Billy the Kid Country


New Mexico is Billy the Kid country. In Santa Fe’s First Presbyterian Church, young Henry McCarty stood by in March 1873 as his mother exchanged vows with William Henry Harrison Antrim. Eight years later, alias Billy Bonney, a.k.a. the Kid, he spent three months in the jail on Water Street. In Silver City he attended elementary school and, not yet fifteen, pulled off a celebrated escape up the chimney of the jail. In Lincoln he fought as a Regulator in the Lincoln County War and, after breaking out of the county lockup, gunned down two deputies. In nearby White Oaks he disposed of cattle rustled from Texas cowmen. In Mesilla he stood trial for the murder of Sheriff William Brady and heard Judge Warren Bristol pronounce the sentence of death. In Fort Sumner he dealt monte in Beaver Smith’s saloon. Across the old military parade ground, in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom, a .45 slug from Sheriff Pat Garrett’s Colt six-shooter ended his life at the age of twenty-one.

Respectable New Mexico historians lament the public’s obsession with Billy the Kid. They prefer to highlight the genuine builders of this ancient land of scenic beauty and cultural diversity—Coronado, Oñate, and De Vargas, Stephen Watts Kearny, Kit Carson, Manuelito, Victorio, Archbishop Lamy, the Oteros, Georgia O’Keeffe. The State Tourist Bureau, however, delights in the preoccupation with Billy the Kid, and officials are busy marking Kid historic sites and drawing them together in a systematic tour.

The tension between the historians and the travel promoters captures the essence of Billy the Kid’s legacy. In the history of the American West he rates scarcely a footnote. In the folklore of the nation—indeed, of the world—he is a figure of towering significance. It is the Kid of legend, not of history, who so profoundly grips the human imagination. Whether historians like it or not, Billy the Kid, not Diego de Vargas or Kit Carson, remains incontestably the best known of all New Mexicans.

Billy the Kid is an enduring legend because he can be whoever you want. He is a mirror for each generation’s ideals or frustrations, a tabula rasa on which society, working out its need for heroes or villains, can write what it wishes. So Billy played the villain in Victorian times of penny dreadfuls and melodramas and the hero during the Depression years of the 1930s.

Not unexpectedly the real Billy the Kid was neither hero nor villain, but a little of both. In character, personality, mental endowments, and physical attributes, he stood above most of the crowd he ran with. “With his poise, iron nerve, and all-round efficiency …,” said a friend who went on to become a distinguished surgeon, “the Kid could have made a success anywhere.” In the Lincoln County War, although not yet twenty, he fought with courage and boldness and displayed high potential for leadership. The esteem of his older comrades testified to his qualities.

After the Lincoln County War, Billy failed to live up to his potential— not as a respectable, law abiding citizen, not as a Robin Hood battler against injustice, not as a cold-blooded killer, not even as the premier outlaw of all time. Rather, he sank into adolescent preoccupation with the pleasures and impulses of the moment while drifting into intermittent, petty outlawry. Not until the last six months of his life, when the newspapers created a false image of Billy as supreme outlaw chieftain, did he blossom as he had during the Lincoln County fighting. In those few months he fulfilled the reputation that had been fabricated and laid the groundwork for the mighty legend that exploded after his death.

The Billy the Kid trail begins in Santa Fe and leads to Silver City. Neither boasts much to remind one of Billy, although Silver City is trying to recapture its share of the young outlaw’s heritage. Nor do Billy’s two adolescent years in Arizona—where he matured under the rough influence of Henry Hooker’s cowboys and cut felonious teeth on horse thievery—offer Kid buffs enough to warrant a visit. Not until the trail reaches old Lincoln, in south-central New Mexico, is the traveler rewarded. Lincoln pulsates with memories of Billy the Kid, captures the flavor of the Lincoln County War, and in its squat adobe buildings with pitched tin roofs portrays the evolution of a frontier town from violent origins to settled placidity.

Billy the Kid first saw Lincoln in the autumn of 1877. It lay in the upland valley of the Rio Bonito, with the flat hump of the Capitan Mountains looming to the north and the Sierra Bianca peaks soaring to the southwest. An adobe village of four hundred people, largely Hispanic, it extended for a mile on both sides of a single tree-shaded street, crowded on the north by the Bonito and on the south by a steep mountainside dappled with pinon and juniper. At its western edge stood the “big store” of L. G. Murphy & Co., the only two-story building in the community. In the center of town rose a tower of stone and adobe, the torreón, erected in 1862 for defense against Indians. Between these two structures, conspicuous among the rude mud dwellings, were the hotel and eatery of Sam Wortley, the newly renovated home of lawyer Alexander McSween, and the imposing general store of a young English newcomer, John Henry Tunstall.