In 1885, near the trail on which John Chisum drove his cattle to market, a general store, blacksmith shop, post office, and cabins popped up along Rio Ruidoso — and thus the Village of Ruidoso was born. Its colorful, century-and-a-half history is well worth exploring, especially if you include the life of America’s best-loved outlaw, a guy named William Henry McCarty, otherwise known as Billy the Kid.
You can’t be in Ruidoso without encountering at least the flavor of Billy’s life. But to get a real taste of the legend, you have to drive 20 miles north to the Lincoln Historic Site. More about that in a bit.
You may think you know about Billy, but how do you separate fact from the fiction that fostered the fascinating façade of the fabled frontiersman?
Billy the Kid’s Exploits
Billy was born perhaps in an Irish slum in New York City, maybe around 1859. There’s no irrefutable proof of either of those things. His widowed mother, Catherine, married William Antrim, who moved the family to Kansas.
Billy assumed his stepfather’s name, until he chose to call himself Billy Bonney instead. That name must’ve just sounded cool to him.
Lots of tales make up Billy’s legend, many of them centered around Ruidoso. For example, when accused of stealing horses in White Oaks, Billy and his gang holed up in Jim Greathouse’s great house just north of Carrizozo.
Sheriff James Carlyle and his posse surrounded the gang, and Billy agreed to negotiate a surrender. He enticed Carlyle to come inside — but instead of surrender, they argued. Billy threw the sheriff through a window. Thinking it was The Kid trying to escape, the posse opened fire, killing the sheriff.
Then there was the time Billy and his gang barricaded themselves in a farmhouse at Stinking Springs, 15 miles east of Fort Sumner. Sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse waited out the outlaws. When the lawmen got hungry, they began grilling steaks. The aroma was too much for Billy and his boys, and they gave themselves up for a share of the beef.
The Lincoln County War
But the focus on Billy during your Ruidoso visit has to be the 1878 – 1879 Lincoln County War. Find a wealth of information about the conflict on the New Mexico Historic Sites website by clicking on the Lincoln Historic Site icon.
The Lincoln County War was not about cattle, but about competing mercantile businesses — Lawrence Murphy and James Dolan battling interloper John Tunstall. You’ll find the entire story at the Andersen-Freeman visitor center in Lincoln. It’s complicated and books have been written on the topic.
After Tunstall was murdered (his killers took his gun from his corpse and fired it so they could claim self-defense), Billy was arrested for shooting Sheriff William Brady, whose posse had waylaid Tunstall. Brady had a dozen bullet holes in him, fired from as many as six different guns. Billy was the only one accused. Go figure!
The Murphy-Dolan gang trapped Alex McSween, Tunstall’s partner, in McSween’s own house, along with his gang of Regulators, including Billy. The Murphy-Dolan gang allowed McSween’s wife, Susan, to leave — then set the house on fire.
As the Regulators attempted to escape from the back, they were taken out like hinged pigeons in a shooting gallery. Billy escaped. Today, you can still see the brick foundation of McSween’s house.
Billy was on the lam for the next two years, only to be hunted down by Pat Garrett. He was arrested, tried in Mesilla, convicted, and sentenced to hang in Lincoln. Billy escaped by shooting James Bell and Robert Olinger, who had been deputized by Garrett and were guarding Billy.
You can find Bell’s tombstone at the cemetery in White Oaks, along with Susan McSween’s grave marker. Bell’s is inscribed, “Died April 25, 1881. Murdered by William Bonney, AKA ‘Billy the Kid,’ during his escape from the Lincoln County jail.”
Experience Billy’s escape for yourself when it is re-enacted during the Billy the Kid Pageant and Old Lincoln Days, held in Lincoln August 5 – 7, 2022. The event commemorates the Lincoln County War and Billy’s escape with a parade, music, food and arts and crafts vendors, and more. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for kids ages 6 – 12, with those ages 5 and under admitted free. Learn more here.
Visiting the Lincoln Historic Site
For $7 per adult, you’ll have access to the Andersen-Freeman Visitor Center with its informative museum and 20-minute film. There’s no charge for those 16 and younger. Your ticket also provides access to the Tunstall store and the Murphy-Dolan building, which also served as the Lincoln County courthouse, jail, and Masonic lodge. Tickets are not needed to visit the Montaño house, Dr. Wood’s house, San Juan Mission church, the Wortley Hotel that was once owned by Pat Garrett, and the torreón defensive tower.
There are 17 historic structures and outbuildings altogether, although only seven are open to the public (Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Touring Lincoln is like visiting the time when you might encounter cattle baron John Chisum or even Governor Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur, strolling along the main street.
If you absolutely must know the end to the tale of Billy the Kid . . .
In July 1881, Billy left his gun, his boots, and his hat at a Mexican friend’s house. With a butcher knife in hand, he went in search of a slab of Pete Maxwell’s beef for supper. He also was in search of Paulita Maxwell, Pete’s lovely daughter. You can pretty well guess his intent.
Waiting in Maxwell’s bedroom, Garrett caught up with Billy — for the third time. Standing outside in the moonlight, Billy whispered into the dark room, “¿Quien es?” (Who is it?). The answer was two bullets fired by Garrett into the outlaw’s chest. Billy was just 22 years old.
In 2010, Governor Bill Richardson considered a posthumous pardon for Billy, considering it a follow-through on a promise made by Governor Wallace. But he decided against it. The idea of the pardon appealed to him but, as Governor Richardson said, the evidence didn’t support it.
You’ll find Billy’s grave in Fort Sumner, where he’s buried between Tom O’Follaird and Charlie Bowdre, Billy’s outlaw buddies who were also killed by Garrett. The tombstone was heisted in 1950 and found 26 years later in Granbury, Texas.
It was stolen again in 1981 but recovered a week later in Huntington Beach, California. To prevent another theft, an iron-bar cage was erected over the grave. It seems Billy is destined to remain behind bars for eternity.
And the legend of Billy the Kid lives on.
Story and photos by Bud Russo.
Posted by Ruidoso.com