April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fire destroyed the original Wortley Hotel, but it has been reconstructed on the old foundations and now functions, under state auspices, as a hotel whose rooms are adorned with iron bedsteads and other Victorian furnishings. The food is splendid, and there is no finer way to savor the atmosphere of the old town than to while away the sunset hour in a rocking chair on the tree-shaded front porch.
The Tunstall store, now stocked with quaint merchandise, provided the setting for an episode with fateful consequences for Billy Bonney. On the morning of April 1, 1878, Billy and five companions rose from ambush behind the adobe wall of the store’s corral and gunned down Sheriff Brady. Three years and two weeks later, in a ramshackle adobe building that still stands on the plaza of the old Mesilla, the Kid heard Judge Bristol pronounce the sentence of death on him for Brady’s murder. None of Billy’s accomplices in the deed even stood trial; indeed, no other man on either side was convicted of any offense committed during the Lincoln County War.
Lincoln formed the battleground for the decisive event of the war: the Five-Day Battle, July 15-19, 1878. The course of the conflict may be easily traced today, with interpretive signs aiding in the reconstruction. The Wortley Hotel and the torreón furnished the strongholds of Sheriff George Peppin and his posse, while the Regulators holed up in the McSween house and the Tunstall, Montaño, and Ellis stores. In the end, however, the fight resolved itself into a siege of the McSween house.
This occurred on July 19, when Lt. Col. Nathan A. M. Dudley marched a column of U.S. soldiers into Lincoln from Fort Stanton. Dudley had orders to stay out of the troubles in Lincoln, but he convinced himself that the lives of noncombatants depended on his presence. His arrival, however, favored the sheriffs gunmen by intimidating all the Regulators except those in the McSween house with Billy to abandon their positions and flee the town.
McSween, with Billy and fourteen men, held his spacious U-shaped adobe dwelling adjacent to the Tunstall store. Early in the afternoon possemen succeeded in setting it afire. It burned slowly, room by room, until by nightfall only one room remained. Billy insisted that the Regulators must either burn to death or make a break for the river. Flames illuminated the open space between the house and the Tunstall store, but he and three others sprinted through a blizzard of bullets to safety in the trees on the riverbank. Behind, in what one of the deputies called the “big killing,” McSween and three more died while others crawled away wounded.
Lincoln itself is not the only reminder of the Lincoln County War. Ten miles to the east stands the picturesque adobe village of San Patricio. Here Regulators and Dolanites fought two important skirmishes. At the mouth of the Rio Hondo, where it flows into the Pecos fifty miles to the east, stands Roswell. On the edge of the city is the site of South Spring ranch, headquarters of the legendary John Chisum. The “cattle king of New Mexico” supported the McSween faction, and his ranch was the scene of an Independence Day exchange of gunfire between Billy and some Regulator friends and pursuing deputies. West of Lincoln, nine miles up the Bonito, Fort Stanton occupies a mountain-rimmed plain. Now a state mental hospital but still exhibiting many early military buildings, it played a key role in the war even before Colonel Dudley marched on Lincoln. And over the mountains some forty miles to the southwest is the site of Blazer’s Mills and the Mescalero Apache Indian Agency.
The sawmill, gristmill, and big house of the Iowa dentist Joseph H. Blazer defined another battleground of the Lincoln County War. There, only three days after the killing of Sheriff Brady, a classic Old West shoot-out erupted when Regulators tried to arrest a game little fellow known as Buckshot Roberts. Pumping his Winchester from the hip because of a bad arm, Roberts hit three of the Regulators before taking a bullet in the groin and barricading himself in Dr. Blazer’s office. Waiting until Roberts had emptied his rifle, Billy Bonney rushed to the porch, thrust his own rifle toward Roberts, and fired. At the same instant, however, Buckshot shoved the muzzle of his empty weap on into the Kid’s midriff, knocking him breathless. The bullet smashed the doorjamb, and Billy beat a hasty retreat. After Roberts blew off the top of the Regulator captain’s skull, his assailants drew off, leaving him to die in peace.
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.
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.
Garrett succeeded. In the cold and snowy week before Christmas of 1880, the sheriff and a dozen possemen closed in on the old fort. In one encounter they killed Billy’s faithful sidekick Tom O’Folliard. Then they tracked the Kid, Bowdre, Rudabaugh, Pickett, and Wilson to an abandoned stone house, once a sheepherder’s shelter, sixteen miles east of Fort Sumner. In the chill dawn they opened fire, killing Charley Bowdre. Billy saw the hopelessness of his predicament, and after an all-day stand-off the fugitives surrendered.
The rock house stood at Stinking Springs, a seep at the forks of Taiban Creek. It has long since vanished, but the site has been accurately identified just north of U.S. Highway 60 at Tolar, where a historical marker tells the story. Kid aficionados will want to get the feel of the land, the almost featureless, treeless plains.
While New Mexicans lionized Pat Garrett, the Kid—now, thanks to the newspapers, known as Billy the Kid—languished in the Santa Fe jail. He tried to get legal counsel, he tried to escape, and he even tried to blackmail Governor Wallace into living up to his promises. All to no avail. In April 1881 the Kid’s trail led down the Rio Grande to Judge Bristol’s Mesilla court, then back to Lincoln, where the judge had ordered that he be hanged.
While awaiting execution, Billy was not confined in the cellar jail, which had never been very secure. Since the war the county had acquired the old Murphy-Dolan store, bankrupted by the upheavals, and it now served as a courthouse. The Kid was held under constant guard in an upstairs room of this building.
On April 28, 1881, with Sheriff Pat Garrett out of town, Billy made his move. He stunned his guard, Jim Bell, with a blow from his handcuffs and shot him with his own pistol. The second guard had taken other prisoners across the street to the Wortley Hotel for dinner. He was Bob Olinger, a hulking bully who delighted in tormenting the Kid. Billy rested Olinger’s own shotgun on the windowsill and, as the deputy ran to the yard below, gave him both barrels in the face.
The windowsill, the yard, and the stairway down which the fatally shot Bell plunged are still there. So is the second-floor balcony from which Billy confronted the townspeople while a frightened citizen struggled to saddle a spooked horse. The boy said he was sorry he had to kill Bell, related one of the throng below, but “Bell decided to run and he had to kill him. He declared he was ‘standing pat’ against the world; and, while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape he would kill him.” No one did, and he calmly mounted the horse and trotted out of Lincoln—and into legend.
While the country waited in suspense, he hid with friendly Hispanic sheepmen on the range around Fort Sumner and even ventured into town for an occasional fandango or more intimate tryst.
Thus it was that Sheriff Garrett and two deputies stole into Fort Sumner on the hot, still night of July 14, 1881. They thought the Kid lurked somewhere nearby, but no one would talk. At midnight Garrett slipped into Pete Maxwell’s bedroom to question him. Entirely by coincidence, Billy came into the same bedroom only seconds later.
“¿Quién es? ¿Quién es? [Who is it? Who is it?]” were Billy’s last words. The voice told Garrett who it was. He fired twice. The first bullet hit the shadowy figure in the chest, and Billy the Kid dropped to the floor, dead.
Regrettably, for travelers stirred by the evocative evidences of Billy the Kid’s passage in Lincoln and its mountain environment, Fort Sumner offers disappointingly little. The present town sprang up with the coming of the railroad. The old town, the military post that Lucien Maxwell made the headquarters of his domain, lay five miles down the Pecos River. A complex of adobe buildings, it fell easy prey to floodwaters. Nothing but a few wall stubs and the natural setting remains. A state-monument visitor center stands on the old parade ground, near the site of the big house where Billy died. Exhibits tell the story of the Navajo exile, the fort, and Billy the Kid. Nearby a private museum stands guard on the old fort cemetery. Passing through it, visitors may view the graves of the Kid and his compadres of the Lincoln County War Tom O’Folliard and Charles Bowdre.
From the floor of Pete Maxwell’s bedroom there arose, almost immediately, a powerful myth of global impact. The Billy the Kid of legend bore only remote resemblance to the Billy the Kid of history, but for more than a century he has held people everywhere enthralled. Even today the young outlaw of sunny disposition and deadly trigger finger rides boldly across America’s mental landscape, symbol of an enduring national ambivalence toward violence. For those who would know the reality, New Mexico’s Billy the Kid country offers a graphic introduction.