The Curious Career of Billy the Kid

The Man Behind the Myth

For most of the 19th century, the American West was a fairly tranquil place.  The myths of Hollywood and the wishful thinking of certain revisionist historians notwithstanding, throughout the region, for every gunfighter there were a hundred stockbrokers, and for every outlaw, ten-thousand farmers.  The West was urban as much as rural, settled as a joint venture of corporations and the federal government.  (For more on that, see Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own, among other recent works of western history.)  In cities such as Denver, Seattle, and even Tombstone, few citizens knew how to use a firearm, owned a gun, or had need to.  The decades-long wars against the Native Americans were staged in remote corners of the country, far from the haunts of ordinary citizens, and, as for bad men, few but the local tall-tale spinner had ever seen one.

Lincoln County, New Mexico, was a notable exception.  For three decades beginning in the 1860’s, the sparsely settled pocket of south-central New Mexico Territory saw more than its share of violence: regular raids on the part of the Mescalero Apaches and Indians from farther afield; crimes fanned by racial hatred between Anglos and Hispanics; bad blood between farmers and ranchers, ably documented in Conrad Richter’s novel The Sea of Grass; and a business rivalry that would lead to the so-called Lincoln...

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