R is for rustlers –The story of cattle raiders is very old. In fact, the ancient god Hermes stole the cattle of his half brother Apollo. Hermes returned the cattle and all was forgiven, but not so in the American Southwest. One of the causes of war between the US and Mexico in the 1840s was rustling. Whether small time thieves skilled with a running iron (a hot poker which could redraw a brand mark) or organized crime gangs with multiple layers of buyers for stolen stock, rustlers were the bane of cattlemen in the late nineteenth century. Many a rustler wound up lynched for his crimes and most would think it was the rustlers who took the worst of it, but not always.
John Chisum (right) was one of the tough breed of Texas cow men. In partnership with Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, Chisum moved a quarter million cattle from Texas to New Mexico in 1867. There he ran into John Kinney, Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan, maybe the most successful cattle rustlers in the history of the old west. Their herds of cattle would swell in size at times to 50,000 steers or more almost overnight. Mysteriously, the cattle stocks of Chisum would often diminish by a matching quantity. The Texan partnered with Alexander McSween and John Tunstall to oppose the rustlers and started what has come down through history to us as the Lincoln County War. The infamous outlaw William Bonnie a.k.a. Billy the Kid (left)fought to help Chisum as one of Tunstall’s Regulators (another good R word). It was for his part in the Lincoln County War that the Kid was ultimately hunted down by Pat Garrett. McSween and Tunstall were both murdered as well.
What few people know is that the rustlers Murphy and Dolan, supplied with stolen beef mainly by Kinney, broke the back of the honest ranchers, paid off the politicians and took over all of Tunstall and Chisum’s assets. Neither Dolan nor Murphy was ever convicted for their part in the murders and theft during the Lincoln County Wars. Kinney streamlined his operation and with the arrival of the railroad was able to ship his stolen cattle east before they were missed by their owners. All this was made possible by contracts with the US government to sell beef to the Army! The operation peaked in 1883 when 20,000 head went missing in Socorro County and the Mesilla Valley. The governor called in the militia and broke up the rustling operations, finally, after nearly eight years of successful operation, but Kinney became a wealthy man.
But maybe the last laugh went to McSween after all. His wife Susan, though unsuccessful in ever bringing justice to her husband’s killers, (they murdered the attorney she hired) was able to acquire large amounts of property and amass one of the largest ranches in New Mexico. And while all the rustlers died young, she lived into the 1930s at the age of 85, a wealthy Cattle Baroness . So much for the rustlers.