THE LINCOLN COUNTY WAR
A Documentary History
Foreword to this Edition
In 2009, is has been more than fifty years now since I took my first uncertain and hugely uninformed step into the field of historical research by writing to Robert N. Mullin, “an amateur historian” as he styled himself, and asking him some questions about Billy the Kid. In a correspondence that lasted until his death in 1981, Bob Mullin enlightened me in many ways, but the most important thing he ever did for me was to introduce me to Colonel Maurice Garland Fulton, then and perhaps still, the pre-eminent historian of those turbulent times.
Although he died more than a quarter of a century before I even conceived the idea of writing it, Colonel Fulton was and is responsible for this book. He it was who, more than any other, demonstrated to me by example how to carefully examine, meticulously explore, and patiently seek the truth about the history of the War, and the life and times of the boy who became known as Billy the Kid. He patiently weaned me from the romantic extravagances of Walter Noble Burns’ Saga of Billy the Kid to the rather less rousing, but no less fascinating examination of court martial records, unpublished letters, and contemporary newspaper articles, in the process giving me a university education in understanding how the Lincoln County War came about, in separating what was probably true from what was patently false. Remember, too, that he was dealing with a young man (I was twenty two when we began corresponding) who had never set foot in the United States and would not do so for another seventeen years. I only wish he had lived long enough for me to meet him and I can only hope he would have considered this book a decent enough reward for the trouble he took to teach me how to write it.
Fast-forward to 1983. With ten years as a professional writer, a major movie, nine novels, three biographies and fourteen westerns behind me, I found myself wondering whether I could take a little time off to maybe go back to the subject of my first book, the Lincoln County War. Coincidentally, around the same time, a small miracle happened. In the process of moving house , the Tunstall family decided to remove some old oak wall paneling and in so doing discovered a “secret compartment” in which were stored a treasure-trove of original letters from many of the principal players in the Lincoln County War—Alexander McSween and his wife Susan, Robert Widenmann, John Middleton, Godfrey Gauss, Samuel Corbet, Huston Chapman and others—to John Tunstall’s father, who had used them in his foredoomed campaign to obtain indemnity from the government of the United States for the murder of his son and the loss of his considerable financial investment in Lincoln County.
Reading for the first time such documents as Alexander McSween’s ten-page letter describing the events leading up to the death of John H. Tunstall or Sam Corbet’s report on conditions in Lincoln after the war, made me realize how much of the story had never found its way into the pages of a book, and this in turn convinced me that if such a book was to be done at all, not only would it have to be stringently non-partisan, it would have to go further, cover more, and raise the bar higher than anything that had ever been done before.
What I hoped to create was a book utilizing transcripts or citations from unpublished letters, diaries, military reports, governmental documents, and graced with appended biographical studies of principal characters, a book that would provide anyone starting out blind, as I had once done all those years ago, with a sort of database containing everything I knew and could find out, plus all the key and salient documentation, in one place.
Little did I know, as I began putting the book together, that I was embarking upon one of the greatest adventures in my life. Although by now I had at least been to New Mexico, and met and endlessly discussed the Kid and his war with a loose-knit but fiercely committed fellowship of historians I christened the Lincoln County Irregulars, Perhaps it was just as well that I had no idea of enormity of the task that lay before me. This was before e-mail, before Google. There were no National Archives research centres, no census records, no American newspaper collections, no inter-library loans, on the English side of the ocean. The only way I could get what I needed—newspapers, army records, maps, books, or photographs—was to track them down, ask for them nicely, and smile as I paid the bill.
The rewards, however, were enormous, and I don’t just mean the historical information I unearthed, the biographical details I located, the reams of documentation I gained access to. I mean the people I met along the way, descendants of the ones who lived the history and were just as excited about it as I was, the historians, the writers, the curators of photographic and documentary archives, icons in this field of research who I would never otherwise have had the privilege of knowing.
And so in July 1987, after a four year research odyssey that had led me from Ireland to Oregon, from Scotland to California, from Vancouver to Alabama, from Texas to Vermont, and everywhere in between, I completed my first draft of the book (by now my sons had dubbed the project “Godzilla” and the name stuck). Revising it took me until Christmas, and I mailed the mammoth 1203 page manuscript to the publisher on January 12, 1988. The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History was published in March, 1992, and as well as winning glowing critical plaudits, it was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of its ‘Notable Books of the Year,’ by the Arizona Daily Star as one of its ‘Notable Southwestern Books of the Year.’ It also won the Border Regional Library Association’s Southwest Book Award, and later it would receive the Historical Society of New Mexico’s France V. Scholes Award for outstanding research, and was selected as one of the Fifty Greatest Books on the American West by True West magazine.
After six years, the book went out of print and I thought that would be the end of it. But no. Billy the Kid, and the Lincoln County War in which he was a soldier, had become and have remained a constant in my life. Not a day goes by but I receive letters or emails from fellow pursuers of the truth, from new arrivals on the field of honor, from aficionados who want to know more, from family members who have just wonderingly discovered they are descended from or related to one or other of the participants in the War whose lives I was the first to properly examine.
Were I able to rewrite the book today, I think I would thoroughly revise the opening chapter which examines the early life of the boy who was to become Billy the Kid, and revert to my original intention to end his story with the words “And into legend,” omitting the penultimate chapter which chronicles his death. That having been said, it gives me enormous pleasure to see “Godzilla” come back to life, and even more to have been given the opportunity to add some new information and to correct some things I got wrong in an Addendum. And I hope again, as I hoped twenty years ago, that it will make the events of the Lincoln County War, the life and times of Billy the Kid, and the places where it all happened, come to vivid and immediate life for you.
—Frederick Nolan, Chalfont St Giles, England. Spring, 2009.