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Billy the Kid vs. Pat Garrett: An Old West Showdown

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

On July 14, 1881, Billy the Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett.  Those are the facts, nothing but the facts.  Oh, but the legends on these two and how they are linked forever in history makes this killing as important as the OK Corral in the annals of history.

Billy the Kid

So, who exactly was Billy the Kid?  History gives him several names: probably born as Henry McCarty, and took the aliases Henry Antrim and William H. Bonney.  Information is sketchy about his early years: it is known that he was born in New York City in to a poor Irish family.  Not much is known about his early years but he ended up in New Mexico Territory in 1873.  Again, not much is known about him at this time, but 4 years later he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico.  This is where he makes history, mostly of the notorious type.

Lincoln County had just been established and was divided between two factions of cattlemen, the John Tunstall/ Alexander McSween side and the James Dolan faction, allied with the county sheriff William Brady.  William Bonney (Billy the Kid) joined the Tunstall side, which was ultimately the losing side as well.  Each faction had enforcers (gunfighters and criminals).  Tunstall was murdered and in revenge, his men, “the regulators”,  killed the sheriff.  That brought on what came to be called the Lincoln County War, a five day gunfight and siege battle.  The regulators were surrounded, McSween was murdered and the Tunstall men that were able to escape scattered.   Billy the Kid was on the run for two years before being captured by Pat Garret the first time.  The Kid was tried, convicted and incarcerated.  He escaped from jail, after shooting both guards, and rode off into the sunset—for a while.

Pat Garrett

And Pat Garrett??  More is known about him (there usually is for lawmen).  He was born in Alabama in 1850, but the family moved to Louisiana in 1853, and lost everything after the Civil War.   In 1869, he headed west, resurfacing in 1876 as a buffalo hunter.  As the buffalo disappeared, he headed to New Mexico territory.  He became a ranch hand for Pete Maxwell, married and had children.  Pat Garrett was sworn in as the new sheriff of Lincoln County in 1880 with the understanding that he would clean up Lincoln County.  Several times he almost caught Billy, but each time he slipped away or Garrett was given the wrong information.  He finally caught him, arrested him and put him in jail.  Garrett was away from jail when the Kid escaped.  Eight months later, Garrett found out that Billy was staying with Pete Maxwell, at his ranch.  He came at night, and shot and killed Billy the Kid.

Almost immediately, Billy the Kid became a folk legend, which in turn mage Garrett seem an assassin.  Garrett wrote a book about tracking and killing Billy.  It didn’t sell well, but has become quite the collectible.  The book was later found to be full of errors and imaginative tales.  It was ghost written by a friend of Garrett.  Pat did not run for sheriff again, but moved with his family to Texas and briefly became a Texas Ranger.  He returned after a year or so to Roswell, New Mexico where his ranch was.  He had several businesses that never prospered and moved back to Texas in 1892.  In 1896, he returned to New Mexico where he was appointed sheriff of Dona Ana County.  He was nominated by President Teddy Roosevelt as customs officer in El Paso, and confirmed by the Senate.  He burned his bridges with Roosevelt and was in deep debt the rest of his life.  He also was highly disliked for killing Billy, as the Kid had become a folk hero.  He was shot in the back as he was going from his ranch into town.  His murder was never solved.

Dick Brewer, Billy the Kid, and the Regulators by John Hacker, and Andy Thomas

As time passed, some people started the rumor that Pat Garrett either shot somebody else and claimed it was Billy or helped him fake his death.  Someone even claimed to be Billy in the 1940s.  Even so, historical records show that Billy’s body was identified by several different people—most generally agree that Pat Garrett got the right man—Billy the Kid.

Interesting Facts:

  • Billy the Kid was involved in at least nine murders.  He was said to have committed as many murders as he had years—he was killed at age 21.  (He may have been his own best publicist.)
  • Over 50 movies have told this famous historical event.  He worked on his reputation before his death, and afterward his legend only grew.  The first movie was the silent film in 1911, entitled Billy the Kid.  Other stars who played him on the silver screen have been Paul Newman, Val Kilmer and Emilio Estevez (in Young Guns, which we have in our collection.)
  • When Bill Richardson was governor of New Mexico, Billy the Kid found another champion.  Richardson was a New Mexico history buff and was publicly thinking about pardoning William Bonney posthumously.  Before Billy the Kid died, he appealed to then governor, Lew Wallace (who while in office wrote Ben Hur!) for a pardon for his role in the Lincoln County Wars.  Wallace agreed, but the pardon was never given to him because he was killed.  So when Richardson was thinking about this pardon, he churned up old history.  The descendants of Pat Garrett started a petition to stop the pardon from going ahead.   Bill Richardson is no longer governor of New Mexico, so this pardon will never happen, but it just goes to show that the past is not that far away.

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