Archive for Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Mexico town says, ‘Old West’

August 14, 2008

Driving into Lincoln, N.M., is like returning in time to another century and, yes another world. No, Lincoln isn't quite a ghost town - there are about 40 full-time residents - yet if you have a sense of history you can almost feel the presence of Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid and the others who played out a violent chapter in the settling of the West. While it is a bit difficult to get to, Lincoln is definitely worth the visit if you have any interest in western history.

The old town is typical of many in the West. It had a few years of growth and success and after the turn of the 20th century, started to decline. What has saved Lincoln from extinction is a violent gang war that captured the imagination of the nation at that time and still captivates people today. Actually, what transpired more than a century ago was quite simply a gang war over government contracts. The reason for its continuing popularity is its central figure, Billy the Kid.

Lincoln is basically a several-block-long strip beside the highway. In many ways, it has changed relatively little in the past century and most of the original structures that played a role in the fighting remain in tact.

The "Lincoln County War" was quite simply a battle between two factions over lucrative government contracts to supply the Army and Indian reservations. Both sides had plenty of funding and brought in their own private armies. John Tunstall, Alexander McSween and John Chisum joined forces to get a piece of the government contract business from Lawrence Murphy. What ensued wasn't competition, it was a gangland battle. There were numerous gunfights, sieges and buildings burned. It was far from an epoch battle of heroes. In fact, it was a dirty little struggle with many of the murders coming from ambush. Ultimately, the U.S. Army was called in to quell the violence.

No one knows much about Billy the Kid, except that he was violent and probably bragged a great deal about his accomplishments. For example, legend has it he killed 21 men before his 21st birthday. Most historians disagree, setting the number at seven or eight. There were no "high noon" duels; he probably shot most of his victims from ambush or in an open battle. What made his story a legend was his escape from jail and ultimate death at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett, who had been a close friend.

In fact, Billy's real name was probably Henry McCarty. He was also know as Kid Anrim and ultimately, for an unknown reason, chose the name William H. Bonney. He was 5-feet-3 and weighed 125 pounds. He was always in trouble with the law and did time for robbing a Chinese laundry. After he killed a blacksmith in a barroom fight in Arizona, he fled to New Mexico and immortality.

To me, the most fascinating of the original buildings was the courthouse. While the original partition is gone, the second floor room where Billy was held is still marked off. In early 1881, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. He asked the deputies to take him to the outhouse and while there was able to slip out of his shackles. He ran to the second floor armory and grabbed weapons and killed two deputies. There are markers where the deputies fell and in the wall behind the stairway there is a hole supposedly made when one of deputies was shot. Fortunately, the state of New Mexico purchased the building, which had also served as a Masonic Hall, billiard hall and sheriff's quarters in 1938, and began extensive renovations thus preserving a fascinating site of western history.

The saga ended a couple of months later when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot Billy the Kid. Of course, that wasn't the end of the story. Movies and comic books turned a small time, vicious criminal into a swashbuckling hero fighting for justice. The real Billy is far different from the hyped version created for the movies in the 1930s-1950s and it is unfortunate that he became such a folk hero.

By the early 1900s, Lincoln lost the county seat, and had it not been for its violent history, the town would have probably disappeared. Now it is a very interesting and historic place to visit featuring museums and 39 historic buildings or sites, which range from a drug store, general store and houses occupied by the main characters in the short but bloody war.

One of the most interesting displays was a letter written by Billy the Kid to Gov. Lew Wallace asking for clemency. If you recall, Wallace was a Civil War general who is best known for his epic book, "Ben-Hur" and served as territorial governor for New Mexico.

If you have any interest in history, then a visit to Lincoln is a "must." While it is a bit off the beaten path, the trip will give you a very real look at what life was like in the Southwest during the 19th century.ì

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