Don’t Wear a White Shirt to a Gunfight

White Shirted Gunfighter by Wendy Harty Jan 2021 in pastel

My great grandfather, Josiah Miller, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, Wisconsin 4th Calvary. He volunteered after the war to patrol the Rio Grande and travelled from Brownsville, Texas to Fort Inge, and Eagle Pass which was close to the town of Uvalde. This town was the permanent home of my great aunt Oma Jane Atkinson married to Andrew Jackson Somerville. Their daughter, Emily, was born in Uvalde, in 1877. I have a letter written in 1892 from my great grandfather, Josiah Miller, where he states, “my wife and I left for a ranch far removed from any mail communication and I lost track of everybody for 22 years. At that time I had a good start but the Mexicans stole all I had and left me flat broke.”

Did any of his cattle end up in New Mexico? Beginning with the Civil War and Reconstruction, Uvalde endured three decades of unrelenting lawlessness and frontier savagery. The abandonment of Fort Inge immediately after secession was followed by renewed Apache attacks. Confederate wagon trains were once again protected by Fort Inge in 1861, in route to Mexico via the San Antonio- Eagle Pass road. After the union takeover, the railway was built through Uvalde 1881. The open range receded as a new ranch industry began to emerge. The maverick cattle left by the Spaniards crossbred with imported English Devan and Durham bulls produced cattle well suited for long cattle drives. My great grandfather, Josiah Miller, was living in the times of rustlers, cowboys and outlaws. One of the young cowpokes, Tom O’Folliard, born in Uvalde was caught up in the Lincoln Wars. (I’m thinking in the small town, Oma Jane and Robert Andrew Somerville may have known him?) This story is from 1878, set in Lincoln, New Mexico, where unscrupulous grifters took bribes to prosper and range wars broke out.

Lincoln County, New Mexico, November 1876, a wealthy English man, John Tunstall arrived to develop a cattle ranch, store and a bank with partners, a young attorney Alexander McSween, who wore a white shirt, and a cattleman named John Chisum. At the time the only store was James and Dolan Co. Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan dominated the scene economically and politically. Murphy lent millions to the Territorial Governor who in turn gave him lucrative contracts to supply the forts and Indian agencies of the US government. Murphy bought many of the cattle from rustlers. With the government contracts, monopoly on the store goods and the bank financing for the other ranches, Murphy and Dolan and another partner Riley, became wealthy.

What caused a range war? It started with an insurance policy dispute. When Emil Fritz, a partner in the James and Dolan Co. died, the estate hired McSween to collect the money. He refused to turn the money over to the other business competition and was loathe to honor their legitimate claim; Murphy and Dolan accused McSween of embezzlement. After four years the court ordered to seize all of McSween’s assets but mistakenly included Tunstall’s assets also. In response McSween and Tunstall prepared for war and enlisted a gang of cowboys called the Lincoln County Regulators. Dolan, the competitor hired the John Kinney Gang, Seven Rivers Warriors and Jesse Evans Gang, whose job was to rustle cattle from Tunstall’s and Chisum’s ranches. The justice system was controlled by the side of Murphy and Dolan.

On February 18, 1878, Sheriff Brady formed a posse. They found Tunstall and his ranch hands, one of who would later be named Billy the Kid. Tunstall was shot. The “cold blooded” murder by Dolan’s henchmen sparked the Lincoln County War. Dozens of cowhands wanted revenge and the local citzens with Tunstall’s cowhands became known as the Regulators. Sherriff Brady arrested them and then released them. They went searching for the murderers and a five mile running gunfight ended in their surrender. There were conflicting stories of an attempted escape, but on the ride back to Lincoln, March 9th, 1878, the men had 11 bullet holes, one for each of the Regulators murdered.

Sherriff Brady asked for assistance, from the Territorial Government, the friend of Dolan. The deputized Regulators formerly legal, were deemed illegal. Sherriff Brady became the only law. On April 1, 1878, the Regulators gathered including Billy the Kid in the corral behind Tunstall’s store. They met Brady and his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. A dozen gunshot wounds killed Sherriff Brady. One of his deputies, with one bullet, that passed through two Regulators, killed them both. Three days later, at Blazer’s Hill there was another shoot out. Again there was death on both sides. The Regulator’s leader was killed and another appointed. On April 29, 1878, a new Sherriff Peppers, directed the Gangs. Seven members of the Seven Rivers Gang were killed and though never proven was blamed on the Regulators. The US Army arrived, on the side of Dolan and when the Regulators shot at them, they gained a new enemy.

The fighting continued. The Regulators chased two of Dolan’s men. They escaped detection by hiding in an outhouse and diving into the bottom. When the army troops pointed cannons Billy the Kid and the Regulators fled to the McSween house. After four days of exchanging gunfire, the house was set ablaze. The army allowed safe passage out for the women and children. The men fled out the back door, using pistol fire for cover. The attorney, who started the whole thing, Alexander McSween, died in a close quartered gunfight; his white shirt made him an easy target. McSween was wrapped in a dirty blanket, no coffin, and buried next to Tunstall. The war was ended.

Dolan was charged with the murder of Tunstall, acquitted and acquired all of Tunstall’s property. Alexander McSween’s wife, Susan, became one of the prominent cattlewomen of the Old West, establishing a ranch at Three Rivers, New Mexico. Susan McSween had the largest ranch holding in the territory running between 3000 and 5000 head. In the aftermath of the Lincoln County War, little was gained but distrust and animosity ensued. The surviving Regulators scattered and Billy the Kid continued on as a fugitive.

This photo found on findagrave.com

Looking for the stories behind my ancestors story, Tom O’Folliard’s name caught my attention because of his Uvalde, Texas connection, and then the research that followed to blog the story. On Findagrave. com his bio is submitted by Carrie M. American Western Frontier Outlaw, orphaned at a young age, he became friends with William Bonney, who became known as “Billy the Kid”. Bonney taught him how to shoot well with a rifle and pistol. During the Lincoln County War, both O’Folliard and Billy the Kid, were members of the Regulators. After the war, they became cattle rustlers and formed the Bonney gang. On the road to Fort Sumner, he was shot in the chest by Sheriff Garrett and died as a result. He shares a plot with Billy the Kid and Charlie Bowdre, Death December 19, 1880 aged 21, Fort Sumner, De Baca County, New Mexico.

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