After leaving Lincoln, he carved out a home in Carlsbad.
In 1949 Sam Smith spent his final days in Carlsbad, New Mexico, a town he had nurtured since its founding in 1888. In Eddy (as Carlsbad was known until 1918) he had become a respected, law-abiding citizen, occasionally serving on posses and juries. He was friendly enough to neighbors but spoke little about his younger days, preferring to spend time with family and tend to his many business concerns. Most folks in Carlsbad had no idea about his gunslinging past —that Sam Smith was, in fact, the last surviving Regulator who had ridden with Billy the Kid in the early days of the Lincoln County War.
After the murder of John Tunstall in Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, on February 18, 1878, a group of his associates dubbed the Regulators set out to hunt down the Englishman’s killers. As Sheriff William Brady and other county law enforcers were allied with the powerful Lawrence Murphy/James Dolan faction in opposition to the late Tunstall, these Regulators were hell-bent on immediate vengeance; they would take no prisoners. The Kid, of course, became the most infamous outlaw in New Mexico Territory. Other Regulators—Dick Brewer, Charlie Bowdre, Fred Waite, Henry Brown, Doc Scurlock, Frank McNab and Jim French—also gained some notoriety. Smith, though, has been largely forgotten, at least in regard to his participation in the Lincoln County War.
Smith’s prominent position in the Carlsbad community may be one reason historians haven’t dug up his past. Another is that Sam was neither flashy nor talkative and used no notable alias or nickname. There were a slew of Smiths on the frontier. Texas historian Ed Bartholomew devoted an entire 1960 book to that surname—Western Hard Cases or Gunfighters Named Smith. Eve Ball knew which Sam Smith was the correct one while researching her 1969 book Ma’am Jones of the Pecos, but she said in 1961: “I tried to interview him, too late, for he was ill, bedfast and very old. I regret that I know little about him.”
Smith was far from forgotten in some circles. His great-grandson Ace Clark recently told this author that “Sam B.” was a kind and doting relative who kept a fifth of whiskey and a Colt revolver atop a battered trunk in his small Carlsbad house. As a rule, no one was allowed into his room, let alone the trunk, which held old pictures and papers. Somehow, a youthful Ace was able to visit the room without Sam getting antsy. The tough old cowboy had softened a bit with age.
Samuel Breckinridge Smith was born in 1858 in Hill County, Texas. Some of his mother’s family had been in Texas since the break from Mexico. She died when Sam was young. His father, William J. Smith, who hailed from Mississippi, took the rest of the family by wagon to Bexar County. It was booming cattle country, and Sam learned the cattleman’s trade. His work brought him to New Mexico Territory. On one of his first cattle drives, he came upon a pond with a man’s corpse in it, likely a victim of Apache raiders. Late in 1875, he is known to have testified in a case against Mescalero Apache agent Williamson D. Crothers. Smith also engaged in several skirmishes with Mescaleros and Comanches, suffering a ghastly arrow wound to his back during one fight. Through the years, the wound would fester but never heal.
Smith mostly worked cattle herds on the arid flat south of Lincoln. On February 19, 1878, the day after Tunstall’s death, he sat on a coroner’s jury assembled by Lincoln County Justice of the Peace John B.Wilson. The jury ruled that six identified men and “others not identified by witnesses” had murdered the Englishman. Constable Atanacio Martinez, who held the arrest warrants, searched James Dolan’s store in Lincoln. Sheriff Brady disapproved of such actions and had Martinez, Smith and others arrested.Wilson deferred their grand jury hearing for several months. Smith never had to go to court, but he did resent having to spend time in prison. When he got out, he joined the Regulators and began the most controversial span of his career.
The Regulators soon tracked down William “Buck” Morton and Frank Baker, two men named in the warrants for Tunstall’s murder, near the Peñasco River. Morton, fearing he would be killed, wrote a letter to his cousin, Hunter Holmes Marshall, on March 8, 1878, in which he named his captors: “R.M. Brewer, J.G. Skurlock [sic], Chas. Bowdre, Wm. Bonney, Henry Brown, Frank McNab, ‘Wayt,’ Sam Smith, Jim French (and two others named McCloskey and Middleton, who are friends). There are two parties in arms, and violence is expected.” Smith was with the Regulators the next day when they entered Blackwater Canyon. There, they shot and killed Morton and Baker, as well as Regulator William McCloskey (reportedly for his prior ties to James Dolan). The posse then disbanded. Smith departed for home in Texas, ending his involvement in the Lincoln County War. His name appears under Bexar County in the next year’s federal census. In 1882 in Frio County, 24- year-old Smith married 16-year-old Julia Pearlee Ward, the daughter of an old cattle hand and Indian fighter named Lycurgus Ward. The couple would raise seven children in the Pecos region of New Mexico Territory, where Sam pursued the cattle business. He and Morgan Livingston, who was married to Julia Smith’s sister, became two of the toughest cowboys around. Neighbor Bill Jones recalled: “Morgan Livingston would kill a man before the man realized he was mad at him. Said he was poison! Said he killed several men in the Queen country.” Jones didn’t share his opinion of Smith.
Eddy (the future Carlsbad) sprang up in 1888 at Lovings Bend on the Pecos River. The Smith family soon settled there, and Sam cultivated alfalfa. Ace Clark recalled that Sam rode a gray horse to check on the enormous alfalfa stacks. Smith occasionally sold an active field to buy livestock. Clark also remembered that his great-grandfather and a handful of other cowboys once trailed 6,000 cattle from the Pecos to Kansas. In later years, they loaded the stock onto railcars in Texas. Smith also opened a saloon and brothel seven miles outside of town.
His various enterprises and strength of character made Sam Smith wealthy and influential. The cattleman built a 13- bedroom house for his growing family on one of the highest hills outside of town. Visiting relatives often overstayed their welcome, which irritated him. He also built a guesthouse called the Dew Drop Inn for tubercular patients. Four of his sons took up the cattle trade, although his namesake died of a ruptured appendix before reaching 20. A county sheriff once asked the senior Smith if he had ever rustled cattle. “Absolutely not!” Sam shot back. “I had more cows than I knew what to do with!”
Smith’s long run of good fortune ended in January 1920 when wife Julia died. By then he had tired of the endless stream of visitors to his home on the Pecos. Seeking new fortunes, he moved to Phoenix, Ariz., and did well growing seedless grapes, despite the Great Depression. Then one day, according to Ace Clark, Smith deposited a large sum into a bank that soon went belly up, leaving Sam broke. He headed back to Carlsbad.
Smith stayed busy till the end, even managing a weekly stroll to the barbershop for a shave until his health finally gave out. Seeing his grandchildren playing cowboys and Indians amused him, but he didn’t speak much of his past— only that he had once known Billy the Kid and the man who shot the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett. Many of the men he knew had died young or violently or both. But Sam Smith, after burying his own ghosts, had built a good life—a life that allowed the frontiersman a quiet departure from the post–World War II West.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.