincoln. The buildings looked old, some were adobe buildings, some wooden structures with long front porches. Many of the buildings had historical signs in front. We knew this was a place we needed to investigate.
Lincoln was originally called Las Placitas del Rio Bonito by the Spanish who initially settled the town in 1850, but it’s name was changed in 1869 when (of course) the white folks took over. Gone was not only the name of the town, but also the peaceful existence as the next several years were about as American as they come. Here is the story:
It came to be known as The Lincoln County war. There was a man in town who operated the local dry goods store, James Dolan. He had a monopoly on dry goods and cattle in Lincoln and he was not happy when Brits John Tunstall and Alexander McSween moved to town and opened a second dry goods store and cattle business down the street. Each enterprise had the backing of local lawmen (if you could call them that, as it was a fairly lawless society at the time) and gangs; Dolan had the Jesse Evans Gang providing protection on his side, while Tunstall and McSween had the backing of The Regulators, whose most famous member was Billy the Kid.
All hell broke loose when Tunstall was killed by members of the Evans Gang. The Regulators killed Sheriff Brady (who was on Tunstall’s team) in revenge. Killings continued back and forth for several months, culminating in five-day gunfight resulting in several deaths. The Regulators scattered, including Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid’s real name was Henry McCarty. He was orphaned at 14 and lived in foster homes for a couple of years. At some point, he started using the name William Bonney instead of his real name. He was involved in a couple of petty thefts, then took off for the Arizona territory where he killed a man in a saloon over a gambling disagreement. Some say he shot the man in self-defense, others disagreed. He was arrested, escaped from jail, fled back to New Mexico and took up with some horse rustlers. Until the Lincoln County War, it seemed that Billy was a horse rustler, gambler, gang member and petty thief, and he didn’t kill anyone else until that war. There were worse criminals in the west, but it was probably Billy’s youth, stature (he was only 5’3” tall), and adeptness at escape that gained him notoriety. I will say, however, that when he did kill he was heartless. The story is that, after killing several men as a member of the Regulators, he was tried in Lincoln, where he was jailed in the courthouse with two armed guards awaiting execution by hanging. He’d pass the time in prison playing cards with one of the guards, forming a sort of friendship … until the day of Billy’s escape when he shot that guard dead with his own gun, then grabbed a rifle and shot the other guard through the window, used a pick axe to break his leg shackles, stole a horse and fled Lincoln. Sheriff pat Garrett hunted Billy down and killed him about three months later.
Here is a picture of Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid … he looks like a young punk, doesn’t he?
Today, Lincoln is like a time capsule that the residents have preserved. The town is a National Monument, and because of that and the curvy mountain roads leading into and away from Lincoln, trucks longer than 65’ are prohibited from driving the 42 mile stretch of route 380 that passes through it without a permit. This keeps heavy truck traffic to a minimum which is important because many of the 150-year-old buildings are close to the road. The original roads were dirt paths wide enough for the stage coach and a couple of wagons, and of course 21st century roads are much broader. Send too many tractor trailers through a town like that, and the adobe starts to crumble. So does the quaint, quiet nature of the town. Pretty soon, the tourists find themselves dodging huge trucks, buildings close because they become unstable, and the tourists stop visiting.
Without tourists, the few businesses in Lincoln would not survive. The historic little Wortley Hotel of which Sheriff Pat Garrett was once an owner; the Dolan House restaurant and B&B; Annie’s Little Sure Shot coffee and gift shop; La Placita Gifts, The Arrowsmith, these people live in the Lincoln area and own these shops. They will lose their livelihoods if tourists stop visiting.
We had an interesting conversation with Annie (over her truly delicious mochas, muffins and cookies). We told her how we discovered Lincoln by driving through on our way to Three Rivers, how we immediately noticed the historic buildings with markers in front telling the story of the town and we just knew we had to investigate. It was a 90 minute drive the next day BACK in the direction we had come, but that didn’t matter. We thought we’d be there an hour or so, but we were there for a good part of the day.
A few large trucks do pass through Lincoln already, generally cattle trucks which get the required permit to travel that road when needed. It’s easy to say, “What’s a few more trucks?” But, we know how this story goes … the trucks want to use this stretch of road, but there are some big curves that could be dangerous for trucks to negotiate. So, the government has suggested straightening and widening the road, which means blasting away at mountains and costs millions. Doing this would create a more direct path for trucks to travel between the towns of Carrizozo and Fort Stockton and cut 80 miles off their current route. How many tractor trailers do you think would start using the new route? My guess is every one of them.
The point is, here we are in The Land of Enchantment, seeing beautiful scenery at every turn, exploring places and things that we’ve never imagined. At the same time, I’m reading a book (The Captured by Scott Zesch) about the conflicts between white settlers and Native Americans as we pushed our way westward. In 1872, as the Native Americans were nearing the end of their freedom, the government invited tribal leaders to a peace council in Washington, DC. The Indian delegation was boarded onto a train in a private car for their protection and taken to St. Louis, Cincinnati, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City where they were shown the sights, put up in luxury hotels, taken to church services, the circus and a Broadway show. They were told that this wonderful life could be theirs, too, if they would just agree to give up the prairie and go live on the reservations. What the chiefs saw, they viewed with disdain. Just before being sent back to the plains, one of the chiefs was told that Army troops had attacked his village, killed most of his warriors, some women and children, burned their teepees and food storage and taken the remaining 116 people captive (mostly women, children, elderly and infirm). The commissioner of Indian Affairs told the chiefs, “those who remain outside the reservations may be similarly treated.”
I find it interesting that 147 years later, the government is still conducting business the same way. Will we never learn?