Lincoln County – Biggest County in New Mexico in 1869

In his book “Turmoil in New Mexico,” William Keleher, historian and writer, quoted a statement of Sir Thomas Browne, as true today as when first written in 1658: “The iniquity of oblivion scattereth her poppy and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit and perpetuity . . . who knows whether there be not more remarkable men forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time.”

Old Lincoln County was formed in 1869, made up of almost the entire southeast quarter of the State of New Mexico. It covered 17,000,000 acres, over 27,000 square miles and was an area greater than the combined states of Connecticut, Delaware, Massachuesetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Lincoln County included all of the present counties of Lincoln, Chaves, Lea and Eddy, half of De Baca, and most of Otero and Roosevelt, and parts of Soccoro, Torrance, and Curry counties. (If Lincoln County was still as big as in 1869 it would have taken in the new Southwest Cheese Factory a few miles south of Clovis in Curry County where two of New Mexico’s NMGenWeb county coordinators have called home for many years. The cheese factory, when finished soon, will be the biggest cheese factory in North and South America. This is not a paid commercial!)

The little town of Lincoln, also called “La Placita del Rio Bonito,” was the seat of government of this vast county, and its commercial and legal center.

Unusual and important events occurred within and about its borders. All the frontier forces that settled the West converged on Lincoln in the late 1870’s.

For many readers, Lincoln’s past is a familiar story, especially the Lincoln County War, which grew out of the feud between the Tunstall-McSween faction and the Murphy-Dolan faction.

The war ultimately involved territorial governor Lew Wallace – famous civil war general and author of Ben Hur – and the notorious Billy the Kid. Controversy exists over the significance of Billy’s participation in the war. But all agree that today the Kid belong to folk legends. There are hundreds of books about him. There are ballads, plays, and movies about him.

Tourists often want to see Lincoln just because of Billy the Kid. Lincoln, as perhaps no other site in the State, has a widespread appeal. The historic town of Lincoln continues to preserve the history of The Lincoln County War in the old structures, buildings, and scenery that brings back the colorful past to so many.

Lincoln, as perhaps no other site in the State, has a widespread appeal. Undoubtedly other sites appeal more to particular specialist such as archaeologists, anthropologist, or artist, but the general public Lincoln and Billy the Kid have a unique and fascinating appeal.

This article is part of the story of Lincoln – Its Past and Future, written by Michael Keleher, son of William Keleher, the most knowledgeable historian of Lincoln County. Michael Keleher wrote this article in 1974 for the publication of Rio Grande Historical Collections at New Mexico State University. (The above article was compiled by Don McAlavy in memory of William Keleher, his books were the first history books I ever read.)