Having visited “old west” towns like Tombstone or Oatman, it is a pleasure to return to an area of the historic west that hasn’t been commercialized. While the eastern slopes of the Sacramento Mountains in Southeast New Mexico may seem like an unlikely place for Western legends, this is where the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid once roamed. The Billy the Kid (BTK) name conjures up different images depending on your generation or even what movies you’ve watched. Looking at the list of BTK movies, some dating back to the 1930s, he’s been portrayed at least 20 times, by everyone from Paul Newman (The Left Handed Gun), Audie Murphy (The Kid From Texas), Roy Rogers (Billy the Kid Returns), and so many more, all entertaining, but mostly ridiculous portrayals as in “Young Guns”. My favorite bad movie is “Billy the Kid”, with Robert Taylor who, playing the “Kid”, was 40 years old at the time of filming.
The story of the Lincoln County War centers around Fort Stanton, a cavalry post built to protect settlers from the Mescalero Apache. The war began when a newcomer (John Tunstall) moved to the area and challenged the reigning provider of goods to the fort, Lawrence Murphy. The fort provided the only real cash money in the territory, and unfortunately Tunstall believed he’d be protected under the law, not realizing that the law belonged to the Murphy gang. The rest is well known – each side deputized gangs to fight on their side, the Tunstall side becoming the “Regulators” with BTK as one of its members. But first, some Fort Stanton History:
The fort has its roots in the Indian conflicts, as most frontier forts, but continued in different roles until recently. A true military post from 1855-96, once the Mescalero tribe were contained on the reservation, the fort was closed until 1899 when it was acquired by the U.S. Health Service as a Tuberculosis hospital for the Merchant Marine. It’s an interesting story of how over 5000 sailors were treated high in these mountains. When visiting the post cemetery we were surprised by the large anchor guarding the entrance, so out of place here. Visiting the fort museum, the photos are a lesson in the medical treatments of the time. I particularly liked the rules for patients, which included 1) sit or recline in the sunshine, 2) do not exercise, and 3) eat as much as you can to gain strength. Those are my kind of doctor’s orders!
During the depression of the 1930s, the fort became a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and many of the structures built by the CCC are still evident. Just before WWII, it became a German Merchant Marine internment camp, housing the crew of a German luxury liner ordered scuttled by Hitler to avoid it being used by allied forces. In 1953 the fort was turned over to the Sate of New Mexico, which used it as a tubercular hospital until the mid-90s. It is now a State Historic Site and living history center.
Ten miles east of the fort lies Lincoln, another state historic site, unique in that it is a living town, with residents and shops – all required to maintain the original 1860s appearance. Once the largest county in the U.S., and the site of most of the killing in the 1870s “war”, the town today is quiet, non-commercial, and full of the history of the era and Billy the Kid. There is a great museum, the Tunstall Store, and the “house” – the the name for the courthouse where BTK made his escape. All are historically accurate and contain exhibits and historical descriptions. At the courthouse, you can climb the stairs where BTK overcame his guard and see the bullet holes in the wall. I found it eerie to stand in the same spot on the second floor window where BTK leaned out with his guard’s shotgun, yelled “Hello Bob”, to deputy Bob Olinger, and shot him dead. You can walk around the room where BTK was held captive and even see a replica of the outhouse he used – it’s OK to look, it’s just a non-working replica!
As much as the museums, just walking down the street of Lincoln is a step back in history. The old chapel, homes, and defense tower (torreon) are historic originals and not recreations. Here are some images:
Of course, even in a historic site, there’s bound to be some type of commercial advertisement. On the wall of a small store, we found this:
That’s it for this visit – next we’ll be moving on to one of our long-time favorite locations, the Chiracahua Mountains of Eastern Arizona. C’mon back!