Frank McNab – Captain of Regulators
by Ryan McNabb
Few phrases bring images to mind more clearly than “the old west”. You don't need to ask which west, or when...images of cowboys and gunfighters, Indians and cavalry spring to mind. The most classic western story might be one involving warring cattle barons – wealthy men who controlled vast tracts of western territories (long before they became states) and had herds of thousands of cattle managed by cowboys who often lived out on the prairie winter and summer. When fattened, the herds were headed up and moved to the major rail heads for shipment by train to an American east that was hungry for beef.
Where there are fortunes to be made, or lost, you can bet that tempers flared. Cattlemen would fight to the death over grass and water, and the right to move their herds from one to the other. Often these were meaningless spats, but occasionally the conflict escalated into bloody battles between bands of cow hands and hired guns brought in for the occasion. One such man, who was instrumental in the earliest days of the American frontier cattle industry, was Frank McNab.
Frank McNab, said to be of “Scottish origin”, started out as a cattle detective for arguably the most famous of the western cattle barons, John Chisum. Chisum was born in Hardeman County, Tennessee, and his family made their way to Texas in the 1830's. By the 1850's, Chisum was in the cattle business and soon became instrumental in the novel idea of moving herds of cattle to market for sale to the US Army as well as points east. A common mistake is saying that he founded the “Chisum Trail”, when in fact the famous “Chisholm Trail” was named for the half Cherokee scout named Jesse Chisholm. Chisholm's father was Scottish and his mother was Cherokee - he came from the area known as Great Hiwassee, east of present day Chattanooga.
Frank McNab, as cattle detective, was tasked, to put it bluntly, with hunting down and killing men who stole cattle from John Chisum. Times were hard, and as John Wayne said in the movie The Cowboys, “It's a hard country.” Justice was fast and brutal, and served as much to send a message as to punish. This is the west of countless Hollywood movies – of lonely towns lost in vast expanses of open, nearly lawless land. The New Mexico territory, where Chisum had his holdings, was itself 121,700 square miles, four times the size of Scotland (neighboring Texas was more than twice as large) – and had a population of only 92,000 people in 1870. Horse and cattle theft was common and men like McNab were part of unofficial private armies protecting vast herds and the financial interests of the men that paid them.
The largest county in the New Mexico Territory (it wouldn't be a state until 1912) was Lincoln County, and there was one store in it – a large dry goods operation. Control of the mercantile and cattle interests of the region were under the thumb of John Dolan, who owned the store, and was an ally of the County Sheriff James Brady. But newcomer John Tunstall (and his partners Alexander McSween and John Chisum) opened a competing store. One of the gunmen hired by Tunstall was Frank McNab. Dolan's faction had a gang of gunmen called the Jesse Evans gang, and so did Tunstall, whose men were called The Lincoln County Regulators. Among this group was one of the most famous of the old western gunfighters, Billy the Kid, whose real name was Henry McCarty. Many of the members of the Regulators had known one another for years, and had hunted and killed cattle thieves together.
In February 1878, Tunstall, McNab, Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty) and others were herding horses when Tunstall was apparently shot in cold blood by a member of Dolan's gang. This event, witnessed by several men, sparked an all out war of vengeance called the Lincoln County War. Since the county Sheriff was allied with Dolan, the Regulators banded together (several dozen strong) and formed a small army, duly deputized by the Lincoln County Justice of the Peace. Chief among this band of American and Mexican cowboys was a group called the “Iron Clad”, the central founders, which included Frank McNab along with McCarty.
In April in 1878, Frank McNab, with McCarty and others, ambushed and shot down Sheriff Brady, who fell with twelve bullets. A deputy was also killed, and Billy the Kid and a man named French were both wounded by the same gunshot – French so badly that he had to take cover in the crawlspace under a house.
After this fight, the Regulators, led by a man named Brewer, headed out to Blazer's Mill, a ranching concern that supplied beef to the Apaches, to arrest a man named Buckshot Roberts who was allegedly involved with Tunstall's murder months before. In the ensuing fight, Brewer was killed and several others injured including McCarty. Frank McNabb was voted captain of the Regulators.
Dolan's faction lost no time and in short order a posse was deputized by newly appointed county sheriff George Peppin, setting off after the Regulators. Meeting up at a place called the Fritz Ranch, Dolan's Jesse Evans gang along with a gang called the Seven Rivers Warriors engaged the Regulators in a pitched battle. Frank McNab fell dead in the gunfire, killed it is thought by Jesse Evans gang member Manuel “Indian” Segovia. McNab was wounded and trying to escape up a gully when Segovia killed him with a shotgun. Weeks later, the Regulators again invaded the Seven Rivers area and captured Segovia for the murder of McNab. When he tried to escape, he was shot down by Billy the Kid. For this and other murders, McCarty had a $500 bounty on his head, placed there by Governor Lew Wallace (who incidentally wrote the famous novel Ben Hur). He would soon be captured, then escape, then be gunned down in the dark by a man named Pat Garrett. Although he was little more than a killer and outlaw, his story became world famous.
The Lincoln County War would go on for three more years, with vengeance washing back and forth between the factions. Eventually the west calmed down, more or less, but it's fascinating to think of Scotland's descendants – Henry McCarty, Alexander McSween, and especially Frank McNab – taking such an active and violent role in one of the most colorful episodes in American history. Scots grow wherever they're planted, as they say, and in violent and bloody times like these, they felt right at home.