Such Men as Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered

Such Men as Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered

Such Men as Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered

Such Men as Billy the Kid: The Lincoln County War Reconsidered


During the 1870s a group of merchants and their allies, known as "The House," gained control over the economy of Lincoln County, New Mexico. In 1877 this control was challenged by an English entrepreneur, John Tunstall. The House violently resisted the interloper, eventually killing him; Tunstall's employees and supporters, known as the Regulators, sought to take vengeance on the House by killing those responsible for Tunstall's death. Among the Regulators was a young man known as Billy the Kid.

This story of greed, violence, and death has entered American folklore through the mythologizing of the career of Billy the Kid and also through a tendency to see the Lincoln County War as an archetype of Western history. As are Dodge City, Boot Hill, and the OK Corral, the Lincoln County War is emblematic of frontier lawlessness.

The story has been often retold, and central to many of the accounts is the question of right and wrong, even of good and evil; was Billy the Kid merely a thug, a gun-for-hire, in an amoral turf battle between rival gangs? Or was the Kid actually a participant in a brave but doomed attempt to wrest control of a defenseless town from a corrupt and vicious band?

Basing his account on a careful reexamination of the evidence, particularly on expressions of public sentiment, court records, and the actions of Tunstall and the House, Jacobsen subjects traditional attitudes- both the "Billy as martyr" and the "war among thieves" explanations- to a searching reexamination, and finds that- as with most things in life- the truth lies somewhat between.


When I was eleven or twelve years old, my parents stopped the station wagon at a roadside museum in Fort Sumner, a dusty crossroads town in eastern New Mexico. The museum's prize exhibit was a dilapidated wooden door spotted with traces of a color that might have been dried blood or might just as easily have been brown paint. The holes in the door could have been bullet holes. Billy the Kid was supposed to have been shot against that door.

Studying the door, ignoring my big brother's wise-guy skepticism, I realized for the first time that Billy the Kid wasn't a tall-tale fantasy like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, as I had hazily supposed. He was a real person, who bled real blood (or perhaps brown paint); he was even a New Mexican, like me. I began trying to find out about him, and became familiar with the phrase "Lincoln County War" without having any clear idea what it signified.

Years later I made a concerted effort to finally get the story straight. I searched libraries and bookstores for a history that would give me the facts and also tell the story in a lively narrative. I discovered no such book existed.

There was no shortage of books on the Lincoln County War. With the notable exceptions of works by Maurice Fulton and William Keleher, however, most of them were fiction, whether they admitted it or not. Worse, they conventionalized the story by importing stereotypes from movie westerns, giving us the usual late-show crowd of one-note characters. Trying to jazz up the story, these hordes of writers invariably only succeeded in making it hackneyed.

Robert Utley and Frederick Nolan have done much to improve the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.