Visit to the Boy Bandit King

Fort Sumner

My obsession with pirates stemmed from a love of outlaw legends, thanks to my dad who has always been facinated by their time and how their legends have affected our land. Every time we drive through the plains he says, “Cant you just imagine a gang of cowboys riding over these cliffs”— one city to another, somehow drawn place to place with crude maps, dusty lungs and sheer willpower.

While we’re talking about Outlaw’s, Fort Sumner is the final resting place of Billy the Kid, the “boy bandit king” as one of his epitaph reads. He is buried in a stone-bare cemetery near the river and not more than half a mile from the place where he died. Across the cemetery from him is Joe Grant “Shot down by Wm. Bonney” and diagonally closer to the fence is land baron Lucien Maxwell who in his lifetime owned 2 million acres across NM. Bonney died in Maxwell’s house in the presence of his son, Pete Maxwell.

The cemetery is my favorite part of Fort Sumner. The Kid’s grave is twice-caged because it’s been lost/stolen three times, and in life he was indeed, a record escape artist. Once his headstone turned up in Huntington Beach, California. He is buried next to two of his friends. I love the stories about Billy the Kid, I love his largesse, his fearlessness, and the pirate in me loves that New Mexico's hero is one of their outlaws, a Kid.

Fort Sumner is a true "Wild West" town. The main street look like it has never moved, and just beyond the town green rolling farmland, near a hidden river. It's a beautiful town, actually, and has a lot more history than the death of Billy the Kid. There is a memorial there called the Bosque Redondo, where the Role of Fort Sumner itself was to control the horrific and devastating internment of Navajo and Mescalero Apache tribes at the fort. Most of those forced to live in Fort Sumner died. This ended in 1868.

Though my dad and I have been to the grave before we have never seen the museums in Fort Sumner. They are beautifully strange harboring relics found throughout the century connected to the era of outlaws. The one near the cemetery had many old articles written about Bonney and his men, some deformed animal taxidermy, and the best: letters from Governor Lew Wallace to William H. Bonney, and Bonney’s pleas to the Governor for a pardon while he awaited trial in the Old Santa Fe jail in 1881. The letters are amazing. His penmanship is beautiful and his letters are—as my mom pointed out—unendingly polite.

(Fun fact: the site of this jail is now my favorite bookstore in the Santa Fe plaza)

He escaped from the jail in Las Vegas in 1881 and made his way to Fort Sumner hiding from the lawmen who wanted him “Dead or Alive”.

The museum on Fort Sumner main street was much bigger and had artifacts displayed from the Maxwell house and an incredible article written by Poe, one of Garrett’s men who witnessed the event of Bonney’s capture and death by Garrett.

This museum also had one of Bonney’s rifles, a lock of his hair kept by a barber, and a rock on which he inscribed his name.

William H. Bonney A.K.A. Billy the Kid is an interesting person to me, being that he is arguably the most famous New Mexican to have ever lived. His legend is grossly exaggerated, though his personality was most likely not. He is said to have been a loyal friend, a kind stranger and his beef was with the enemies of his friends. Most people in NM do not know about Lucien Maxwell but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't know of Billy the Kid or Walter White, for that matter, our modern outlaw celebrity.

It's this that both impresses and bothers me--that such an outlaw can have such a magnetic pull on us. Part of it is storytelling, part of it, maybe, is that this is still the Wild West.


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