I Shot the Sheriff and Other Stories from the Wild West
Rumaldo and Juanita Gonzales are buried in the Fort Sumner Military Cemetery in rural New Mexico. Frugal looking wooden crosses mark the approximate spots where they lie, and it looks like, more recently, they have been given a stone plaque with their names and dates on. The juxtaposition between the old and the new is interesting, and you might even be intrigued to learn more about them – except that you won’t, because they are only the side show to what lies across the cemetery from them – locked behind an iron grill and reinforced over and over again with concrete because it has been stolen so many times over the last century. It’s the gravestone of Billy The Kid.
Now there’s a name you’ve heard a lot, although maybe you don’t know much about the man behind the fable. Neither did I, and I found myself pulling up to the dusty old cemetery in the middle of the desert one September day with little or no recollection of how I got there (in reality we were driving along Route 66 and the road happens to go via Fort Sumner, and because it’s the only ‘attraction’ for miles around, it sort of draws you in. But it’s easy to forget everything, including your own name, when you’re on the road like this).
Billy The Kid, otherwise known as William H. Bonney (or William Henry McCarty Jr, or William Antrim – he went by many names) supposedly killed 21 men – one for each year of his life (it isn’t known exactly when he was born but he died in 1881 and it’s thought that he had been 21). It’s generally acknowledged today that the stories that are told about him are mostly myth, and in fact the truth is far less interesting, and he probably killed about 8 men. He lived in the New Mexico territory in the old American West, resembled a scarecrow (if the photographs of him are anything to go by) and, like so many in the area in those days, spent a lot of his spare time shooting people in the face.
You can read a more comprehensive account of Billy the Kid’s history here. It’s a story that paints a primitive picture of a territory that was largely still unsettled in the mid 1800s and this picture marries up with any number of images from wild west films you’ve caught the end of on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon at some point during your childhood. Of dust and desert and saloons and gunfights, and it’s a universe away from the sedate, ordered world of the British Victorians, who were, at the same period in history, running out of space and building enormous, ornate out-of-town cemeteries to house their deceased (and refusing to show anyone their ankles). In the territory of New Mexico and its surrounds, space wasn’t really an issue. Everyone shot at each other and often they died, and sometimes they were brought somewhere like here – this bizarre little ramshackle cemetery in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
On the day we go, there are storm clouds all around and the heavens are threatening to open. There is nothing but dust and sky and locusts for miles – and a gift shop next to the grave site – which incidentally can only ever be billed as ‘approximate’, as a flood washed away all the tombstones shortly after The Kid’s death – which might account for the haphazard spacing of some of the tombstones there today. There are in fact two places claiming to house the grave site of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner (we are reasonably certain we have gone to the correct one, as Google points out to us that the other one has ‘replica’ written all over it in large letters, and as a result we don’t bother going to check it out) but due to this act of God from over a century ago, it’s entirely likely that the real grave is, in fact, underneath the car park next to the cemetery.
The grave site of Billy the Kid is mixed up, oddly and perhaps sadly, with the other billed ‘attraction’ of Fort Sumner – it’s right next door to the Bosque Redondo Memorial to the Navajo/Apache genocide of the mid 1800s. Being the more famous name, you get the feeling that Billy the Kid overshadows this important memorial to a terrible event in US history, and well it might have for me too, except that I am travelling with a historian who has a special interest in genocides, and so this memorial is actually the reason we are here.
Beginning in 1863, the US army forcibly removed the Apache Indians from their home in the Sacramento Mountains to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation in the territory of New Mexico (not a US state until 1912), the centre of which was Fort Sumner. Later, the Navajo people were taken from their homelands and forced to make the 450 mile journey to the reserve on foot – this is known as The Long Walk. Those that survived the Walk (several hundred died) were put to work building the camp they would live in for the next few years, and a fort for the US Army, which forced them to farm with the intention that they would become self sufficient and able to feed themselves eventually. It was a mass displacement of an entire culture and an experiment in social engineering that didn’t work. Some escaped (in fact, the 500 Apache people upped and left in the middle of the night one day in 1865 and essentially just went home), some died, and eventually the Navajo and the US Army signed a treaty that allowed the Navajo people to return home (they were initially offered an expenses paid trip to Oklahoma to see how they would like to settle there. But naturally, they just wanted to go back to their homeland).
I didn’t (and still don’t) know a whole lot about genocide, which was evident as before this trip I thought the word referred to the mass killing of a group of people, but my travel companion – the one who’s a historian, told me that this is not the case. In fact, ‘genocide’ refers to the destroying or attempted destroying of a whole race of people or a culture. Removing a people from their home and forcing them somewhere else while making them abandon their culture in favour of another way of living is just as much the destruction of that group of people as their deaths would have been. Given that several hundred of the Navajo people died here, this place is as much a cemetery as a memorial. It is very sad.
However, very bizarrely, it became twisted up in the Billy the Kid myth/legend/real thing that happened. By 1869, Fort Sumner was abandoned, and so a rancher bought it and turned part of it into a house with 20 rooms. It was here that Sheriff Pat Garrett supposedly shot and killed the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid in 1881. Today, among the memorials and plaques dedicated to the Navajo people, and the remains and foundations of the old fort buildings that stood here, there’s a lonely stone on the ground in the desert that refers to something entirely different. And it looks like this:
And so here this particular story ends – with me standing among alarmingly large bugs in nearly open desert in 90 degree heat, watching dark clouds roll in off the horizon and looking at a stone on the floor telling me that one of the greatest legends of the Wild Wild West breathed his last right here. A red ant crawls across my shoe. It is the size of an apple. I am a long way from Brompton right now. Sheldon would hate it here.
Want to learn more about the historical events mentioned in this post?