This post was written by Katy Berube, a student intern working in civilian processing. It is a follow-up to the post A few good lawmen. Documentation for this post can be found in the series “Appointment Files for Judicial Districts, 1853-1905.”
As guns unloaded into British subject and cattle investor, John H. Tunstall, in the dusty, remote hills of the New Mexico Territory on February 18, 1878, the grab for power between Lincoln County cattlemen and Santa Fe politically backed local merchants turned bloody (1). In the wake of Tunstall’s death the U.S. Marshal Service was catapulted onto center stage of the Lincoln County War. The U.S. Marshal at the center of the crisis was John Sherman Jr. who had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the U.S. Marshal for the New Mexico Territory on May 24, 1876 (2). A personal note from Marshal Sherman to the Attorney General of the United States, Charles Devens accompanying his application for re-appointment to the position of U.S. Marshal in New Mexico Territory in March of 1880 is featured here (3). Additionally, an envelope noting his re-appointment to the position of U.S. Marshal for the New Mexico Territory is also featured here (4). Both records are part of the records of the Department of Justice, RG 60.
As it was common practice for county sheriffs to simultaneously hold commissions as federal deputy marshals in U.S. Territories in the 19th Century, it is not a surprise that most of the deputy marshals of the Lincoln County appointed by Marshal Sherman came from within the Sherriff’s Office (5). An exception was Michigan native Robert Widenmann (6). A cattle investor and friend of John H. Tunstall, Robert Widenmann witnessed Tunstall’s death (7). Soon after he secured an appointment as a U.S. Deputy Marshal from Sherman, he was given permission to form a civilian posse and arrest the accused. Famously, one of the members of Widenmann’s deputized posse was William Bonney, commonly known as “Billy the Kid” (8). By early March, however, most of the outlaws connected to the Tunstall murder were captured or killed.
The heavy handed tactics of Widenmann’s posse in pursuit of the outlaws, the refusal of Special U.S. Deputy Marshal and Sherriff of Lincoln County William Brady to aid Widenmann, and continued political interference from Santa Fe fueled the raging conflict. As a result, on April 1, 1878 deputy marshals fought each other in a gun fight on the streets of Lincoln leaving deputy marshals William Brady and George Hindman dead (9). Both “Billy the Kid” and outspoken Deputy Marshal Widenmann were wanted by county law officials for their deaths. Although widely believed innocent, Deputy Marshal Widenmann turned himself into to the military at Fort Stanton (10). A few weeks later he left the territory fearing for his life. Overt hostilities in the Lincoln County War concluded with the deaths of attorney Alexander McSween and five other men loyal to the cattle investor cause on July of 1878 (11).
At best Marshal Sherman’s conduct in the Lincoln County War can be compared to a distant echo of his uncle General William Techumseh Sherman’s hard-nosed approach to winning the peace, at worst he is considered a political lackey who lacked the back bone necessary to stand up to Governor Axtell and the infamous Santa Fe Ring who ran the New Mexico Territory. As historian for the U.S. Marshal Service David Turk states, “while Marshal Sherman was blamed for inaction the scarce number of available deputies, caution in a politically divided area and poor communication with Washington officials all played a hand in his behavior” (12). Indeed, Judge Frank Warner Angel’s investigation and subsequent April 16, 1878 report to Attorney General Charles Devens also addresses the significance of the political headwinds Marshal Sherman encountered. Specifically, Judge Angel gave Marshal Sherman credit as the “only gleam of hope” for Lincoln by citing his decision to stand up for Deputy Marshal Widenmann early in the conflict (13). Marshal Sherman’s experience reflect the challenges unique to a U.S. Marshal in an U.S. Territory in the late 19th Century.
1. David S. Turk, “Billy the Kid & the U.S. Marshals Service,” Wild West, February 2007, 35.
3. Sherman to Devens; 1881-1885, New Mexico
4. Sherman Re-appointment Envelope; 1881-1885, New Mexico
5. Frederick S. Calhoun, The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989, (New York: Penguin Group, 1991), 150.
6. David S. Turk, “Billy the Kid & The U.S. Marshals Service,” Wild West, February 2007, 35.
8. Ibid, 36.
9. Ibid, 37.
12. Ibid, 39.
13. Larry D. Ball, The United States Marshals of New Mexico and Arizona Territories, 1846-1912, (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1978), 90.
Ball, Larry D. The United States Marshals of New Mexico and Arizona Territories, 1846-1912. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
Calhoun, Frederick S. The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989. New York: Penguin Group, 1991.
John Sherman, Jr., U.S. Marshal to Charles Devens, U.S. Attorney General, Washington, D.C., March 13, 1880 (Sherman to Devens); 1881-1885, New Mexico, Sherman John, Jr. (1881-1885, New Mexico) ; RG60 Records Relating to the Appointment of Federal Judges, Marshals, and Attorneys; National Archives Building II, College Park, MD.
John Sherman, Jr., U.S. Marshal Re-appointment Envelope, 1881-1885 (Sherman Re-appointment Envelope); 1881-1885, New Mexico, Sherman John, Jr. (1881-1885, New Mexico); RG60 Records Relating to the Appointment of Federal Judges, Marshals, and Attorneys; National Archives Building II, College Park, MD.
Turk, David S. “Billy the Kid & The U.S. Marshals Service,” Wild West, February 2007, 19, accessed July 8, 2011, MasterFILE Premier (23337929).