The West of Billy the Kid, by Frederick Nolan, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998, $39.95.
The task facing a biographer of Billy the Kid is to strip away the myth surrounding the young and reckless man. “The real Billy, a boy growing up on a harsh frontier, had been lost beneath a mountain of stereotypes–the psychopathic killer, the gunfighter, the romantic outlaw–an infinitely malleable icon for each succeeding generation,” historian Frederick Nolan writes in the preface of The West of Billy the Kid.
But strip away he does. Nolan’s book is a comprehensive study of the Kid, his companions and his enemies, as well as the struggles, corruption and violence in New Mexico Territory before, after and during the Lincoln County War. Equally impressive is the collection of more than 210 photographs and maps, many published for the first time.
The West of Billy the Kid isn’t just a photo gallery, nor is it only a companion piece to Nolan’s The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History, also published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Nolan’s new book can stand alone, an all-encompassing, well-documented history.
Nolan tracks down Billy the Kid from his birth, although the date, the year and even the place (New York, Missouri and Indiana are what Nolan calls the “three main contenders”) are not known for sure, to his stays in Wichita, Santa Fe, Silver City, Arizona Territory, and of course Lincoln County, to his death in 1881 at the hands of Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. No Brushy Bill Roberts theories here, folks. All of the principals, as well as many of the secondary characters, of the Lincoln County War and its aftermath are featured. A few clichés sometimes get in the way of the narrative, but Nolan knows his stuff, having devoted nearly 40 years to researching the Kid and the fight in Lincoln County that put him in the national spotlight.
Johnny D. Boggs