We left Reddy Vineyards in Brownfield, Texas around 9:30am on Saturday, April 8, 2023 to head to our next stop, Santa Rosa, New Mexico. But along the way we saw a sign on the road that said we could see Billy the Kid’s gravesite if we took a turn off and drove 10 miles. Since we had some time to spare we decided to make this unscheduled stop to see some history from the Old West.
We got more history than we bargained for when we discovered the devastatingly sad Bosque Redondo Memorial.
BILLY THE KID GRAVESITE
William H. Bonney, Jr., was born on November 23, 1860 with his birth name of Henry McCarty in the Irish slums of New York City
When he was a child his parents moved to Kansas, where his father died shortly thereafter. His mother moved to Colorado with her two sons where she remarried and the family then moved to New Mexico where his mother died of tuberculosis in 1874. Billy, orphaned in his early teens at this point, fell into a life of lawlessness wandering through the Southwest and northern Mexico.
In 1875, McCarty had his first run in with the law when he helped steal from a Chinese laundry. After his arrest he escaped from jail by shimmying up a chimney and escaped town. He became a roving ranch hand, gambler and gang member and grew proficient with both a Winchester rifle and Colt revolver. In August of 1877 he killed his first man during a fight in an Arizona saloon and first adopted his alias of William H. Bonney, Jr., becoming known as “Billy the Kid” or simply “The Kid.”
Although Bonney claimed to have killed 21 men, the actual number is likely less than 10. However in 1878 The Kid was part of a gang that killed Sheriff William Brady and would remain on the run for the rest of his life from authorities for that murder. In late 1880, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked The Kid to a cabin in Stinking Springs, NM and forced him to surrender. The Kid was tried and found guilty of the murder of Sheriff Brady. He was to be hanged for the crime but on April 28, 1881 he once again escaped from jail, killing two guards and stealing a horse. His brazen and deadly escape made the newspapers across the entire country, making The Kid the most wanted man in the West.
The Kid spent several months hiding out on the frontier and seeking refuge from sympathetic locals in Fort Sumner, NM, but he did not bother to keep a low profile. It wasn’t long before Sheriff Garrett rode into Fort Sumner with two deputies looking for Bonney. Late on the night of July 14, 1881 Garett went to the home of a local rancher, Peter Maxwell, to ask him about recent sightings of the outlaw. No sooner had he awakened Maxwell than The Kid himself arrived at the home. As The Kid entered Maxwell’s bedroom he saw the silhouette of Garrett and asked, “Who’s that?” Garett recognizing The Kid’s voice fired two shots at him with one hitting The Kid near his heart, killing him instantly.
The next day a Coroner’s Jury held an inquest, determined that the dead man was indeed Billy the Kid and ruled that Garrett’s killing of him was a justifiable homicide. The most wanted man in the West was buried that same day.
We arrived at the spot set aside for Billy the Kid’s gravesite and tombstone (which had been stolen…at least twice) and toured the small Fort Sumner Cemetery. Then we went inside to the building that is used to display artifacts and memorabilia about the famous outlaw.
As we were leaving to go back to the truck where Bella waited inside with the windows partway down and a battery-powered blowing on her, we saw a sign pointing to a modern building farther down a path behind the cemetery and decided to go take a quick look at what that might be.
BOSQUE REDONDO MEMORIAL AT FORT SUMNER
This was a look at one of the dark stains on our country’s treatment of Native Americans in the 1860’s. In short, the U.S. Army forced some 10,000 Diné and Ndé tribal members to leave their ancestral homes and hunting areas to walk up to 300 miles (The Long Walk) to a makeshift area at Fort Sumner. They had little to no drinkable water, were not permitted to hunt for their food and were made to dig holes in the hard ground to sleep in with tattered rags and pieces of cloth to cover them. Of those 10,000 souls, some 3,000 died during the Long Walk and at the camp they were forced to live in.
To take a people whose lives revolved around traveling within certain well-known-to-them areas and who responsibly hunted for their food and material needs and force them to be stationary on a piece of land they were required to farm was the height of cultural eradication. And it was practiced by our government.
To say this memorial made us sad and angry would be an understatement. It was telling that, on the road where we saw the sign about Billy the Kid’s gravesite there NO signs about this memorial to the horrors these Native Americans were made to suffer. It was more important to advertise the final resting place of a criminal and murderer because he was part of the “Wild West Culture” than to call attention to the despicable way we as a people treated those who were here before us.
History is not always pretty, does not always make us happy and does not always makes us proud of our ancestors. But if we don’t acknowledge that history, confront that history, and face the evils of that history, we can never work to make ourselves better than our ancestors and that history. Our hearts bled for the suffering these people went through. We cannot change that treatment in the past but we can look at all of its horror and pledge to never allow that to happen again, to ANY people and their culture.
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