The Lincoln County War was a lawless episode in New Mexico history that is best remembered today for having triggered the legend of Billy the Kid. On April 1, 1878, during that bitter business feud, the Kid and other so-called Regulators killed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. New Mexico Territory Governor Lew Wallace never got around to giving Billy a pardon for killing Brady or for his other Lincoln County War escapades. After more than 120 years of media attention, interest in the Kid remains so high that the current governor of New Mexico has been considering giving Billy a posthumous pardon. But the Kid’s story has been so romanticized that it has obscured the truth about the Lincoln County War. For years historians have been trying to sort out fact from fiction through a concerted effort to track down each individual prominent in the conflict, to determine what motivated them. One such character is Big Jim French, a figure whose shadowy past has spawned illusive tales by writers more intent on relating a good yarn than accurately describing history. It’s high time some of those myths were put to rest, to clear up the often cloudy picture of that 1870s fracas.
An uncomplicated explanation of the Lincoln County War is that it was a feud involving two competing groups, termed ‘rings,’ intent on monopolizing trade, politics and vast stretches of land in New Mexico Territory. One ring, known as ‘the House,’ was a firmly entrenched local commercial empire, so named because most of its business dealings were conducted out of a store that resembled a house, and because the name appealed to the men operating its various nefarious enterprises. The House, besides holding a monopoly on domestic trade, often fulfilled beef contracts for the military through purchasing beef stolen by a band of outlaws known as ‘the boys,’ and used this gang as enforcers when necessary. By all accounts, the passel of Irishmen associated with the House–originally led by Lawrence G. Murphy–was as ruthless a band of brigands as ever existed in American commerce, as ready to terminate their detractors and competitors as they were to fleece customers.
Attempting to usurp the stranglehold of the House was John Henry Tunstall, a young man with cold, hard cash supplied by his father, a London businessman. By hook or crook, Tunstall was determined to be a success in America, and he came prepared with a bag of tricks that included a combination of Machiavellian tactics and pure capitalism. Tunstall was supported by an able captain, Alexander McSween, an attorney not overly concerned with business ethics and bent on making his own fortune. Through McSween, Tunstall met John Simpson Chisum, a legendary cattle baron with a finger in many pies, who was willing to invest in Tunstall’s plans because they held the promise of securing the borders of his empire and ending the rustling that was cutting into his profits. The trio formed a loose association, wherein Tunstall would anchor the territory around Lincoln; Chisum would supply beef, funds, men and the force and integrity of his reputation; while McSween handled the legal affairs of the group. With the formation of this ring, the stage was set for a conflict, one that should have been waged on ledgers, but instead eroded into as bloody a fight as ever hit the Southwest.
In the opening gambits, the Tunstall-Chisum group opened a bank and store to compete with the House. These economic challengers worked out agreements with the small farmers and ranchers, contracting for all livestock feed raised in Lincoln County. Then agreements were reached with various settlers that would provide Tunstall control of water rights–which in desert country provided the holder sway over pasture for miles around. As capitalism was practiced in Europe, such tactics would not have caused a ripple. But in the American West, economic advantage was largely a matter of forcing one’s will on another, and the House quickly realized the danger of Tunstall’s schemes and organized a resistance. Tunstall naively expected the battles to be fought in court, as economic wars were waged in Europe and Eastern America. He never dreamed that when his business acumen began to ruin his opponent that Murphy’s forces would react so aggressively. By underestimating their resolve and methods, Tunstall wound up dead–shot to death on February 18, 1878, by a sheriff’s ‘posse’ composed of outlaws and minions of the House sent to attach livestock as bond for a lawsuit.
Immediately after the posse had shot down Tunstall, Alexander McSween gathered around him a cadre of the toughest men he could find. Some were already on the Tunstall payroll, some were sent by Chisum and some joined because they had a grudge against the House–all were bad men to mess with. Among the group was a drifter known as Big Jim French.
Exactly why Big Jim was in New Mexico Territory and how he managed to get involved in the Lincoln County War has never been clearly understood, but the evidence points very strongly to happenstance. Old-timer Frank Coe, who fought in the war, said in the 1870s that French had been a drifter from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) who had begun working for Chisum. Coe added that he suspected Chisum had sent French along with several others to support the McSween faction. No other participant ever made a statement to explain French’s presence. Chisum was known to purchase cattle and horses throughout Indian Territory and Texas to fulfill contracts, and some writers have asserted that in December 1877, Tunstall went with Chisum to purchase horses that were to be delivered to Chisum and held until Tunstall was ready for them. If such a buying trip did happen, it’s possible that French was one of the riders hired to escort the herd and that he gained temporary employment with Chisum before being sent to Lincoln. The theory is plausible and fits the timing of French’s entry into Lincoln. As to why the man got involved in the fighting, old-timers have hinted that McSween hired men to protect himself and his family. As French’s movements during the war can be traced by following the movements of the McSweens, it’s probable that French began his career in Lincoln as one of those paid bodyguards. It has also been speculated that McSween offered a bounty for the elimination of the men responsible for Tunstall’s death. This bounty and the need for revenge seem to be the reasons the self-styled Regulators began operating in the area. French attached himself to this group. The two killings he participated in during the war were both rumored to be assassinations based on the promised bounty offered by McSween. French was probably in the dangerous game simply for the money.
Florencio Chaves was a member of the Regulator posse that captured Frank Baker and Buck Morton, two of the men responsible for the murder of John Tunstall. After the posse captured the pair, according to Chaves, posse member Bill McCloskey aroused the ire and suspicion of several in the party because of his refusal to allow any harm to befall Baker and Morton. Chaves said that a plan was devised to kill McCloskey. It seems the Kid, Jim French and Fred Waite were riding ahead of the prisoners on March 9, 1878, while Doc Scurlock, McCloskey and Henry Brown were riding behind. Waite dropped back beside Scurlock and asked McCloskey, ‘How’s the best way to kill those sons a bitches?’ By insisting the pair be taken to the sheriff, McCloskey sealed his death warrant, because French immediately dropped back, placing his horse in McCloskey’s path, effectively boxing him between Waite and Brown. Without a word, Brown pulled out his six-shooter and shot McCloskey, killing him instantly. The prisoners, according to Chaves, now knew for sure what was in store for them, so they tried to make a run for it and were shot to doll rags. Chaves’ version makes more sense than the cover story that McCloskey was shot by the prisoners and Baker and Morton were shot trying to escape.
The second killing French participated in was a premeditated murder, for French and several others opened up from concealment, with Winchesters, on Sheriff Brady’s party as it passed down the street of Lincoln on April Fool’s Day. The excuse used to justify this act was that Brady was thought to be in cahoots with the House, and Deputy George Hindman was a part of the posse that had eliminated Tunstall less than two weeks earlier. During the fighting, Billy the Kid and French ran out to rifle the bodies of the victims, and each was wounded in the hip. French’s injury was serious enough that he could not ride. He was given first aid by the Rev. Taylor F. Ealy. Clerk Sam Corbet, who had been one of Tunstall’s staunchest supporters, then hid French beneath the floor of the Tunstall store while men searched the building.
Later, French was moved to a cabin behind Frank Coe’s place where he convalesced for several days. After recovering, French confined his activities to protecting the McSweens, a role he took seriously. In mid-July the so-called Five-Day Battle took place. The McSween house was under siege, and there was sporadic shooting. French remained inside the home, shouting profanities at the forces of James J. Dolan, who had replaced the seriously ill Murphy as head of the opposing faction. After five days of siege, Dolan’s men set fire to the house and the gunfire increased. On the night of the 19th, five of the defenders–Billy the Kid, José Chávez y Chávez, Harvey Morris, Tom O’Folliard and French–broke out of the house, trying to create a distraction that would allow McSween and the others to escape. Morris and McSween were among the casualties that night. French, who, like the Kid, got away, later returned to Lincoln to protect McSween’s widow, Susan.
Few folks have offered any hints as to what happened to French after the Lincoln County War. U.S. Army Captain G.A. Purington included in an 1879 field report a rumor that French had been killed during a quarrel over the distribution of stolen cattle. Nearly 60 years later, Herbert Cody Blake related that he understood French left for South America after the fighting. Some researchers have taken Blake’s statement literally; however, it seems unlikely that a man without means or language skills would go to a foreign country for an extended period. What is more plausible is that Blake was using a colloquialism meaning that the man went beyond the reach of the law. Fellow Regulator Frank Coe insisted that French had returned to what would become Oklahoma and was shot there around 1924. Most researchers nowadays accept Coe’s statement as being closer to the truth because of one letter written from Keota, Indian Territory. That letter, written in pencil on ruled paper, is reproduced here with spelling and punctuation unchanged:
I did not get my last pay before I left Lincoln, $5. please get it from Mrs. McSween and send it to me the old Biddy hates to part with money but she ought to pay up after all we done for her.
Do you remember the night we was garding outside her house and the Pole cat walked across your chest and wakened you up and you let out a yell you could hear a mile away and wakened Mrs Mac in the house and scared her so she thought Jim Dolans boys had come to Kill her sure enough.
When you write to me you can send the letter to Mr. Cochran, Gen. Del. Keota I.T.
Even though most questions about the letter have not been answered, it has been accepted as a genuine relic. But is it? French specifically asked that a response be addressed to Mr. Cochran rather than to himself, which suggests he was using an alias because he was still the subject of several arrest warrants or perhaps French was illiterate. Historians claim the ‘Friend Sam’ of the opening was Sam Corbet, because the two were known to have mounted a guard at the widow McSween’s house in the closing months of the Lincoln conflict. On the basis of the return address, Keota, Indian Territory, has been proclaimed to be the home of the mysterious Big Jim. The same historians arbitrarily assigned the undated note an origin of 1878-79.
There’s one big problem. While a Keota exists in present-day Haskell County, no village of that name–based on a review of period maps and histories–was in Indian Territory in 1879. In fact, it was not until 1887, eight years after the purported date of the letter to Corbet, that folks started calling the location Ke-Otter, a corruption originating from a combination of the names Otter Creek and Jim Keese, who built a ranch on the spot. A town did not physically exist until the Midland Valley Railroad pushed its rails through in 1903-04 and a tent city was created, and the town did not officially exist until establishment of a post office in 1905. Thus the assumption that the letter to Corbet was written in 1879 simply isn’t true; to carry a return address of Keota, I.T., the letter had to have been written 26 years later than originally thought.
Researchers have largely accepted at face value the allegation made by Frank Coe that French was a Cherokee Indian. In 1870s Lincoln, however, most men thought to have Indian blood were apparently labeled ‘Cherokee,’ including a Navajo herder. Outright acceptance of statements regarding Indian heritage is therefore questionable. Furthermore, the community of Keota is smack in the middle of the old Choctaw Nation.
Researching Oklahoma Indian heritage is relatively simple. When the federal government decided to end tribal governments, the Dawes Commission was created in 1893 to identify by blood all Indians, so that lands and resources could be distributed among tribal members. The records created by the commission were preserved and are easily accessible. Motivated by the thought of free land, practically every person residing in the Choctaw Nation at the time filed a claim.In 1896 the eldest female member of a French clan, Lucinda French, did attempt to enroll for Choctaw tribal membership on the basis of ‘always having lived in the Choctaw Nation.’ The document gave a postal address of Cowlington, a community near present-day Keota that existed 20 years before Keota. Additionally, her declaration included a son, James French, with a birth year of 1851, some 25 years before things heated up in Lincoln County. The document also included names and ages of siblings, the name of Jim’s first spouse, and the names and ages of four children and one grandchild. One of the children is much older than the others, with a birth year of 1873. The others were born in 1887, 1892 and 1894. This discrepancy suggests that French was remarried in 1886, or returned home after a long absence. (A direct descendant of the older daughter has said that French’s first wife died about the time he appeared in Lincoln County and that their child was placed for adoption by a family in Denton County, Texas.) Supportive affidavits from relatives and friends suggest that the family was thought to be a mixture of white, Choctaw and Cherokee.
However, the family could not have ‘always’ been in the Choctaw Nation. The 1870 census of Big Creek Township, Sebastian County, Ark., shows French, his wife and a month-old son were in dwelling 178, while his parents and siblings were in dwelling 176. The child, named Fredrick L., was not found in later information. By 1873, the French clan, according to a description given in a Federal Court case, was living in the Poteau River bottom of the Choctaw Nation. Other information shows that his siblings, except Alfred, list their birthplaces as Texas. Furthermore, Choctaw records prepared in 1884, a decade before the Dawes Commission, list members of the family as white intruders. This persona non grata status was quite likely a reaction caused by the family’s predatory acts on prominent Choctaws. What is certain is that the intruder label led to the rejection of the clan’s claim of citizenship in the Choctaw Nation. The ruling was not appealed; thus the truth about French’s Indian blood is uncertain.
Just why Chisum selected French to go to the aid of McSween in Lincoln has never been explained, other than an oft-quoted theory that Big Jim was a crime-toughened outlaw–a statement no one seems to have followed up on with facts. Part of the problem in doing so is the fragmentary records preserved from the old Federal District Court of Western Arkansas, the court of the famed hanging judge, Isaac C. Parker, which had jurisdiction over the area purported to be French’s stamping grounds. Those records are organized by crime rather than by individuals, making research of the criminal activity of a specific individual an exceptionally difficult process. But if one has names of family members, one can cross-reference the various criminals within the records. In this manner, some 20 cases of members of the Lucinda French family were identified, demonstrating that Big Jim was but a single member of a family of Indian Territory outlaws. Two cases associated with this family provide a specific location for their home from 1887 to 1896, at a site within four miles of present-day Keota–thus establishing for the first time a supportive link with a specific Jim French and the community of Keota.
Another court case establishes a possible reason for French’s presence in New Mexico Territory during the Lincoln County War. In 1875 a warrant for horse theft was assigned to Oliver French, a brother, and it also includes an alias warrant for ‘one’ French, which may have been Big Jim. The warrant was never served, but simply being the subject of a Federal warrant has certainly been sufficient cause for men to head for parts unknown.
In addition, another case supports the tradition that French returned to Indian Territory in the fall of 1878. French appeared before U.S. Commissioner James Brizzolara on July 5, 1879, to answer a larceny charge of selling the hide of a cow belonging to a man named Mitchell who rented from Edmund Burgevin, a wealthy intermarried citizen farming in the Cache Creek bottom west of Skullyville (sometimes spelled Scullyville), Indian Territory. During the trial, Mitchell testified he had last seen his cow in the fall of 1878 and had discovered the hide near the J.L. Tibbetts Store in Skullyville in March 1879. Tibbetts recalled his clerk had bought a ‘green hide,’ meaning one that was not tanned, from French during the spring. In response to a question from the court, Burgevin declared French was ‘a white man, not a citizen of the Indian Country by nationality or adoption.’ The significance of this announcement is that a recognized tribal leader clearly established the court’s right to hear the case. This case was the first of many involving Burgevin and the French family, and is probably the source of the loathing Burgevin felt; it also explains why Burgevin was probably the tribal authority who listed them as intruders. Commissioner Brizzolara discharged French, dismissing the charge as unfounded after a reliable witness testified that it was the custom of the country for anyone discovering a dead cow to have the privilege of skinning the animal and selling the hide, regardless of actual ownership, and no testimony had been presented that Jim had actually killed the cow. But Jim was not quite done with court, for later in the day he and his parents testified on behalf of brothers Patrick J. and William Oliver French, who were being examined for stealing a team of horses from a widow.
Nor was Commissioner Brizzolara finished hearing cases involving the French clan. In July 1886, brothers Pat, Oliver and Jim French were the subject of a criminal warrant for assault following threats against the life of their brother-in-law Charles Glenn, a man who had been the backbone of their defense in two earlier trials. Glenn’s affidavit declared, ‘I do believe and fear that they will attempt to carry out this [murder] threat….’ From this allegation forward, Jim does not appear in territorial court records as a defendant, probably because he remarried and settled down. But French may not have been as inoffensive as the lack of records seem to indicate; it’s possible that Jim was no longer in Indian Territory. There is a cryptic notation in Big Jim’s biographical information that observes, though there was no known connection, a man known as Jim French was wanted on felony charges in Grayson County, Texas, in 1886. Neighboring Denton County is where Jim French placed his infant daughter with an adoptive family, and didn’t French disappear from the Oklahoma scene about the same time as this other fellow was charged in Texas? The rest of the family certainly did not become model citizens. Brothers Oliver, Pat, Al, Steve and Tom French continued to make frequent appearances in court, defending against such crimes as assault, kidnapping, whiskey peddling and theft. Eventually, Steve and Tom French were sent to Federal prisons. Although it has been established that one-time Regulator Jim French lived until at least 1905, a search of area resources failed to confirm the claim that French was killed in Oklahoma circa 1924. No verified photo of Big Jim French has surfaced. Much about his life will have to remain shadowy, and what became of him in the 20th century is simply unknown. Anyone for a Jim French posthumous pardon?
This article was written by Mike Tower and originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Wild West.
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