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Weekly Alibi Romancing the Past

Maurice Fulton's "History of the Lincoln County War"

By Blake de Pastino

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  This winter will mark the 120th anniversary of the Lincoln County War, one of the bloodiest episodes that New Mexico has ever seen. Pity that so few of us really know about it. High on drama but short on historical details, the Lincoln War is known to most of us only as a bunch of Hollywood histrionics, old Western movie plots based loosely on the events that transpired not far from here, back in 1878. Think of Paul Newman's The Left-Handed Gun or, more recently, the Young Guns films, or any one of a dozen others. Each of them is a history of New Mexico that we have written together, in our collective, drama-loving imagination.

And to be honest, there was little about the Lincoln County War that was not dramatic. Hardly a screenwriter alive could dream up a scenario that's more shot through with struggle and showmanship. Acted out in the mountains of southeastern New Mexico, the war launched the career of Billy the Kid and featured plenty of weird, almost fictive characters--like the tubercular cattle baron John Chisum, who owned so many cattle that he couldn't count them; or the romantic, rheumy governor Lew Wallace, who spent his evenings by lamplight writing the epic Ben Hur. It also had the complex conflict as its premise--two white merchants (one Irish, the other British) trying to monopolize the economy of a largely Hispanic county. Indeed, it's hard not to think about Lincoln without writing your own, rococo history in your head.

Until his death in 1955, Maurice Garland Fulton dedicated himself to researching this history--but only in its most unromantic terms. A devoted antiquarian, he spent years questing after the facts and debunking the myths that surrounded "the Lincoln legend." By day a schoolteacher in Roswell, Fulton gave every spare moment to setting the record straight--pawing through courthouse records, poring over private papers, conducting interviews with what few survivors could still be found. Eventually, his labors were realized in this, the History of the Lincoln County War, published posthumously and quickly recognized as the most meticulous record ever written of the struggle. Now, this unique piece of New Mexicana is back in print, so you can see for yourself what the past has looked like.

Here, Fulton proves himself to be as fastidious as they come. In 55 chapters of no-nonsense prose, he sketches out virtually every nuance of the Lincoln conflict--from the legal tricks the merchants used on each other to where all the townsfolk were when the bullets started to fly. (A typically unadorned sentence: "Mr. Wilson, quietly hoeing the onion patch beside his house, received flesh wounds in both legs between the hips and knees"). Not exactly Ken Burns, it's true, but all of those dowsy documents and flat narrations are not without their charm, their dusty authenticity. Because of its surgical precision, in fact, Fulton's history has an almost timeless cast to it.

But as more time passes, the more Fulton himself seems like some sort of relic. As gripping--and historically important--as the Lincoln War is, there are other aspects to it that Fulton was, perhaps, not prepared to see. He's quick to dismiss the idea that Lincoln's was a race war, for example, even though it was in its essence a struggle by Mexican-Americans to gain their economic freedom. Fulton even goes out of his way to depict Chicanos (which most of the warriors were) as either wild-eyed savages or craven sissies, choosing instead to make Anglos like the Kid look like the heroes. Prejudices like these are pretty hard to take--especially from a writer who prided himself on being so "objective"--but there's something to be said for taking a book in its own historical context. A lot has changed, we like to think, since the 1950s.

For all its affectionate detail, Fulton's History of the Lincoln County War is undoubtedly one of the best places to start if you want to shirr together some facts from New Mexico's past. But it's best not to stop there. The beauty of history, after all, is that it's yours to invent, to squeeze new meanings out of. Maybe someday someone will write a more critical, analytical history about that brutal, curious thing called Lincoln County War. But for now, at least, the facts are out there. Make of them what you will. (Univ. of Arizona Press, paper, $19.95)

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