- 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
Even after the denouement at the McSween house, the Lincoln County War sputtered on. A new governor came to clean up New Mexico. He was Lew Wallace, the Civil War general, Republican politician, and aspiring novelist, then laboring on a massive epic of biblical times titled Ben-Hur. He put up at the Montano store. Next door, in a rude pole jacal where the justice of the peace resided, Wallace met late one night with the fugitive Billy Bonney, wanted for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Only recently another killing had occurred in front of the Tunstall store. Billy had witnessed it, and now Wallace promised him amnesty in the Brady murder if he would testify. They sealed the bargain, the patrician governor and the nineteen-year-old outlaw. Billy testified as promised, but Wallace, not entirely without reason, failed to keep his part of the bargain.
One hundred miles of grassy, rolling plains separate Lincoln from Fort Sumner—a 150-mile drive by highway—down to Roswell and up the Pecos River valley. Next to Lincoln, Fort Sumner was Billy’s favorite hangout. The two places neatly divide his career. In Lincoln Billy and his friends fought for what they regarded as a just and lawful cause. They rationalized their deeds of violence as acts of war, and Billy was no more an outlaw than the other Regulators. In Fort Sumner, by contrast, the rootless veteran of the war drifted into outlawry while still vaguely intending to go straight.
Fort Sumner was not a typical frontier town. It was an Army post established in 1862 to watch over Navajo Indians exiled from their homeland to the west after military conquest. When the Navajos went home in 1868, the government sold the fort to Lucien Maxwell, the flamboyant proprietor of the Maxwell Land Grant. His Hispanic followers came with him to Fort Sumner, took up residence in and around the fort, farmed fields watered from ditches dug by the Indians, and ran herds of sheep on the surrounding ranges. Maxwell converted one of the big houses on officers row into a grand hacienda and ruled over his domain until his death in 1875. By Billy’s time Lucien’s son Pete was the reigning patrón.
Fort Sumner’s attraction for Billy, besides a bevy of young Hispanic women who adored him, was the vast table of the Staked Plains, immediately to the east in the Texas Panhandle. This sea of virgin grass had only recently been opened to cowmen, and their herds grazing just beyond the cap rock offered a tempting prize. Billy was not a big-time rustler or even a very committed one, much less the outlaw chieftain portrayed in legend. He preferred to deal monte in Beaver Smith’s saloon and dance with his girls. His career as a rustler lasted a little more than a year, from 1879 to 1880. When he ran short of funds, he and a few friends— Tom O’Folliard, Charlie Bowdre and his friend Tom Pickett, the vicious Dave Rudabaugh, diffident Billy Wilson—rode up onto the cap rock, rounded up some cows, and drove them west across the plains to White Oaks or Tularosa. There, as often as not, they were sold to the ruddy-faced old scoundrel Pat Coghlan to turn in on government beef contracts at Fort Stanton or the Indian agency.
Billy was not a bigtime rustler, or even a very committed one, much less the outlaw chief of legend.
Increasingly White Oaks became Billy’s home away from Fort Sumner. Sprawling across a narrow, mountaingirt valley forty-five miles northwest of Lincoln, it had blossomed almost overnight when gold was discovered in 1879. The town’s ten saloons vibrated with life, the gaming tables stoked Billy’s fondness for monte, and a ready market existed for almost anything one had to sell, including illicit beef.
So unpopular did the Kid become in White Oaks, however, that in November 1880 the townspeople turned loose their own “White Oaks Rangers.” Surprised and almost annihilated at nearbv Coyote Springs, Billy and several cohorts holed up in the Greathouse ranch, a way station on the road to Las Vegas. The rangers surrounded the little fortress and fired off a lot of ammunition but failed to get their man.
Followers of the Billy the Kid trail should plan a visit to White Oaks while in the vicinity of Lincoln. Reached by county road northeast from Carrizozo, it is one of the West’s most picturesque ghost towns. Ruins of stone buildings line the streets and dot hillsides perforated with mining shafts, evoking memories of the raucous times of Billy the Kid and the boom and bust cycle of the mineral frontier. Forty-seven miles farther north on U.S. Highway 54, the Greathouse ranch stood on a site somewhere near the little town of Corona.
After the Greathouse ranch fight, Billy returned to Fort Sumner—and a leap into legendry. By now he had branched out into horse thievery and mail robbery and possibly even dabbled in counterfeiting. Even so, he was in reality only a small-time criminal. But the Texas cattlemen had fixed on him as their chief nemesis, and a Las Vegas newspaper editor had portrayed him as the captain of a fifty-man outlaw gang, and he suddenly became the man to get. Governor Wallace put a five-hundred-dollar reward on his head. Pat Garrett, newly elected sheriff of Lincoln County, set out to earn it.