Enchanting People of New Mexico - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid - Unmasking the Myth

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Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico, sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday, we have regular Historical and New Mexico cultural Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

Normally on Wednesdays, we talk about one person who has made a difference in our little slice of paradise. Today, I want to celebrate two who are forever tied together in New Mexico history: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. What happened to them had been the subject of many books and movies. There is the movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, released in 1973 and directed by Sam Peckinpah. It is a revisionist Western motion picture and a great story though not historically accurate. In Hollywood, they say, don’t mess up a good story by telling the truth. After all, it was a movie, not a documentary. And a good movie at that. Empire Magazine, a British Film Magazine, lists it as number 126 of the Greatest Movies of all time.

Now I could talk about Pat and Billy for hours, so I’m just going to do the high spots. Both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid really did live in New Mexico. They both lived by the gun and died by the gun though their deaths were almost 27 years apart. 142 years ago, this Friday, July 14th, Lincoln County Sherriff Pat Garrett did kill the outlaw known as Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. That is true despite attempts long afterward to come up with a different narrative. We know a lot about Pat Garrett from many records. What about Billy the Kid? We have only one official piece of paper about Billy the Kid. He was interviewed by a Census Worker in 1880: He gave these facts. Name: William Bonney. He was living with his friend Charlie Bowdre. His age, 25, was born in Missouri, as were his parents. That is all we officially know.

The Myth of Billy is that he was born in New York City in 1859 and killed 21 men in gunfights before he turned 21. The myth was written without research. A great book is Leon Metz’s 1983 book, Pat Garrett: The Story of a Western Lawman. Leon Metz was my favorite historian because he checked and double-checked everything he wrote. Most of what we quote know unquote about Billy was created out of thin air by fiction writers.

I have one reference, my grandmother, Frieda Greenberg McKim, who was a schoolteacher in White Oaks, New Mexico, in 1910. It is still there. Eight classrooms. My grandmother said when I was curious about Billy the Kid that she spoke several times to Susan McSween Barber, the wife of Alexander McSween, to whom the Lincon County War centered and who had Billy the Kid as one of his protectors. My grandmother told me that Susan McSween Barber said that all those young men in the Lincoln County War were just young roughnecks, none evil, none more than exuberant young men. They selected a side in the conflict and fought for that side. Those on her side stepped over the law when corruptly, the law was on the other side and not neutral.

That is probably the best way to view Billy the Kid, a young man who didn’t follow the law but wasn’t either a Robin Hood or a Charles Manson. He was someone who drifted over the lines of the law when the law of the area was compromised by corruption. In the time of the conflict, with both sides shooting at each other and people dying, Billy the Kid was in one gun battle where a lawman was killed. The whole several years of conflict is too complicated to cover here. There are lots of good books about this lawless era and the people involved.

Later Billy the Kid was captured by Pat Garrett and a posse and went to trial in Mesilla and was condemned to hang, the only member of the Lincoln County War and dozens of gunbattle to be convicted. Then in a plot twist, Billy was able to break out of the Lincoln Jail while Pat Garrett was out of town. He did so by killing two deputies. We know there was a confounding issue since an amnesty was issued for the participants of the Lincoln County War, but he did not get the benefit of it. Was he initially an outlaw? No, he ran with a faction of young men that opposed a different faction. Again, with a certain amount of corruption, both sides of the conflict were tarnished. There was one loser in the several-year conflict. It was the Territory of New Mexico that had for thirty years been trying to become a state rather than a territory. Colorado had been admitted into the union, but not New Mexico. And the lawlessness caused President Rutherford B. Hayes to bring in a new governor, Lew Wallace. More about him in a moment.

Let’s clear up one Billy the Kid myth: he was left-handed. No, the photo was reversed when printed and showed him left-handed, but the rifle was a Winchester with the loading port in the picture on the wrong side. So, we know it was a photographer’s mistake printing the picture. Now there was a movie in 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, which was directed by Arthur Penn with Paul Newman as Billy the Kid. Again, a fictional story that flopped at the box office.

That was Billy, who we do not know much about in his day-to-day existence, what he liked to eat and drink. We see him in action a few times. Now let us look at Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett, who was born in Alabama in 1850 and drifted westward in the 1870s. He was a Buffalo Hunter and then went to the Fort Sumner area of New Mexico, where he was a bartender and then a cowboy on the Maxwell ranch. He married in 1880 and had eight children: Ida, Dudley, Elizabeth, Annie, Patrick, Pauline, Oscar, and in 1905, Jarvis. I did interview Jarvis P. Garrett in the 1980s. Pat’s daughter Elizabeth is a New Mexico treasure since she became blind as an infant but was a very gifted singer and musician. She wrote and performed a song, Oh Fair New Mexico which the New Mexico legislature adopted as the official song of New Mexico in 1917.

Back to Pat Garrett. He was a flawed individual and yet the best example of a Western hero. When there was trouble, he didn’t run from it. He ran toward it. He had guts and gumption and lived by a code of the West familiar to most Westerners. Now when I have suggested that it would be a great thing to have a celebration in Las Cruces, where he died and is buried. Many of Pat Garrett’s relatives are buried around him in Las Cruces in a cemetery just off Picacho Avenue, just to the west of the train tracks. So far, everyone has rejected that because they love the myth of Billy the Kid, a myth created by Walter Noble Burns in 1926 with a fictional book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was after this book came out that the love of Billy the Kid was manifested with festivals and movies. There is another example of fiction writing. Did George Washington, the father of our country, chop down a cherry tree? Can’t tell a lie? No, that was a fictional book in 1806 written by Parson Weems after Washington died in 1799. The book had fables such as the cherry tree that people strongly believe, just like the Billy the Kid fables written by Walter Noble Burns in 1926. So who is hurt by these lies? The Garrett family was and still is injured by the reversal of the outlaw Billy to being the hero and the hero Pat Garrett being the villain.

One rejection of Pat Garrett by some people has been that he was a drinker and a gambler which I hate to inform people was quite common at that time. We know Billy drank and gambled, but somehow it takes away from the duty that Pat Garrett served over twenty-some years. Again, was he flawed? Yes, he was in many ways. Did he do his duty when it was needed? Yes, he did.

What he wasn’t was a good businessman in a number of business ventures that did not pan out. Again, if you get Leon Metz’s book on Pat Garrett, you can see the details. But he did leave a trail of doing his duty over many years and in many ways. He was Sheriff of Lincoln County at the time he captured Billy the Kid, and then later when he tracked him down and killed him because there was not taking him in peacefully. Years later, Pat Garrett became the Sheriff of Dona Ana County, the county at Las Cruces, to help solve the mystery of the death of Albert Fountain and his young son. There was finally a trial but acquittal, and the apparent Fountain murder has never been officially solved. But Pat Garrett worked a couple of years on it.

There is a story that Pat Garett let Billy go and didn’t kill him, and years and years later, Billy emerged and announced through a lawyer that he was still alive. The story, written from notes of the lawyer, which I have in the book, resembles the truth like jellybeans resemble pinto beans. There is some similarity but in substance no connection. Know this: Pat Garrett was a very proud man, and he would never have let Billy go while he still went and collected the reward for the capture of Billy. Too much risk to his good name. His name meant everything to him.

One little aside from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Former Union General Lew Wallace was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico during these turbulent times. We know that Lew Wallace wrote a bestseller while here in New Mexico. You may have seen the movie adaptation of that 1880 book. Ben Hur. But Lew Wallace, the best-selling author, did not write anything about Billy the Kid or Pat Garrett, while hundreds of other writers did do just that.

Within months of the death of Billy the Kid, the fiction writers of the time, who wrote what was called dine novels, wrote and wrote and wrote without any knowledge about the two people. It is very much like Hollywood movies where when there is no data, no problem, a writer will fill the data in with whatever seems good for the movie. So, for more than a hundred years, there is so very much written about Pat and Billy that has no basis in truth.

But know this: there are many descendants of Pat Garrett who know that he was a fine officer of the law who has been treated in death worse than he was treated in life. I have interviewed several of them over the years that moved away from New Mexico in disgust. The stories that are popularized praising Billy at the expense of Pat are completely false and tarnish Pat Garrett’s name and his record of duty. Again, it would be nice to have a Pat Garrett Days celebration.

Songwriter and singer Alan Jackson had a hit in 2008 with a song, Small Town Southern Man, that had the lyrics: He said his greatest contribution - Is the ones you leave behind.

Pat Garrett left behind some very fine kids and grandkids and beyond. We owe them the real story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And what of Billy the Kid? Just some made-up stories are left, and the habit of some to celebrate the outlaw and downplay the lawmen. Not me, I am thankful many years later for his actions to tame a violent period of time in New Mexico. My grandmother came in 1908 as a schoolteacher from Upstate New York. She was a beneficiary of his taming the violent element of outlaws.

One last story about Billy the Kid. Many, many years ago, I was writing historical stuff for the Albuquerque Journal, and the editor asked me to authenticate a rifle that a woman claimed was Billy the Kid’s rifle. I got the serial number, called Winchester Arms, and they informed me that the rifle this person had was an old rifle but was a Winchester Model 1894 Deluxe which came out 13 years after Billy the Kid died. She was not happy and thought it was wrong because she believed all of the myths that were made up. Now Pat Garrett’s pistol, a 44.40, was well documented and is in the hands of authentic collectors.

Let me speak of something from our sponsor, The Fresh Chile Company of Las Cruces, New Mexico. In the next month, there will be 2023 Big Jim Hatch Green Chile available in a jar. It is a special reserve release of the Hatch Green Chile varietal Big Jim in a 16-ounce jar. Varietal means that this product will only be made with Big Jim Chile, which is sweet and has a medium heat level. Big Jim is very popular in New Mexico restaurants & homes. The harvest of the Big Jim crop is anticipated to be in the middle of August 2023, with the first product available a few weeks later. You can preorder this at The Fresh Chile Company website: freshchileco.com/

Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com. The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes, and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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