Walking along Lincoln’s 1 mile (and only) street is a ‘time capsule’ stroll. Unique among many renowned western towns, most of its buildings appear today as in the turbulent 1870s & ‘80’s. Made infamous by the 1878 Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid’s most notorious and bloody jailbreak, Lincoln is an authentic open-air ‘museum’. Aside from the road now being asphalt, you’ll savor a realistic sense of “being there” when, and where, infamous legends of America’s wild west walked its streets.
Undoubtedly America’s most famous western outlaw, Billy the Kid’s fame was based upon his involvement in the Lincoln County War – a battle between opposing business concerns competing for beef and merchandise sales to the army at nearby Fort Stanton and the Mescalero Apache Agency. This was in addition to a battle over the alleged theft by lawyer McSween of money from the estate of Murphy’s partner. The Murphy-Dolan faction (aka The House) did not appreciate competition from newcomer English rancher and businessman, John Tunstall, nor the antics of his friend and lawyer, McSween. Neither side had “clean hands” in the causes of the War.
Working as a cowpuncher, upon the shooting death of Tunstall (his employer) by The House’s gunfighters, Billy and other Tunstall cowboys were deputized and formed ‘The Regulators’ to seek revenge for the murder. Over the next year, fighting between the Murphy-Dolan ‘House’ and the Regulators became a countywide battle.
Billy’s allegiance to Tunstall, his indictment for the shooting death of Murphy-Dolan supporter Sheriff Brady and the reversal of promised clemency by Gov. Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) all contributed to the Legend of Billy the Kid as it gained popularity.
On April 21, 1881, Billy, under arrest for Sheriff Brady’s murder, arrived in Lincoln to be jailed in the County Courthouse (today, Lincoln’s most historically prominent museum). One week later, as one of his jailers (Bob Ollinger) had taken five prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel for lunch, Billy asked the other jailer (J. W. Bell) if he could use the outhouse. As they returned to the 2nd floor holding area, Billy overpowered Bell and shot him on the steps. Hearing the shots, Ollinger rushed to the Courthouse where he encountered Billy in an upstairs window and was killed with two shots from his own shotgun.
Less than 3 months later, on July 14, 1881, Billy was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Outlaw, deputized vigilante or devoted avenging employee, Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War stand tall in Western American history. And nowhere is this legend better recounted and accurately illustrated than in Lincoln… a perfectly illustrated moment from the 1880’s that remains primarily the same today.
Lincoln has about 50 residents who are communally dedicated to preserving its appearance and history. It offers eight frontier oriented museums and 17 historic buildings preserved as they looked in the late 1800’s.