- Historic Sites
Billy the Kid Country
The legend of the most famous of all outlaws belongs to the whole world now. But to find the grinning teen-ager who gave rise to it, you must visit the New Mexico landscape where he lived his short life.
April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
A fugitive from Arizona lawmen, Billy arrived as an apprentice outlaw in the gang of the notorious Jesse Evans, who reposed in the town’s jail, a hole in the ground with a log guardroom on top. After helping other gang members free their chief, Billy remained to toy with the thought of leading a respectable life.
People liked him, especially the Hispanics, whose language he spoke and whose ways he respected without condescension. A sunny, cheerful nature, openness, and generosity overshadowed a flaming temper. Slim, muscular, wiry, and erect, weighing 135 pounds, about five feet seven, he was lithe and vigorous. Wavy brown hair topped a smooth oval face. Expressive blue eyes caught everyone’s notice. So did two slightly protruding front teeth. They were especially visible when he smiled or laughed, which was nearly always, but people found them pleasing rather than disfiguring. He loved to sing and dance and excelled at the frequent fandangos of the country.
In short, he looked and acted like the eighteen-year-old kid that he was. So everyone called him simply Kid. When he needed more, he used Henry Antrim (his stepfather’s name) or William H. Bonney, an alias he concocted from sources now lost to history. Not until the final months of his life did he take on the label of “Billy the Kid.”
Aside from his bright disposition, Billy’s most notable characteristic was an obsession with guns, unusual even in a society where everyone carried arms and used them frequently with homicidal intent. He practiced constantly with both Winchester rifle and Colt six-shooter. Recalled one friend: “He could take two six-shooters, loaded and cocked, one in each hand, … and twirl one in one direction and the other in the other direction, at the same time.” Another added, “A boy from Vegas tried to act like him once and shot and killed himself.” “He shot well … ,” conceded Sheriff Pat Garrett, who killed him, “and he shot well under all circumstances, whether in danger or not.”
Billy’s destiny took a decisive turn in 1877, when he left the Evans gang and signed on as one of John Tunstall’s cowhands. The patrician Englishman’s example set Billy, barely eighteen, to musing about the advantage of a life of honest toil. He and another Tunstall hand, Fred Waite, laid plans to begin ranching on their own.
The ambitions of the two boys fell casualty to Tunstall’s own ambitions. Their value to him, as they surely understood, had less to do with cows than guns. In alliance with Lincoln’s only lawyer, the Scotsman Alexander McSween, Tunstall had challenged the mercantile monopoly of L. G. Murphy & Co., which controlled government contracts at the nearby Apache Indian agency and the military post of Fort Stanton and thus held the county in economic thrall. The mantle of Murphy, now lost in an alcoholic fog, had passed to a ruthless protégé, James J. Dolan, and he fought back with every weapon at his command. Among these were the county sheriff, the district judge, and the outlaw gang of Jesse Evans.
On February 18, 1878, a sheriff’s posse, aided by Evans and some of his thugs, jumped Tunstall in a canyon south of Lincoln. A bullet in the chest and another in the head shattered the Englishman’s aspirations. Billy and others of his escort dodged the posse’s bullets and escaped.
In significance and integrity, Lincoln is perhaps the most important stop on the Billy the Kid trail.
The killing of Tunstall set off the Lincoln County War. It was essentially a struggle between two factions masquerading as arms of the law. Jimmy Dolan’s gunmen rode as possemen deputized by Sheriff William Brady and executing the writs of Judge Warren Bristol. Alex McSween’s gunmen, who called themselves Regulators, rode under authority of Justice of the Peace John B. Wilson and Lincoln Constable Atanacio Martínez.
Billy Bonney and Fred Waite enlisted in the Regulators, and over the next six months Billy grew steadily in ability and stature. Heedlessly brave, yet still the happy-go-lucky boy, he endeared himself to the older men. They were never “Billy the Kid’s bunch,” as some would remember in old age, but they accorded him a respect and affection uncommon for one of his youth.
The scenes of Billy’s adventures in the Lincoln County War retain the flavor and appearance of the past. In significance and integrity, Lincoln itself occupies the center. The old Murphy-Dolan store and the Tunstall store still stand, displayed to the public as part of the Lincoln State Monument. The Montano and Ellis stores and the Patron house also figured in the war. The stone and adobe torreón, rebuilt in the 1930s, looms in the center of town. Other buildings adding to the historic ambiance are preserved by the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, a creation of the oilman Robert O. Anderson. The trust also operates a fine museum and visitor center near the torreón.