Saturday, April 09, 2011

Billy the Kid Country

Traveling around Southern New Mexico reminds us of being in Northern Virginia, because just as George Washington apparently slept in every dwelling there, Billy the Kid walked every foot of ground here.  The entertaining but historically inept movies “Young Guns” and “Young Guns II” brought the story, however inaccurate, to a whole new generation, and merchants throughout New Mexico responded with ways to wring a buck out of the legend.  Sad, because the real story is interesting enough without all of the embellishment.
We’ll start with our visit to Silver City, where we spent a great month exploring the city and the Gila Wilderness a few years ago, and where young Billy, then known as Henry Antrim, grew up.  Silver City is a great place to visit on it’s own merit, but we were also interested in seeing the town where Billy lived as a imagechild, went to school, and of course, committed his first crime – stealing butter.  We stayed at a very nice park, Rose Valley RV Park, which was next door to the cemetery that housed the grave of Billy’s mother, Katherine (also known as Catherine).  The story of where Billy was born, where his family lived before Silver City, and why he had so many different names is complicated, but can be unraveled here.  We enjoyed the visit here, but the best reason to visit the area is the Gila Wilderness and the quirky atmosphere, especially during the Blues Festival.
Although as a young man Billy visited Arizona and many New Mexico locations, the most famous of his exploits took place in areas we’ve visited many times - the Sacramento Mountains area, and the towns of Lincoln, La PostaMesilla, and Fort Sumner.  In Old Mesilla, outside of Las Cruces, the plaza was visited regularly by Billy and it was here that he was convicted and sentenced to hang in Lincoln.  Today, there’s a Billy the Kid gift shop dominating the corner, and just down the street is one of our favorite restaurants, La Posta, a place with great food and an interesting history.  (hint – try the red enchiladas, stacked pancake-style, and topped with a fried egg!)
It’s a little more than an hour’s drive through Alamogordo and into the Sacramento Mountains from Old Mesilla – a trip that took Billy over five days to make when he as taken back to Lincoln to be hanged.  On the way up the West side of the mountains to Cloudcroft you’ll pass the sign for Blazer’s Mill, where the gunfight took place that ended up with Billy’s murder conviction.  There’s nothing here today but the sign, but when you travel from the site to Lincoln as Billy did, you have to marvel at the distances covered in the days of riding on horseback. 
But if you’re a Billy the Kid buff, the place to visit is Lincoln.  A pretty little town in the foothills, this State Historic Site looks much the same as it must have in the days of the Lincoln County War.  Although dwellings in the town are occupied, owners must keep the outside appearance historically accurate.  Our first stop was the visitor center, staffed by a delightful lady who let it be known that she wasn’t too fond of the “Young Guns” portrayal of Billy.  Lincoln Visitor CenterWe listened as she lectured a young man who had the bad judgment to ask if Billy really killed 21 men by his 21st birthday – he left humbled but smarter (most historians agree that the number was three or four).   The visitor center has a number of very well done exhibits, not only of the Lincoln County War, but also of the area’s Indian history.  It’s interesting to look at the old photographs of buildings like the courthouse, and compare them to how they look today:
Lincoln Courthouse Photo
Lincoln Courthouse Today
The interior of the former store, later the courthouse, is much the same as it must have looked when Billy made his escape by killing the two men guarding him.  The wall at the bottom of the stairway has what is supposedly the hole (enlarged over time by inquisitive fingers) made by Billy’s bullets. BTK Bullet Hole
On the second floor, you can stand at the window (left side of the building pictured above, nearest the street) and look out just as Billy must have before shooting and killing the second deputy.  Courthouse Window
After his escape, Billy retreated to Fort Sumner, one of his favorite places, where he was killed at the age of 21 by Sherriff Pat Garret and buried in the local cemetery.  Traveling to Fort Sumner, you begin to wonder how anyone made the trip on horseback – it’s a long, dry stretch to a dusty, half-deserted town.  But with plenty of “Billy the Kid’s Grave!” signs.  Billy the Kid GraveVisiting the gravesite, you’ll notice the steel fencing protecting the headstone – it’s been stolen three times, the first time in 1950 when it went missing for 26 years.  The experience is a bit of a letdown when you read the fine print and learn that shortly after Billy was buried, a flood washed away all of the grave markers, so it’s a sorta/kinda guess where Billy is buried.  But hey, just like the legend of Billy the Kid, you’ve got to believe……
We’ve got some more New Mexico to show you, so c’mon back and see where we’ve been!


  1. you know even the 'bad seeds' of history were someone's baby!..thanks for the write up about Billy the kid!..nice to see he had a 'momma' too!!

  2. Enjoyed your blog article. I sure hope his Momma is resting in peace and I sure hope he isn't... I can't wait to see what you have planned next!