Billy the Kid died July 14, 1881. He is alive and well in Fort Sumner.
The small New Mexico town, named after a Civil War general, owes its success as much to the legendary outlaw as it does to cattle ranching. Not many people travel to Fort Sumner to gaze on grazing cows. But, according to Mayor Justin Ingram, “People come from all over the world to see Billy.”
And there’s much to be seen. Of course, Billy is not an anthropological specimen, like Washington’s Kennewick man, whose skeleton is available for study. Billy’s nowhere to be seen. For sure. People are uncertain he is even buried in the grave bearing his name. But there’s as much lore as a small town can handle.
There’s the Billy the Kid Museum on Sumner Avenue, the main drag through town. Museum founder Ed Sweet traveled to New Mexico in an immigrant wagon train in 1904, just a bit more than a quarter century after Billy’s death. Lots of people who knew The Kid or knew about him were still around. Sweet was four years old when he arrived, so he grew up with the legend.
As he grew older, Sweet realized old relics were important to people. It’s how they valued the lives and culture of their ancestors. Sweet collected antiques and artifacts. He managed to possess one of Billy’s Winchester rifles. He and his wife, Jewel, opened the Billy the Kid Museum in 1953 and, when Sweet died in 1974, his son — and later his grandson — continued operating the museum.
Besides the Billy paraphernalia, the museum has an army blanket, cash box, and spurs used by Gen. Edwin Sumner. They were donated and documented by his daughter.
Also on display are collections of early 20th century farm implements, wagons and buggies, saddles and other riding tack. There is a broad range of handguns, rifles, and shotguns; glassware and dishes from the early 1900s; and a modest assemblage of cars from the same period.
The museum’s brochure encourages, “Enjoy a trip through the past. Get a better understanding of the trials people endured.” It’s worth a stop to do just that.
Two miles south of town, on the Pecos River where the original fort was built, there are two sites to visit — the cemetery where Billy is buried and the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument.
The memorial is devoted to telling the story of the Navajo Long Walk and their imprisonment at the fort for nearly five years. But we’re talking Billy here, and this was where Pat Garrett shot him dead.
Mayor Ingram, a Billy aficionado, related the story of the July 14 shooting. Billy apparently had been at the house of his friend, Silva. He got hungry, and Silva told him Pete Maxwell has butchered a heifer. “Billy left his hat, jacket, boots, and gun at Silva’s, but took a carving knife to go slice a piece of beef,” Ingram said. “Now why would a man like Billy do that. He had a lot of friends among the Mexicans and he felt safe.”
Meanwhile, Maxwell had notified Garrett Billy was in town, and Garrett was conferring with Maxwell in his bedroom on the 14th. He has also posted two deputies outside. They had never seen Billy, so they didn’t identify the young man who came to the Maxwell place. Now Billy had a sweet spot in his heart for the ladies, one of whom was Celia Gutierrez, Garrett’s sister-in-law who worked for Maxwell. “Perhaps he was looking for something other than beef,” Ingram surmises. In any event, he thinks, Billy leaned through the door to Maxwell’s bedroom. Sensing someone was there, he asked his now famous question — “¿Quien es?” (Who’s there?) Garrett, of course, answered by shooting Billy twice in the heart.
The house where the execution took place is gone. It was washed away in a Pecos flood in the late 1880s, the event that convinced townsfolk to move closer to the railroad on higher ground. Today, there a granite marker where the house stood. It reads, “Henry McCarty, Alias William H. Bonney, Alias Billy the Kid died here, Killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett, July 14, 1881.
Just before you turn into the memorial, you’ll find the cemetery where Billy was buried. His tombstone, placed in 1940, reads “Pals,” because his was laid to rest with Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre, two of his outlaw best buds. All three were shot by Garrett. The grave is more of a memorial than the actual site of their remains. They were buried in the cemetery, their graves marked by wooden crosses. But the crosses were wiped away by a flood.
The unusual thing about this grave is it’s locked inside a steel cage, just as if someone with a demented sense of humor wanted to send the message these boys would always be incarcerated. However, the real story is it was stolen in 1950. Twenty-six years later, it was found in Granbury, Texas, but was stolen again in 1981. It was recovered a second time near Huntington Beach, California. Thus the locked cage.
Along with Billy’s and his friends’ grave, you’ll find the grave of Lucien Maxwell. His stone shows a map of his ranch, “The largest single tract of land owned by any one individual.” The Maxwell Land Grant is not contiguous with the 1600-square-mile reservation the army established as Bosque Redondo and later sold to Maxwell in 1869. Since it’s not evident Maxwell is actually buried here, the stone may just be an cenotaph.
Tourism is a cash cow (no pun intended) for small towns, like Fort Sumner. And the people who depend on tourist dollars do their level best to keep the legend of Billy the Kid alive.