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Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: December 07, 2006 
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Deputy U.S. marshals were responsible for maintaining law and order over tens of thousands of square miles in the Western territories. A federal marshal could appoint as many deputies as he saw fit to carry out a wide range of duties, from serving subpoenas and executing warrants to investigating crimes and capturing outlaws. These symbols of Western frontier justice have been portrayed both as heroes and villains, but most of the deputies were just ordinary men trying to do difficult jobs. During the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory, which began in 1878, deputy U.S. marshals served on both sides. What started as a power struggle between two rival factions of ranching and mercantile stores eventually dragged the U.S. Marshals Service into its quarrels and gunfights.

John E. Sherman Jr., a nephew of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, had been the U.S. marshal for New Mexico Territory since his Senate confirmation on May 24, 1876. Upon arriving in Santa Fe, he had spent much of his initial time arranging the transport of prisoners to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., or Jefferson City, Mo. The few experienced deputies available to him were spread across the territory. In 1878 he realized that he needed help in the Lincoln County area, but finding local deputies with the proper background and no hidden agendas proved challenging. He decided to employ a number of former soldiers and adventurers in the area.

One of the men who Sherman appointed U.S. deputy marshal was Robert Widenmann, the son of a Michigan businessman and personal friend of U.S. Interior Secretary Carl Schurz. Widenmann quickly made friends, and he found one in British subject John H. Tunstall. In early 1877, Tunstall moved to the Lincoln County area and invested in the burgeoning cattle trade. Widenmann soon followed.

Tunstall and Widenmann learned that the cattle trade in this part of New Mexico Territory was a power struggle between cattle baron John Chisum and entrepreneurs Lawrence Murphy and James J. Dolan. Tunstall and many newly settled ranchers allied with the Chisum faction, while lawmakers of the territory, particularly Governor Samuel Axtell, backed Murphy and Dolan. The territorial lawmakers, collectively called the Santa Fe Ring, put U.S. Marshal Sherman in an awkward position.

Violence in the region broke out when a subposse allied with Dolan rode down Tunstall in the hills of Lincoln County on February 18, 1878. Several of the men filled the Englishman with shot. Widenmann and a youthful ranch hand named William Bonney, best known today as Billy the Kid, were nearby to witness much of the commotion, but they escaped Tunstall's fate.

The death of Tunstall triggered the Lincoln County War and brought the marshals into the region's power struggle. After securing a position as deputy U.S. marshal, Widenmann immediately set out to find the members of the subposse, notably Jesse Evans, a ne'er-do-well from Texas. Marshal Sherman probably misunderstood Widenmann's only agenda when the deputy requested soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton to serve in a posse to find the murderers at the Dolan residence and store in Lincoln. On February 23, Deputy Widenmann, Bonney, cowhand Fred Waite and a small number of soldiers and civilians searched the desired buildings but couldn't find any of the wanted men. As a deputy marshal, Widenmann had it within his power to deputize men to form a posse, and Bonney and Waite must have been two of the men he deputized. A March 8, 1878, letter from Sherman to Colonel Edward Hatch, commander of the Military District of New Mexico, mentioned Widenmann's posse:

Sir:
I have the honor to again state that I am unable to execute the processes of the U.S. Dist Courts in the County of Lincoln, with the civil machinery under my control, and I most respectfully request that a detachment of U.S. troops not exceeding three (3) companies, be furnished me as Marshal with instructions to act in cooperation with a civil posse under direct command of U.S. Deputy Marshal, R.A. Widenmann, for the purpose of arresting and bringing to jail, the bodies of Jesse Evans, Frank Baker, Thomas Hill, Nicolas Provencio, and Geo. Davis, indicted at the last term of Court held at La Missella [sic] November 1877. Special instructions will be sent Widenmann, to employ these troops only for the arrest of the above mentioned desperadoes.
Very respectfully
John Sherman Jr.
U.S.M.

[continued on next page]


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5 Responses to “Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service”


  1. 1
    hollie says:

    i love billy the kid and im 9

  2. 2
    sos says:

    hi my name is sos and i think that little nine year olds dont need 2 b on the computer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! like hollie

  3. 3
    Albert gonzales says:

    Well, like i said be for History has made the kid look bad and Pat Garrett look real good,i read this article and the Great Escape and The Hunting of Billy the kid, and i sell say the kid was not a bad guy,he was accused of killing Sheriff Brady, and any killing the kid did ,it was commissions,how ever it goes he was in the right,and as for Deputy Robert O. he had it coming ,the kid was shackled hands and foots and harass just bout every day by Robert's,what would you have done ?as for Pat,you see what happen to him in 1908.. thank you

  4. 4
    Scott says:

    Since history is written by the winners, if chisum, mcsween and the regulators had come out on top, how do you think BIlly would be percieved today?

    THe people he gunned down in his life were !) a bar slime who was beating on him when he defended himself a corrupt sherriff (brady) and two deputies who belonged to the corrupt santa fe ring.

    If bily's side had won, its possible he might have gone on to become a lawman like wyatt earp.

  5. 5
    Steve McCarty says:

    Historians are sure the kid killed four men and I believe he killed eleven. The kid was indeed a killer. His motivation was revenge for the murder of John Tunstall, who he admired and who also treated him well. One of the kid's admirable traits was loyalty.

    Billy the Kid had a deep setted set of personal values and he adhered to them. A man who had treated him well, as murdered in cold blood and the kid saw that the law was not going to take action to achieve justice, so he took on that responsibility, legal or not. He joined a group of young men dedicated to the same end. Eventually he rose to the leadership of that group, but not until the original chieftains were murdered.

    It was a hard and very dangerous time and Billy was "all in". He didn't consider his future or muse about his past. He was dedicated to revenge, which in his mind represented justice. Vengence, however; is not legal and it took time for the Kid to come to this conclusion. When he finally did, he understood that he was doomed to a life of crime. It took three years for him to decide to abandon the region and head to Old Mexico. If it had not been a hankering for a late night steak dinner, he might have made it.



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