Fort Sumner, New Mexico: Where Billy the Kid Was Killed?

Lisa Fritscher November 14, 2011 No Comments

Billy the Kid Museum, New Mexico

I admit to being a huge Billy the Kid buff

It all started in Roswell, New Mexico. After visiting the Roswell UFO Museum, Dad and I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce to find out what else might be going on in town. We happened to meet a wonderful employee who was happy to help us plan out the rest of our stay in New Mexico. She was very perceptive and quickly tuned in to our individual interests. When she mentioned the words “Billy the Kid,” my face gave me away. I wanted to learn everything I could about the infamous outlaw.

Our new best friend told us all about the Hondo Valley, which includes the town of Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy and his Regulators were involved in the Lincoln County War. She also mentioned Fort Sumner, where Pat Garrett shot Billy on July 14, 1881. I glanced at Dad, who smiled and readily agreed to go chasing after Billy the Kid.

The Great Mystery

Billy the Kid Painting

As this painting shows, Billy the Kid has captured many imaginations

I have been a Billy the Kid fan for quite some time. Like many people, I am a huge fan of the films Young Guns and Young Guns II. The second movie raises the possibility that Billy may not have been killed at Fort Sumner after all, but might instead have escaped and lived into old age. But that’s only a movie, right?

As I began to dig deeper into the facts of the Billy the Kid case, I gradually became less and less certain that he was, in fact, shot and killed that night. Too many things just did not add up. It was great fun to speak with the locals in Lincoln, each of whom had a personal theory as to what might have happened so long ago.

I ended up purchasing several books that all purport to tell the real story of Billy the Kid. Although the details vary, all of the resources agree on the basics. Far from a vicious, evil outlaw, the person that history describes was gentle, refined, sharply intelligent and surprisingly well-loved by most everyone he met.

Fort Sumner Sign

Fort Sumner, where Billy the Kid was allegedly killed

I became increasingly more determined to learn what I could of the truth behind Billy’s alleged death. I also became intrigued by the story and determined to write a speculative fiction novel based on the idea that he did not, in fact, die that night.

There was just one small problem. Fort Sumner was several hours’ drive from where we were staying, and we were due in Tombstone, Arizona. Ordinarily we would have pushed back our stay in Tombstone, but we were also contending with a series of wildfires. We had a relatively short window in which to make our Tombstone appearance before the latest fire potentially spread in that direction. So, with a sigh, I reluctantly agreed to skip Fort Sumner. We went on to Tombstone and continued our westward journey.

A Second Chance

On the Road in New Mexico

The drive through New Mexico was pretty desolate

Pushing the Billy the Kid mystery out of my mind, I was happy to discover that our trek took us along Route 66. As a huge fan of retro kitsch, I was thrilled to experience the diners and roadside attractions in places like Williams, Arizona.

For a number of reasons, we sort of got stuck in Las Vegas for longer than planned (if you can call an extended stay in Las Vegas “stuck,” that is). But we had tickets to the So You Think You Can Dance tour in Memphis, so we came up with a new plan. We would drive Interstate 40 straight through from Vegas, except for a brief stopover near Petrified Forest National Park. We estimated that we could cross the country in four days and still make the show. But it didn’t leave any time for sightseeing along the way.

Although I knew we wouldn’t be stopping at any attractions, I picked up a Route 66 guidebook. We plan to drive back across the country next summer, and I wanted to get a jump start on picking out new sights to see. While I was flipping through the New Mexico section, though, it suddenly jumped out at me.

The Fort Sumner Points of Interest

The Fort Sumner Points of Interest

Fort Sumner was just 40 miles south of Interstate 40! We wouldn’t need to backtrack, because a parallel road would take us up to Amarillo, Texas, where we could rejoin the interstate for our drive to the Oklahoma border, where we planned to stop for the night. How could I possibly pass up my chance to see it, when the detour was so short?

Dad was in the gas station when I made my discovery, and he knew something was up as soon as he saw my face. As he was towing the travel trailer, he made me wait until we were back on the interstate before I was allowed to share my news.

When I was nine years old, Dad and I were both in a play called Teahouse of the August Moon. In one scene, the American army captain is trying to get to the village of Tobiki, Okinawa, to set up a democratic system of government. But the interpreter, Sakini, allows all sorts of additional people (and one goat) to catch a ride in the Jeep. Many of the people want to stop off somewhere else first. Though the captain is reluctant, he eventually agrees.

Dad rolled his eyes and quoted a few lines from the play, but agreed to stop off at Fort Sumner. After a long drive, we arrived in town shortly after lunchtime.

Our Experience

Fort Sumner Visitor Center

The Fort Sumner Visitor Center was extremely helpful

Arriving in Fort Sumner, it quickly became clear that the town is proud of its Billy the Kid connection. From drugstores to dry cleaners, it seemed virtually every downtown business had a mural or a sign proclaiming that Billy the Kid is still in town.

On stopping by the visitor center, we learned that there are two main Billy the Kid hotspots in town. The Billy the Kid Museum has more of a roadside attraction feel, while the Old Fort Sumner Museum has a more traditional display of artifacts. Both have Billy the Kid gravesites, although the Billy the Kid Museum’s is clearly marked as a replica, while the Old Fort Sumner Museum’s is purported to be real. Confused yet? So were we.

We quickly saw a difference between the locals in Fort Sumner and those in Lincoln. While the Lincoln crowd seems willing to at least entertain the possibility that Billy the Kid was not killed by Pat Garrett, those in Fort Sumner seem fiercely protective of the idea that he was. Perhaps because Fort Sumner would lose its tourist luster if it was determined that Billy was not, in fact, killed there? Or do they know something that we don’t? I just love a good mystery!

Billy the Kid Museum

Billy the Kid Replica Gravesite

This gravesite is clearly marked "replica"

Expecting a kitschy roadside stand, we headed first to the Billy the Kid Museum. As of 2011, the museum is open 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Saturday. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors over age 62, and $3 for kids aged 7 to 15.

Despite its reputation as just a roadside attraction, both Dad and I were impressed at the size of the place and the attention to detail. There was a massive collection of artifacts, from a lock of Billy’s hair to a curtain that hung over the doorway of the room where he was allegedly killed. There was also a rather sizeable room full of old guns, some of which were reportedly Billy’s. Outside was the famous replica gravesite, which was quite interesting to see.

The museum also houses all sorts of random memorabilia, from old cars to 1960s Ken and Barbie dolls. It was great fun to look around, and we could have easily spent hours there. But we had a long drive ahead of us, so after photographing the Billy the Kid items, we were on our way.

Old Fort Sumner Museum

Old Fort Sumner Museum

This was a treasure trove of documents pertaining to the mystery

As of 2011, admission to the Old Fort Sumner Museum is $5, though you can visit the grave site for free. The museum is a good bit smaller than the Billy the Kid Museum, but I was spellbound. On display were a seemingly endless number of affidavits, original newspaper articles and research reports dealing directly with the mystery surrounding Billy’s alleged death. Dad ran around taking photographs while I pored over the old documents.

Naturally there was no consensus, and the mystery remains just that. But I left the museum that day with a head full of facts and figures that can only help in setting up my novel. Outside, we took a few moments to pay our respects at the old cemetery.

Billy the Kid Gravesite Mystery

Billy's gravesite? Not necessarily.

As the story goes, Billy’s pals Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre were already interred at the cemetery when Billy was killed in 1881. He was buried next to them. But as luck would have it, a flood washed away the wooden grave markers shortly after Billy was interred. This fact adds deeply to the mystery.

Apparently no one really knows exactly where Billy the Kid is purportedly buried. The current tombstone location is a best guess based on testimony of witnesses who had visited the gravesite. A permanent grave marker was placed at the site, but was stolen three times over the years.

In 1962, Lincoln County tried to have Billy’s body exhumed and moved to Lincoln. But for a number of reasons, they lost the court case. One of the primary reasons? No one knew exactly where Billy was, and no one wanted to dig up the entire graveyard to find out!

Men that Buried Billy the Kid

These men swore to their dying day that they buried Billy the Kid. But did they?

More recently, researchers have talked of exhuming both Billy and his mother, who is most likely buried in Silver City, New Mexico. Supposedly DNA testing could conclusively prove once and for all whether or not it is, in fact, Billy the Kid who rests in the cemetery in Fort Sumner. But again, no one is willing to dig up the entire cemetery to find Billy’s remains. His mother’s gravesite seems more certain, but her original wooden grave marker is also missing, and the later tombstone has her name misspelled. It is entirely possible that neither of them would be particularly easy to locate!

The helpful desk clerk at the Old Fort Sumner Museum gave us directions to the site of Pete Maxwell’s home, where Billy was allegedly killed. But the house is no longer standing, and accessing the site requires going through another tourist site, which was getting ready to close, and then hiking out to the location. It would have been interesting to see, but apparently there is literally nothing left. So we opted out, satisfied with our time in Fort Sumner.

Tips for Parents

Billy the Kid Rifle

Did Billy the Kid really give away this rifle two months before he was shot? If so, why?

If you or your kids are Billy the Kid fans, Fort Sumner is well worth a stop. If your kids are unfamiliar with the legend, rent Young Guns before your trip. Although not entirely historically accurate, the movie does a good job of presenting the basic storyline of the Lincoln County War. The artifacts in both museums paint an interesting picture of Billy that is not readily available in mainstream media. The town itself is small and friendly, making it a great place to take a break.

If possible, plan to spend an entire day in town. While you can certainly see the highlights in just a few hours, we felt a bit pressed for time. Having a full day would have allowed us to relax and take our time rather than rushing through.

Related Articles:

In the Footsteps of Billy the Kid: Lincoln, NM

Smokey Bear Meets Billy the Kid? Carrizozo, Capitan, and Valley of Fires, New Mexico

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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