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:
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.
John Sherman Jr.
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