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Sweet Revenge — How Susan McSween Really Won the Lincoln County War

by Heather Frey Blanton

Imagine you’re a woman living in a western town where a war over money and power is raging. People are being outright murdered. There is no law except that which is meted out by the villains. Then your husband is murdered and you are alone with these cut-throats. What do you do?

If you’re Susan McSween, an American girl, you fight on till you become “The Cattle Queen of New Mexico.”

Susan was the wife of Alexander McSween and the two moved to Lincoln, New Mexico in 1875. They hit it off with English rancher John Tunstall who introduced them to the legendary John Chisum. The two cattle barons and all the other folks in the valley were eagerly looking for a way to wrestle some commerce out of the fist of James Dolan. Dolan and his partner Lawrence Murphy had monopolized the banking and mercantile trade in Lincoln, charging absolutely exorbitant prices for everything.

Not much for being extorted, Tunstall and McSween opened their own mercantile and bank. Infuriated over the challenge to their little kingdom, the Murphy-Dolan faction immediately hired gangs of mercenary gunmen to wage a war of violent intimidation. Tunstall, in turn, hired boys who would come to be known as The Lincoln County Regulators. Fiercely loyal to their employer, legendary members included Billy the Kid and Charley Bowdre.

Lincoln was a powder keg and after several murders, including that of John Tunstall, the Tunstall-McSween store was burned to the ground with a handful of the Regulators inside. Alexander McSween was shot as he was coming out of the building to surrender.

Susan McSween saw the whole thing.

Amazingly, instead of cowering, she sought justice in the matter and hired attorney Huston Chapman to go after Dolan, his sheriff, and Army Colonel Nathan Dudley. Susan also had Chapman attempt to negotiate amnesty for her Regulators. All for nought. While Dudley stood trial, he was acquitted. Before Dolan’s trial, Chapman was shot and killed. The case was dropped, but Susan didn’t go away. She just changed her strategy.

Murphy managed to acquire all of Tunstall’s land holdings, developing a sizable ranch. He even dabbled in politics, but his dream of being the biggest cattle baron in the state was repeatedly foiled by a meddling, ambitious little brunette on a mission of her own. Susan acquired several thousand acres after her husband’s murder and then married George Barber. At one point, the couple reportedly had over 8,000 head of cattle.

While Murphy eventually drank himself to death, Susan McSween sold her ranch in 1902 and retired a wealthy woman. She died at the ripe old age of 86 having outlasted nearly all the men involved in the murder of her husband.

A true lady in defiance.

 

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