Billy the Kid and The Westerners of Silver City

I recently made a presentation to The Westerners of Silver City, NM. Although I spoke extemporaneously, I have provided the gist of what I said below.

If you live in southern New Mexico, you have certainly seen the iconic image of Billy the Kid standing with his rifle next. You simply cannot avoid bumping into something to do with Billy the Kid. The Kid is our claim to fame. We cannot escape him. People from all over the world fly to this part of the world to visit Billy the Kid country.

I have lived in southern New Mexico all my life, and there’s no way to count the number of times I have eaten and shopped in businesses named after Billy the Kid. Like thousands of other people who grew up in this part of the world, I wrote reports about Billy the Kid when I was in school. For me, and probably everyone else in this room, Billy the Kid is part of our cultural DNA.

I’ll also say that my personal interest in Billy the Kid comes from my experiences as a high school teacher. Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught lots of Billy the Kids. Those of you who are teachers can probably relate to what I am saying, especially if you look at what those who knew Billy the Kid in Silver City said about him in later years. Keep in mind that when he moved to Silver City he was only thirteen years old

Those who knew him at that time generally described him as a well-mannered and likable young man. He enjoyed music and performed in musical theater. He enjoyed reading. It was said he wasn’t as bad as the other boys in town and that he came from a good American home. His teacher said he always helped with chores around the school. She also said he had an artistic nature. He evidently loved his mother, and those who knew her described her as a "jolly Irish woman" who would do anything for her sons. The Kid’s mother died of consumption when he was only fourteen years old — and the rest is history. Without the guidance of a loving mother he ended up on the wrong side of the law.

I’m certain that those of you who have taught school have known students who were smart, likable, and cooperative, students who could have done something good with their lives, but circumstances sent down the wrong path.

And that’s the story I’ve tried to tell in my novel Catherine's Son. I wanted to tell the story of what might happen to make a good boy go bad. I used the historical record dealing with the years the Kid lived in Silver City as the skeleton of my book and then I fleshed out the story by simply making stuff up, which I assume is the approach any writer takes when writing historical fiction.

And I make no bones about my book being a work of fiction.

In the end, it’s difficult for the scholars to write about Billy the Kid, because we actually know so little about most of his life, and what we do know is often nothing more than myth.

Even so, the myths about Billy the Kid are endlessly fascinating.

For those of you who don’t know his story, let me take a moment and go over it. Even though much of what happened to the Kid is open to debate, what I’ll tell you is the standard, traditional story that has served as a foundation for an uncountable number of other stories created from his life.
  • William Henry McCarty was born in New York in 1859. Nothing is known about his father, but, as the story goes, his widowed mother took him and his brother west after the Civil War. His mother then raised him and his brother on her own while running her own businesses in Indiana and Kansas before she moved to Silver City in the New Mexico Territory.
  • While living in Silver City, the Kid’s mother died of consumption. He was fourteen and was left alone to survive a lawless and violent society. He got into trouble after his mother died and got arrested for stealing from a laundry. He then escaped from his jail cell by crawling up a chimney and heading toward Arizona. He was only fifteen when he left Silver City.
  • In Arizona, he became a horse thief. He also killed his first man in a bar fight, probably in self defense. He then returned to New Mexico and joined a gang of cattle rustlers and thieves. He also changed his name to William H. Bonney. Those who knew him called him "Billy" or "Kid." He wasn’t known as Billy the Kid until the newspapers created that name for him about six months before he died.
  • Within a few weeks after returning to New Mexico, he moved to Lincoln County in the eastern part of the Territory. In Lincoln, he was given an opportunity to make an honest living when an Englishman named John Tunstall gave him a job as a ranch hand.
  • The Kid worked for Tunstall only a few months before Tunstall was assassinated by men working for an organization called the The House. The House was a ruthless group of businessmen who had monopolized almost all business activity in Lincoln County. The House also had the support of a group of powerful businessmen and politicians who ran the entire New Mexico Territory, a group that was known as the Santa Fe Ring. After The House assassinated John Tunstall, the Kid found himself fighting in a war of revenge those who ran Lincoln County and the New Mexico Territory.
  • After the Lincoln County war seemingly ended with the defeat of Tunstall’s forces, the Kid would not give up and kept fighting, making himself a nuisance by rustling livestock from his enemies. In an attempt to put his life on the right side of the law, however, the Kid made a deal with the Governor of New Mexico, agreeing to testify in open court against allies of The House. In return, the governor offered him a pardon for any crimes he had committed. The Kid kept his part of the bargain and testified. Even so, the governor never granted the Kid a pardon.
  • Meanwhile, newspapers, in cahoots with The Santa Fe Ring, began portraying the Kid as the worst of the worst in the New Mexico Territory. The Kid became a scapegoat for everything wrong in New Mexico and a symbol for the lawlessness of the American West.
  • The Kid was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang, making him the only person convicted of a crime for actions committed during the Lincoln County War. However, in a daring escape in which he killed two guards, the Kid left his jail cell in Lincoln only a few days before his execution. He then found refuge among his friends and supporters near Fort Sumner.
  • Three months after he escaped from jail the Kid walked into a dark room at midnight where he was ambushed and shot dead by Sheriff Pat Garrett. The story goes that Billy the Kid was only twenty-one years old when he died, but historians are not certain. He may have been as young as nineteen.
All told, the Kid gave us one heck of a story!

What happened to him has provided novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists of all types with a mythic tale that can take a variety of forms. The Kid can be portrayed as a good boy gone bad or a boy who was born bad — bad to the bone. He can be portrayed as a cowardly punk, a black-hearted villain, a rebel without a cause, or a young hero — the American Robin Hood. His myth works any way you want to tell it, and his myth is as strong today as when he died 132 years ago.


Recently, I have made my living as an education consultant. In short, I train teachers to teach history, and a central theme of my workshops is that history teachers should not only provide students with historical information, they should also help students learn to think historically. It may sound odd, but Billy the Kid has become an essential element in the workshops I lead. The Kid’s story is perfectly designed to help students learn to think historically.

Historical thinking involves much more than I can really explain today, but let me give you an example of a few ways that I use Billy the Kid to teach historical thinking.

First, historical thinking entails the ability to ask questions. All historical research begins with a question of curiosity. History teachers should therefore routinely ask students, “What questions do you have? What do you wish you knew more about?”

And there’s no better way to help students learn to ask questions than to tell them about Billy the Kid. Almost anything you say about Billy the Kid generates more questions than historians can possibly answer. Our knowledge and understanding of the Kid’s life is so incomplete that students quickly learn to understand a standard rule for all historians — you must be able to tolerate uncertainty.

For historical thinkers, the Kid’s life is also a good lesson in contextual thinking. Good historians learn to place documents and artifacts from the past in historical context. Historians know that to understand the people of the past they must place them in the context of the world in which they lived. Billy the Kid lived in New Mexico in the 1870s, and it is impossible to understand him without understanding the society in which he lived.

During the Lincoln County War Billy the Kid was only eighteen years old and the men allied against him were the wealthiest and most powerful men in New Mexico. He also lived in New Mexico at a time when it had the highest murder rate of any state or territory in the nation. New Mexico had .2% of the population of the United States and 15% of the murders, and most of those murders were never prosecuted or punished. At least, they were not punished within the law. Billy the Kid certainly killed his share of men, but he also lived in an environment where killing was commonplace.

Another element of learning to think historically is learning to recognize how things change over time. Documents from the past change meanings according to the time in which they are studied. If you read a book from the 1920s about the Civil War, it will reveal more to you more about the 1920s than the Civil War. It will certainly give you a different version of the Civil War than books written in the twenty-first century.

The story we tell about Billy the Kid, like any story from the past, has gone through several transformations. The stories told about the Kid in the 1890s are much different from the stories we tell today. What’s important to keep in mind is that whenever the stories are told they always reflect the time in which they are created.

Let’s take an innocuous historical statement such as “Pat Garrett killed Billy the Kid,” and let’s examine how responses to that statement might have changed over the last 130 years.

If I had made that statement in the 1890s, I probably would have received responses that were variations on one theme: “The Kid got what he deserved.”

In the 1890s, people had been exposed to numerous newspaper reports, dime novels, and books that generally portrayed the Kid as a cold-hearted killer. The Kid represented the old ways of settling problems in the American West with a gun. Many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were looking forward to an end of the Code of the West and the development of a modern and civilized urban society. Americans wanted nothing to do with people like Billy the Kid who settled their problems through anarchy and violence.

If I had said, “Garrett killed the Kid,” in the late-1920s or 1930s, I would have received a much different response. During that time, the Kid was generally portrayed as a hero. On the jacket of a bestselling book about the Kid, published in 1926, the Kid was described as the “Robin Hood of the Mesas.” In 1930, a movie film about Billy the Kid starring Johnny Mack, an All-American football player was shown to test audiences who were so disturbed by the Kid’s death that the producers were forced to change the ending. In the version released to the public, Pat Garrett fakes the Kid’s death and lets him escape to Mexico with the girl he loves.

The way the Kid’s story was told in the late-1920s and 1930s tells us more about that time in history than it does about Billy the Kid. At a time of gangsterism, financial corruption, and economic depression, the Kid was portrayed as a romantic hero fighting against the corrupt business forces of his time. In short, he was a heroic figure.

If I said, “Garrett killed the Kid” in the 1950s or 1960s, I would probably get a response that provided some version of how the “system” or the “establishment” always wins — some version of how the good die young. During that time, the Kid was portrayed as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean or Marlon Brando of the Old West.

And what happens when I say, “Garrett killed the Kid” in modern times? I have made several presentations and taught classes on Billy the Kid, and the reaction is often the same. It either sets off an argument over whether the Kid was a hero or villain or questions about whether the Kid actually died in 1881. Someone always asks me, “Didn’t Billy the Kid die in Hico, Texas, in the 1950s?” To me, these reactions reflect how polarized we seem to be in modern times over every issue. The reactions also reflect how many people are likely to see conspiracy and coverup in any official story.

As I said before, I find Billy the Kid endlessly fascinating. For those of us who live in this part of the world, he is part of our culture and we cannot escape his presence.

As for where the Kid’s myth goes next, your guess is as good as mine. Wherever it goes, the new myths created from the Kid’s story will certainly reflect the changes in our world.

I am also certain that wherever the myth of Billy the Kid goes, it will not go away. Long after all of us in this room are gone, people will still be telling stories about Billy the Kid.

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Silver City, NM