First, some background…
Billy the Kid covered a lot of ground in his short 21 years of life. You can find traces of the outlaw and gunfighter all across the country. He was born Henry McCarty in New York City in 1859 and moved to Indianapolis then Witchita, Kansas, in 1870. At the age of 14, he was living in New Mexico when he became an orphan. He spent the rest of his years between Arizona Territory and New Mexico Territory. He went by several names including William H. Bonney though he was most famously and commonly known as Billy the Kid.
Billy was first arrested for stealing horses. Rather than pressing charges, the rancher, John Tunstall, offered Billy a job and a second chance. Life was looking up for Billy but then things took a turn for the worse when the corrupt Sherriff Brady killed Tunstall during the Lincoln County War. In revenge, Billy killed Sherriff Brady. He was sentenced to death but escaped by killing two guards. Eventually, he was tracked down and killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The legend of Billy the Kid as we know it today was created mostly by his killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett, who wrote an exaggerated and sensationalized biography of Billy, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid.
Was Billy the Kid really as bad as they say?
The BBC series, The Wild West, has an excellent episode that tells the story of Billy the Kid. It’s almost an hour long but covers the whole story from different angles. Although he was known as an outlaw, it may be more of a Robin Hood type story. You’ll have to decide for yourself! (It really is a good show – I even stayed up past my bedtime to watch!)
Now the museum…
Like most small-town museums I have been to, the presentation is not fancy but the heart is good. The Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, is run by the Sweet family. Ed Sweet opened the museum with his wife in January 1953. He has since passed away and the museum is now run by Ed’s son, Donald, and his family.
The museum started as a one-room collection and from the outside even now it appears deceptively small. Once you go inside and start looking around, you will find that the museum is actually quite sizeable. It currently holds around 60,000 relics. The most notable items on display are Billy the Kid’s rifle, chaps, and spurs as well as the door and curtains from the room where he was shot. The museum also has several historical vehicles on display and a large collection of household items and tools from life in the southwestern US.
Follow in his footsteps
Besides the Billy the Kid Museum and Grave in Fort Sumner, there are a few other historic buildings and towns where Billy the Kid spent time. I have not been to any of them so please check in advance to see if they look right for your itinerary.
Billy the Kid was said to use Fox Cave as a hideout. Fox Cave is now a museum and gift shop with a variety of items including props from The X-Files and a large inventory of turquoise jewelry for sale. Nearby Ruidoso is a mountain resort town with year-round activities available.
Billy washed dishes at the hotel in Lordstown, NM in what is now the Shakespeare Ghost Town. The town is reportedly open for visits one weekend per month and occasionally hosts re-enactment events but looks like it may be permanently closed. Research this option before you go!
Also, check Roadside America for more Billy the Kid itinerary ideas.
Billy Joel Sings the Ballad of Billy the Kid
Did you know Billy Joel recorded a song about Billy the Kid? It’s not historically accurate but it’s fun to listen to!
“His daring life of crime made him a legend in his time…”
The Kid in Theaters
Billy the Kid’s legend makes great material for movies and has been the subject of several over the years. The Kid (2019) is the latest movie about Billy. Check out the trailer.
“It doesn’t matter what’s true. It matters the story they tell when you’re gone.”
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As long as you’re in New Mexico, you should also stop to see the World’s Largest Pistachio!