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Alexander McSween (died July 19, 1878) was a prominent figure during the Lincoln County War of the Old West, and a central character, alongside John Tunstall, in opposing businessmen and gunmen Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan.
Born Alexander Anderson McSween, in Canada, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. McSween was for a time in his youth a preacher. Afterwards he attended law school for one year, in St. Louis, Missouri before moving to Kansas, then to New Mexico Territory. He had married Susan Hummer in 1873. After he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, McSween worked for Murphy-Dolan as an attorney, then left them to work for John Tunstall, with whom he became close friends and by 1876, business partners.
Lincoln County War
When the trouble between the two factions began, Murphy-Dolan accused McSween of embezzlement, and they hired gunmen from the Evans and Kinney gangs to rustle Tunstall's cattle and harass him. McSween-Tunstall hired gunmen to protect them and their properties, including Billy the Kid, Dick Brewer, George Coe, and Frank Coe, among others. On February 18, 1878, Tunstall was murdered by William Morton, Jesse Evans and Tom Hill.
The Lincoln County Regulators were formed, and on March 6, 1878, the Regulators arrested Frank Baker and William Morton, and executed them. On April 1, 1878, Billy the Kid, Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Brown, entered Lincoln and ambushed and killed Sheriff Brady and Deputy Hindman. Deputy Billy Matthews returned fire during the attack, wounding Billy the Kid and Jim French, but the wounds were minor.
On April 4, 1878, there was a gun battle at Blazer's Mill between Buckshot Roberts, a bounty hunter working for Dolan, and the Regulators. Roberts and Regulator Dick Brewer were killed, Middleton was badly wounded, the Kid was grazed by a bullet, and George Coe had his trigger finger shot off. On April 18, Billy the Kid, John Middleton, Fred Waite and Henry Newton Brown were indicted for the murder of Sheriff Brady, while Dolan, Jesse Evans, Matthews and others were indicted for the murder of Tunstall. On May 15, 1878, Manuel Segovia, the cowboy who had killed Frank McNab, was captured.
Battle of Lincoln
On July 15, 1878, the Regulators were surrounded in Lincoln at the McSween home, along with McSween and his law partner, Harvey Morris. Facing them were the Dolan/Murphy/Seven Rivers cowboys, led by Sheriff George Peppin. On July 19, after numerous exchanges of gunfire over a four-day period, the house was set afire. As the flames spread and night fell, Susan McSween was granted safe passage out of the house while the men inside continued to fight the fire.
By 9 p.m., the Regulators and McSween made plans to break free of the house. Jim French went out first, followed by Billy the Kid, Tom O'Folliard, and Jose Chavez y Chavez. The Dolan men saw the running men and opened fire, killing Morris. Some US Cavalry troopers had arrived by that time, with instructions to make arrests to avoid executions by the Dolan Faction, and they'd taken up position in the back yard to take those left into custody. However, a close-order gunfight erupted, and McSween was killed, as was Seven Rivers cowboy Bob Beckwith.
With McSween dead, the Lincoln County War was effectively over. McSween's widow, Susan, remarried some time later, to a businessman named George Barber, but the marriage ended in divorce. She would purchase a ranch in Three Rivers, New Mexico, and later became one of the most prominent cattlewomen of the Old West. She sold out in 1902 to politician Albert Fall, and moved to White Oaks, New Mexico, where she remained until her death in 1931, at age 85.
In popular culture
McSween was portrayed by Terry O'Quinn in the 1988 movie Young Guns. Unlike with many other actual characters depicted in this movie and its sequel, McSween's death was portrayed more or less accurately, with a scene showing him shot and killed in the Battle of Lincoln.