Billy the Kid, depicted in a full-resolution restoration and colorization of his only recognized photograph, was a compadre to many Hispano residents of Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory. (Courtest Stuart Humphreys)
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The great racial divide in New Mexico Territory in the latter half of the 19th century was between Anglo newcomers and Hispanos (Southwesterners of Spanish descent). Anglos generally considered Hispanos inferior in mind, body, spirit, political thinking and social status, seldom treating them as true civil partners. Some Americans were skeptical of the Hispanos’ loyalties and thus considered New Mexico Territory a land apart, not deserving of statehood. “An unfortunate but instinctive distrust of New Mexico’s essentially foreign culture was the last and most durable brick added to the strong wall of opposition that prevented the territory from joining the Union until 1912,” wrote Robert W. Larson, author of New Mexico’s Quest for Statehood, 1846–1912. In part because Anglos migrated to New Mexico Territory in far smaller numbers than to states such as Texas and California, Hispano leaders continued to dominate territorial politics into the 20th century.

In 1870 Lincoln was a predominantly Hispano village of about 220 people living in 80-odd single-story adobe homes. But Texans were moving in, and in 1873 one of them exchanged shots with Deputy Sheriff Juan Martinez. The violence that followed sparked a race war known since as the Horrell War, pitting the namesake Texan brothers and outlaw friends against the Hispano community. The surviving “invaders” ultimately left the area, but other Anglos came to dominate Lincoln economically and politically, notably businessman Lawrence Murphy and rival Texas cattleman John Chisum. Hostilities and grudges between those two and their supporters led to the infamous Lincoln County War of 1878. The biggest name to come out of that bloody conflict was Billy the Kid. Despite the violence, Lincoln, according to the 1880 census, had 157 dwellings and 638 residents, still mostly Hispano.

Billy the Kid was an Anglo (probably born Henry McCarty in New York City in 1859), as were most of the other major figures in the Lincoln County War. Murphy and James Dolan, his partner in the criminal faction known as “the House,” were born in Ireland, competitor John Tunstall was born in England, and attorney Alexander McSween—who worked in turn for the House and then Tunstall—in Canada. But in the December 2020 issue of Wild West Australian author James B. Mills reminds us in two feature articles that Hispanos played various roles in that brutal conflict, and that Billy the Kid (then calling himself William Bonney) endeared himself to much of the Hispano population, who called him Bilito or sometimes El Chivato (“the little goat” in the Nuevoméxicano dialect of Spanish).

During a five-day siege of the McSween house, the climactic event of the Lincoln County War, Hispanos fought on both sides. “While there is no shame in being overshadowed by the legend that became Billy the Kid, they were more than merely a collective backdrop,” writes Mills. “They were men, many with families, willing to risk their lives, some paying a bloody price for have been drawn into a predominantly Anglo conflict from which they ultimately gained nothing for their participation.” José Chávez y Chávez and Yginio Salazar voluntarily took up arms and fought alongside Bilito as Regulators. Salazar remembered the Kid as the bravest man he ever knew, one who “did not know what fear meant.” He also noted that Billy “had the face of an angel, the soft voice of a woman and the mild blue eyes of a poet.” Others spoke of the Kid as being brave and loyal to his friends and kind and good to the poor. But as Mills notes, “Not all Hispanos in Lincoln County were fans of Billy and associates.” José Chávez y Baca, Manuel “Indian” Segovia and sharpshooter Lucio Montoya, for example, all took up arms for the House.

While the Lincoln County War remains one of the best-known events in Old West history, the involvement of Hispanos in that bloody conflict has been largely forgotten. Billy the Kid has a prominent place in the pantheon of legendary Wild West figures mainly because of his bloody exploits as a young, controversial Anglo outlaw. But according to Mills, he was more than that. Long after Bilito died young on July 14, 1881, Nuevoméxicanos remembered him as unos de los neustros (“one of ours”).

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s next historical novel, Man From Montana, comes out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories.