Old Times and Old Timers

Kinney, John: “King of the Rusters”

There were several gangs of outlaws that roamed and rustled cattle on the ranges of the Old West but by far the largest of them all was led by John P. Kinney. One historian described his gang as the “most dangerous band of rustlers ever to operate in New Mexico.”

Kinney was born in Hampshire, Massachusetts in 1847. He enlisted in the U.S. 3rd Cavalry and served until 1873 when he was discharged, as a sergeant, at Ft. McPherson, Kansas. He arrived in the New Mexico’s lower Rio Grande Valley, near Mesilla, in 1875.

By early 1876, he was already in trouble with the law. He is reported to have participated in shooting up a New Year’s Day party at Fort Selden in which two soldiers were killed. No account tells the outcome of this incident, but in November 1877 Kinney was indicted by two Doña Ana Grand Juries, once for assault and once for assault with intent to murder. In June 1878 he was indicted for the murder of Ysabel Barela. He was tried at Silver City and acquitted.

In December 1877, he recruited and organized a band of gunmen to go into Texas to assist the Rangers in the so-called Salt War at San Elizario, near El Paso. There exists serious question as to how much he helped. Lt. J. B. Tays, the ranking Ranger, said “Neither myself or my men had anything to do with them. I knew a great many of them were bad men [and] they were acting badly.” Kinney reportedly killed four “Mexicans” during this involvement.

His gang was reported to have increased in size to 70 men, and he let it be known that he wanted another 30 to join his ranks. Few, if any, outlaws ever commanded so many gunmen, but of course there is no confirmation that these numbers are accurate.

Within six or so months, Kinney joined the Murphy-Dolan-Riley faction in the Lincoln County War with just 16 men. He was there, ostensibly, to assist Sheriff George “Dad” Peppin. In an engagement at San Patricio, Kinney participated with 11 men. During the Five Day Battle in Lincoln, the major engagement of the War, Kinney is believed to have participated in the killing of Alex McSween. Afterwards, he and his men broke into and looted Tunsdall’s Store in Lincoln. He was subsequently indicted for this offense, but never tried.

Frank Angel, an investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice who probed the Lincoln County War said this: “After Kinney and his party have accomplished their mission of murdering McSween and robbing and stealing all they can, they retire and return whence they came.”

Back in Mesilla, Kinney operated a butcher shop that was a front for a massive cattle-rustling operation. He was also a bully who kept the community in a state of fear. Here is an account of one of his caprices: “He [Kinney] pistol-whipped his crony, Frank Emmons, in broad daylight in front of the Thorn Hotel. The attack left deep cuts all over Emmons’ skull, his face was bruised and blackened in every feature, his lips and ears were slashed open, his jaw broken and several teeth and a piece of jawbone completely knocked out. Kinney had the town so thoroughly intimidated that the sheriff and other local officers did nothing.”

But there was one man in southern New Mexico at the time who was not at all intimidated by John Kinney, and that was Major Albert Jennings Fountain. As a military man, attorney and prosecutor, Fountain had been fighting marauding Indians and rustlers for 20 years. By the use of undercover operatives, Fountain learned that Kinney’s main base of operations was in Lake Valley, south of Hillsboro, where he maintained a gang of 30 to 40 gunmen/cattle thieves. Kinney had set up a sophisticated system whereby stolen livestock would be relayed from one group of rustlers to another, which made pursuit difficult.

Major Fountain, at the direction of Governor Lionel Sheldon, reorganized the First Regiment, New Mexico Volunteer Militia, and began drilling on weekends. On February 13, 1883 Fountain received arrest warrants and orders from the Governor to “act in every way upon his [Fountain’s] best judgment.” The chase was on.

Soon four Kinney gang members were arrested north of Las Cruces. Then in the village of La Mesa, six more were arrested including Doroteo Sains who was believed to be Kinney’s number two man. Seven more were captured at Rincon on March 3. In all, about 25 rustlers were arrested, but not Kinney.

Then on March 5, Fountain received word that Kinney was in Silver City and he rushed a courier to Capt. Black of Company F who was able to pick up the outlaw’s trail. On March 8, the soldiers surrounded Kinney, his brother, Mike, and his mistress at Ash Springs, just west of the New Mexico line in Arizona. Kinney is reported to have said he would “as soon be sent at once to hell as to be taken to Las Cruces.”

Fourteen charges were filed against Kinney and in spite of every trick in the book employed by his attorney, W. T. Thornton, it took a jury just eight minutes to convict him on all counts. Kinney was sentenced to seven years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. The term was cut to three, or so, years through legal maneuvering.

Kinney appears to have given up his life of crime after he got out of prison. He moved around the West, dabbling in mining claims and for a time he operated a feedlot in Kingman, Arizona. At last he settled in Prescott and died there of Bright’s Disease in 1919. One source says, “He died respected by people who did not know his background.”

New Mexico was a better place for his departure.