By now, most of you know I was born with a wanderlust. I like to point my car in a direction I’ve never before traveled just to see where it goes, what adventures I will encounter. Recently, I journeyed to Fort Sumner, one of New Mexico’s many small towns, yet one steeped in our history and lore.
This is where Gen. James Carlton established the military installation named after Edwin Vose Sumner, the oldest field commander on either side of the Civil War. He was affectionately known as “Bull Head” from the legend of a musket ball that once bounced off his skull. Awaiting reassignment after the Battle of Fredericksburg, he died of a heart attack at age 66.
Fort Sumner was built on the Pecos River, a stream of mostly alkali water. Most soldiers assigned to the post hated it, but no more so than the Mescalero and Navajo, whom Carlton had rounded up and marched to an encampment next to the fort. We know it as Bosque Redondo, after an oxbow in the river. More than 7,000 Navajo were marched 400 miles — their Long Walk — to the camp they called Hwéeldi, the Place of Suffering.
In 1868, the Navajo signed a treaty and returned to their homeland centered around Canyon de Chelly in eastern Arizona. Earlier, the Mescalero had just packed up and left in the dark of night. No one really seemed to care.
The story of Fort Sumner turns from the army to a young man named William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. We tend to think of Billy wandering southern New Mexico and holing up in various places — as often as people back east note “George Washington slept here.” But, like most of us, Billy was a man of habit. He hung around Fort Sumner for a number of reasons. Cattle were grazing nearby on the grasslands, so he could rustle a few head to support himself. He was friendly with locals of Mexican descent, preferring them to Anglos. And he had a soft spot in his heart for young señoritas, who seemed to take a liking to the bad-boy. In fact, during my visit, I met a man who claims to be a descendant of Billy. Just because he never married doesn’t mean he never had children. His routine eventually brought him once too often to Fort Sumner — to the place of his death, in Pete Maxwell’s house on the river.
In the late 1880s two events occurred. The meandering Pecos River washed out most of the old fort, which had been abandoned in 1869 and sold to Lucien Maxwell. The water also took the Maxwell house. The other event was the arrival of the railroad. The people of Fort Sumner elected to move their town from the river edge about two miles to the railroad right of way, where is stands today.
BNSF trains are powered by diesel engines that don’t need coal and water. Earlier, when it was the Santa Fe, they used to, and Fort Sumner was a coaling and water stop, a place where cattle could be loaded for market, and a passenger station. All that is gone. Trains rumble through town with clockwork. None of them stop.
De Baca county was established in 1917, but it took until 1930 for the town to build a respectable courthouse, which is still in use. Much to my surprise, I found some remarkable murals painted on second-floor walls, the work of a Depression-era WPA artist.
After wandering north from Las Cruces, I turned east on U.S. 60 at Vaughn. I was shocked as I drove through this other small New Mexico town. It has so many boarded up buildings, I was reminded of the ghost towns of Glenrio and Budville along U.S. Route 66, of Lake Valley and Shakespeare (although these last two enjoy some measure of preservation).
Ask Fort Sumner mayor Justin Ingram what it is about his town that keeps it alive. He’ll tell you. Ranching and arming are the major industry there. But people raise cattle all over New Mexico. Then he adds, tourism. “You can’t image how many people come here to learn about Billy the Kid.”
There’s the Billy the Kid Museum, run by the Sweet family, whom Ingram has known all his life. There’s Billy’s grave, at least where it’s marked. No one actually knows where the Kid was buried. The original wooden cross washed away in the flood. There are the stories of Billy’s surrender at Stinking Springs, 15 miles to the east, and his death at the hand of Pat Garrett at what today is the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner State Monument. Where the Maxwell house use to stand, there’s a stone marking the place where Billy died. Mayor Ingram will tell you the lore of Billy the Kid draws people from across the country and around the world.
While the amenities in this small town are what you might expect, you can still find a decent meal and an inn with a comfortable bed in which to dream of your encounter with Chief Barboncito or Billy or maybe even lovely Celia Gutierrez, sister-in-law to Pat Garrett and the last love of Billy’s life.