Three Lives, Billy the Kid and the Murders that Started the Lincoln County War
No conflict, internal or external in our nation’s history, was as complex as the Lincoln County War. Atrocious acts were committed by monied interests of both sides, one firmly grounded in New Mexico Territory’s political base and the other trying to profit as relative newcomers. At its base, the Lincoln County War was not about colorful personalities. It was about money and power. In this instance, the money was invested in beef contracts and the sides stocked with personalities that outsized the actual purpose of the clashes.
The names of Billy the Kid, Jessie Evans, John Henry Tunstall and William Brady dominated any conversation of the Lincoln County War. The Kid, then William Bonney in the early segment of the conflict, touched almost every aspect in the series of conflicts. Bonney was a vengeful cowhand who was ready for a fight. However, the snake-like canyons of Lincoln County harbored other colorful characters, who like Bonney, came from elsewhere to end up gripping a gun. The names of William S.“Buck”Morton, Frank Baker, or William McCloskey are footnotes in most accounts of the Lincoln County War. They disappeared after the first chapters, as do many of the men who pursued, captured, and later killed them.
The murders of Morton, Baker, and McCloskey were critical to the chronology and heightened conflict of the Lincoln County War. The Kid remained a villain as chronicled during their murders in a canyon known as Blackwater. However, the murders themselves, which claimed victims from both sides, represented the powder keg that started the Lincoln County War rather than the singular murder of John Henry Tunstall. Although this statement on its face seems ridiculous, the Tunstall murder reached Washington and London, was heavily covered by the press, and was investigated by a federal agent from the Justice Department. The citizens of New Mexico Territory saw the three Blackwater deaths as an outpouring of angst. Before the murders, the cause of the conflict was firmly the prominence of business. Tunstall was a British citizen and adventurer who had been in the area scarcely more than a year. All three of the Blackwater victims resided in the area longer and were not rich landowners or cattle barons.
To understand the importance of this singular day, March 9, 1878, and separate it from the confusing and overbearing events that occurred, both victims and captors need to be studied. The questions that needed answers were: How did they get to Blackwater Canyon and the draw where the action took place? How was the reaction handled differently from the Tunstall murder? Most importantly, how did the chain of events that followed directly reflect the Blackwater Canyon murders rather than the Tunstall murder? The confusing nature of the three deaths led to several events thereafter, escalating the Kid on to further fame. The Tunstall murder proved Bonney little more than a close associate, which gave him a motive for shooting Buck Morton and Frank Baker, but those motives already existed through bad experiences in his past employment with them.
In this volume, I combined personal research conducted on numerous personalities and their participation in the Lincoln County War. As the collection of material and new findings grew, they took on a larger life of their own. Long-standing historical questions were answered, and the research in this volume shed new light on an overlooked corner of the Lincoln County War. The lives and deaths of the three men followed a twisting path also trodden by Billy the Kid and his Regulators at the beginning of the series of gun battles.
To be certain, this work does not address all questions, such as what happened in Fort Sumner in July 1881, when tradition stated Lincoln County Sheriff Patrick Garrett shot Billy the Kid. That is left for others to answer. Instead, the lives, capture, and death of William S. “Buck” Morton and his two fellow victims are studied. The related movement of their captors, in context to the killings in Blackwater Canyon on March 9, 1878, was found in the details.
My search for the three victims—Morton, Frank Baker, and William McCloskey in Blackwater Canyon—began with a letter. When reading Morton’s neat penmanship on his farewell letter to a cousin, Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall, the writing revealed his educated hand. The content was a plea, stating that if something should befall him, his brother Quin, residing in Lewisburg, West Virginia, should be notified. That town was a place my own grandfather frequented as a youth.
Quin Morton actually resided several miles from Lewisburg in the community of Ronceverte, an old logging town along the Greenbrier River. Members of the Morton family and my ancestors were buried in the same cemetery. We were connected by these neighborly bonds. His conversion from scion of a blue blood family to a wandering cattleman yielded more material relating to his past.
Morton’s twisted path ran from his past. In the course of my research, the backgrounds of the other victims, Frank Baker and William McCloskey, became partially apparent. Both had pasts more mysterious than Morton. As most historians concluded, Baker was an alias. As a hidden figure, it was difficult to piece together his past. At least several misconceptions that were previously published were clarified. McCloskey was a man with fewer clues than Baker, but only vague ones. In fact, except in the case of his death, the old man was barely noticed in historical texts.
Having experience with this kind of historical study, I saw some unique opportunities in researching this portion of the Lincoln County War. Part of my intent was to add something new, either fresh research or logical sequence. Once shared by a fellow historian, I faithfully assigned myself to the statement: “The object of history is to bring the ghosts into the room and make them speak.”
Undoubtedly some of this material has been featured in other publications, but its presentation draws new conclusions. As years passed, more media became available, better methodologies developed and more papers and pictures emerged from private hands. I visited those private hands, and did not restrict myself to archival or published material. In order to complete the study, source material was found far beyond New Mexico. In fact, much was found in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia. I sought the obscure pieces, much like Colonel Maurice Fulton, Robert N. Mullin and Philip Rasch did in their work on the Lincoln County War.
Morton, Baker, and McCloskey—or their captors—were not just figures on a movie screen. They had flesh and blood beliefs and problems. The captors were not just evil characters, and their own stories were rarely pretty. Their motives were hardly similar—some were victims of circumstance while others sought revenge. Few of them had the same reason for being in Blackwater Canyon on March 9, 1878. The violent nature of the frontier they worked, coupled with the basic philosophy of an “eye for an eye,” ensured almost none lived to a ripe, old age. To get a complete picture, a path was carved out to get to Blackwater Canyon.
In my opinion, the murders of these three men, rather than the equally tragic death of British subject and businessman John Henry Tunstall, set the key explosion that ignited the Lincoln County War. The book concludes with my two searches for the bodies of the three murdered cowboys in Blackwater Draw. In July and October 2006, I led two teams of subject experts and scientists into the field with the express goal of locating the bodies. There was evidence the bodies had been moved, as was discussed in several histories of the Lincoln County War. The results of the searches revealed an important correction in American history—exactly what happened at Blackwater Draw and how the three were murdered. Artifacts from the two searches were professionally analyzed, and the report revealed as an appendix to the text.