“Every calculation based on experience elsewhere
fails in New Mexico.”
–Lew Wallace

In September 1878, President Rutherford Hayes appointed Lew as Governor of the New Mexico Territory. Though it was described by some as a reward for his Republican support, the appointment was not a favor; the Lincoln County Wars and Apache land disputes made the appointment dangerous and tense.

Lew’s primary objective was to clean up the Lincoln County Wars, a conflict over economic control of the area. Lawrence Murphy and his business partners, James Dolan and John Riley, had built a dry goods monopoly run through Murphy’s general store. When Alexander McSween, John Chisum, and John Tunstall set up a competing general store in 1876, the situation quickly turned violent.

Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Image by Flickr user Miheco

Both factions hired men to fight for them and protect their interests. McSween hired William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. John Tunstall’s murder in 1878 marked the beginning of the Lincoln County War. McSween sought to avenge the death and his gang killed Lincoln County’s Sheriff Brady.

Lew wanted Billy to testify in the trial of the local military commander, whom he believed to have taken sides in the contest. Billy agreed on the condition that Lew grant him amnesty from outstanding warrants, which included the killing of three men. Billy testified but the local prosecutor did not agree to Lew’s grant of immunity from prosecution and had Billy arrested.

He was tried and found guilty but escaped and went on a new crime spree. Lew felt he had no choice but to agree with the court finding and, as one of his last acts in New Mexico, signed Billy’s death warrant. Prior to the hanging, Billy managed to escape from jail again. Billy the Kid was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in July.

Lew also organized a territorial militia in 1880 to deal with problems with several Indian tribes, particularly the Apaches in southern New Mexico. The Apaches were wary of the white settlers moving in on their traditional lands and of their placement on reservations. The Apaches began raiding villages. American authorities killed the Apache’s leader in 1880, which eased tensions to a degree.

Susan Wallace also had a significant role in New Mexico’s history when she discovered a room filled with historic documents from New Mexico’s past in the Palace of the Governors. Alarmed at the condition of these documents, Susan alerted her husband about her discovery. Lew hired an archivist fluent in Spanish and English and secured the safe storage of these priceless documents.

Lew resigned his post as governor in 1881.