Billy the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County, New Mexico jail house on April 28, 1881, killing two deputies on guard. He avoided capture until July 14, when he was ambushed and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the ranch home of Pete Maxwell. Billy the Kid is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Although he has become synonymous with the legendary Wild West, Billy the Kid was probably born on New York City’s East Side, in 1859 or 1860. By the time he was a young teenager, he had moved with his family to New Mexico, by way of Kansas and Colorado.
While still a boy, Billy the Kid became involved in petty thievery, and later horse theft. In an August 1877 altercation at a saloon in Camp Grant, Arizona, he shot and killed a man for the first time. Reputed to have been responsible for the murder of 21 men by the time he was 21 years old (the actual total was between four and ten men), he had been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang when he made his dramatic escape from the Lincoln County jail.
Jose Garcia y Trujillo recounts his memories of Billy the Kid and expresses his belief in the myth of Billy the Kid’s survival in a 1936 interview taken in New Mexico:
You think Billy The Keed let himself be shot in the dark like that? No Senora — Billy The Keed — never. I see Billy The Keed with these eyes. Many times, with these eyes. That Billy, tenia un’ agilesa en su mente — en su menta aqui…” I understood that he meant that Billy The Keed had an extraordinary quickness of mind. Again he pointed to his forehead and then with a quick motion to the sky. “Una funcion electrica”, he said. Something that worked like lightning… “I don’t want to dispute against you Senora, but in my mind which is the picture of my soul, I know it is not true… Everybody like Billy The Keed — su vista penetraba el corazon de toda la gente… his face went to everybody’s heart.. Muy generoso hombre, Billy The Keed — a very generous man. All the Mexican people, they like him. He give money, horses, drinks — what he have. To whom was good to Billy The Keed, he was good to them. Siempre muy caballero, muy senor — always very polite, very much of a gentleman.
There are many more stories about this legendary outlaw in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Most, however, do not portray him in such a positive light. To find them, search the collection on Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid’s true identity is still a matter of speculation. Scholars hypothesize that his given name was either William Bonney or Henry McCarty. There are those who believe that after he escaped, he became a performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Parade under the name of “Brushy Bill” Roberts.
- To see more images of Billy the Kid’s stomping grounds, search on New Mexico, or a Southwestern state of your choice, in these collections:
- To sample the rich musical heritage and cultural traditions of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, browse the title index in Hispano Music & Culture from the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection, an American Memory collection documenting the religious and secular music of the Spanish-speaking residents of this region.
- Also, don’t miss the Today in History features on western novelist Owen Wister, outlaw Jesse James, and legendary frontiersman “Wild Bill” Hickock.