Lincoln County New Mexico Historical Society
Lincoln County Historical Society located in historic Lincoln County New Mexico

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The Horrell War by Walter Earl Pittman

The Horrells of Lampasas County, Texas were a large, extended family, centered on five very tough brothers, relatives and hangers-on.  The Horrell's were tough, earning a reputation as hardworking men, better not crossed, but whose prosperity was derived from other people's cattle.  Reckless, given to periodic drunken sprees, they would "run the town", galloping through the streets shooting at anything that caught their eye.  The local law authorities were thoroughly cowed. Eventually, Capt. Thomas Williams and seven men of the new state police, created by the despised carpetbag Texas government, were sent into Lampasas.  Williams, a Northerner, made the mistake of challenging the Horrell clan in its favorite saloon.  When the smoke cleared, he and three of his me were dead, the others fleeing to Austin.  Matt Horrell was wounded.  The Horrells soon decided that New Mexico offered a more congenial climate, and began a leisurely migration westward.  Reportedly, their herds mysteriously increased as they moved past other people's ranches.

The Horrells arrived in October, 1873, in the Hondo Valley where they purchased a homestead.  They had the bad luck to arrived when racial feelings were raw.  Not long after their arrival, a Horrell apparently shot and killed a Hispanic neighbor he caught cutting an irrigation ditch. Earlier in the year, John Chisum's cowboys had tracked down and killed some native cattle rustlers from the Manzano region.  In February 1873, two Hispanic ranch hands were killed after stealing from John Copeland's ranch.  Copeland and John Riley traveled to Placitas to turn themselves in to the young Probate Judge Juan Patron, who tried to arrest them. As a lynch mob formed they fled to Fort Stanton.  The next day Patron lead a "posse" of heavily armed men out to the ranch.  The had no warrants.  Before they could do any harm, the Army intervened in the person of Capt. C.M. McKibbin and a detachment of soldiers.  McKibbin arrested the entire posse who were taken tot he Fort and held for trial while Copeland and Riley were exonerated.  Thus, when Ben Horrell, ex-Sheriff L,J, Gylam, D.C. Warner, and two other men arrived in town on 1 December, 1873, for a spree, the stage was set for tragedy. 

The Texans began drinking early and heavily, creating an uproar.  At one point, they were disarmed by the local deputy, Juan Martinez, under Lincoln's gun ordinance that was enforced only against select Anglos.  The good time cowboys simply obtained other weapons and continued their spree.  That evening, the festivities moved to a bordello, where Martinez and a posse of White-hating local toughs suddenly appeared to confront the drunken cowboys.  What happened is unclear, no unbiased account exists.  D.C. Warner killed Martinez, a longtime enemy, and was killed himself.  Ben Horrell and Gylam, both wounded, ran but were chased down by the mob and murdered, begging for their lives.  They may have been unarmed, even undressed.  Their bodies wre riddled with bullets.  The Horrell family first sought legal redress, but Sheriff Ham Mills, who was married into a local Hispanic family, simply refused. Two days later, the bodies of two respectable Hispanic men were found on the Horrell ranch.  The war was on.

Watching with alarm was the Commanding Officer at Fort Stanton, Maj. John Mason. He feared a race war, but believed that very explicit orders constrained from taking action.  When the Alcalde appealed for military protection, Mason refused, stating the troops were at Fort Stanton to protect the people from Indians.  Nevertheless, when Mason learned, on 5 December 1874, of a large (40-50 man) posse forming on Eagle Creek, he sent a detachment under Capt. McKibben to watch the proceedings but not to interfere.  He hope the presence of the troops would calm the situation.  It didn't and the mob swarmed to the Horrell Ranch.  There, they met a line of heavily armed Horrells, grimly awaiting them. The sight seems to have cooled their anger.  The Horrells offered to surrender to any legal authority that could guarantee their lives and a fair trial.  But that was not to be had in Lincoln County.  The Sheriff had no warrants, no charges had been filed and both the Justice of the Peace and the Probate Judge had fled the County when the bullets started flying.

For a few days, Lincoln County was quieter.  But the Horrels weren't through.  They had learned that Juan Patron had killed Ben and wanted revenge.  On the night of 20 December "about twenty-five" Horrelss and their friends rode to Lincoln.  There was a wedding that day and a baile that night. Hiding out until nearly midnight the Horrell gang rode in, shot out the lights and then began firing nearly at random into the long adobe building (Convento) where the dance was held.  Juan Patron wasn't there, but they killed his father and three other men and wounded three bystanders.  Ex-Sheriff William Brady and Maj. Mason hurriedly worked to control the situation despite their lack of authority.  The Horrells agreed not to attack Lincoln if they were left alone.  Mason stationed Capt. Edward G. Fechet and a troop in Lincoln for a few days despite the fact he could not legally intervene.

The fear of the Army was that it would be dragged into a feud.  In fact, Sheriff Ham Mills did appear at Fort Stanton and attempted to call out the entire garrison as a posse comitatus to reinforce his Hispanic posse.  The Commanding Officer refused, but in January 1875, a Judge issued warrants for the Horrells' arrest.  It was an open invitation to murder them.  A large posse (c. 45 men) headed for the Horrell ranch on 20 January 1875.  The Horrells refused to surrender to the posse but offered to surrender to the Army.  Capt. McKibben with a detachment of soldiers had followed, under orders to watch but take no part.  McKibben couldn't accept the surrender nor guarantee the Horrells' safety.  The posse soon gave up and rode back to Lincoln.  The Horrells, realizing their hopelessness, also gave up and, gathering their families, headed to Roswell en route to Texas.  On the way, they came across a wagon train and someone murdered five Hispanic teamsters.  Earlier, two innocent Anglos had been shot by some of the Horrell band simply because they were married to "Mexicans". The Lincoln posse now greatly enlarged, and under Jimmy Dolan's leadership, returned to the Horrell ranch to loot and burn the place.  In Roswell, the Horrells recruited cowboy volunteers from the Pecos region that may have numbered 75 men.  They headed toward Lincoln to take their vengeance.  For some reason, they turned back.  Legend says that the Horrells grew horrified at their cohort's bloodthirsty intentions to kill everyone in Lincoln. 

The Horrells returned to Lampasas, Texas, where they were soon involved in another feud, the "Horrell-Higgins War" which decimated the family.  The Horrell War left a lot of dead bodies (29 known dead, maybe as many as 75), and a bitterly divided Lincoln County.  It could have been a lot worse without the presence of the Army at Fort Stanton, whose commanders stretched the authority they had to prevent even more violence.  Three times Army detachments stood by as the two armed mobs faced one another and each time, their presence served as an inhibiting factor limiting the violence.

Frederick Nolan, Bad Blood:  The Life and Times of the Horrell Brothers (Stillwater, OK; Barbed Wire Press, 1994)
Phillip J. Rasch, "The Horrell War", New Mexico Historical Review, v. 31, n. 3, July, 1956.
C.L. Sonnichsen, I'll Die Before I'll Run (New York, NY, Harper & Brothers, 1951)
Daily New Mexican [Santa Fe]. 19 February, 3 March, 1873.
Lily Klasner, My Girlhood Among Outlaws (Tucson, AZ; Univ. of Arizona Press, 1972)

From the Lincoln County Historical Society newsletter, Summer  2015

"My father was killed by the Horrell Brothers, on the Ruidoso River about where..,San Patricio...is. my father was on his way to the Dowlin Mill... He ws taking a wagon load of grain to the mill."

Jose Apodaca, 1938

Excerpted from Old Lincoln County Pioneer Stories (LCHS #3)

From Lincoln County Historical Society newsletter, Fall/Winter 2004