Billy & Jesse

What would be the state of New Mexico today without Billy the Kid, the forever young outlaw who died there at about age 21 in 1881? I asked myself that question the other day while perusing our December 2021 lineup, which includes Bill Markley’s cover story comparing the Kid and Jesse James, the two best-known outlaws of the Wild West. No New Mexico desperado comes close to matching Billy’s notoriety, though the likes of John Kinney, Jesse Evans, “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh, Clay Allison and two “Black Jacks” (Christian and Ketchum) operated for a while in the “Land of Enchantment.” James became a nationwide legend in his lifetime but made his biggest mark in his native Missouri, which had enough lawbreakers (brother Frank, the Younger brothers, Belle Starr and “Bloody Bill” Anderson come to mind) in the 19th century to be labeled the “Outlaw State.”

New Mexicans from Santa Fe to Mesilla recall the Kid—sometimes fondly, often not. Santa Fe—where Billy’s widowed mother remarried in 1873, and where Billy later did time in jail—is probably the place people think of first when New Mexico is mentioned, especially this year amid events commemorating the bicentennial of the Santa Fe Trail (see the October 2021 Wild West). Other towns sharing the limelight include the state’s largest, Albuquerque; one of the prettiest, Taos; the happiest (at least according to a 2018 survey), Las Cruces; the “alien/UFO city,” Roswell; the “Cavern City” or “Pearl on the Pecos,” Carlsbad; and the oil-rich heart of eastern New Mexico (aka “Little Texas”), Hobbs. Billy has personal associations with, among other locales, Silver City (school days), Lincoln (ground zero of the Lincoln County War) and Fort Sumner (site of his death). As one who has spent time in all those places, I must say New Mexico needs tourist-friendly Kid locations and the irrepressible Billy himself, both to ensure its national identity and persuade people the state is no longer part of Mexico (remember the 1846–48 Mexican War and 1854 Gadsden Purchase).

The same bias (a love for New Mexico) that leads me to favor the Santa Fe Trail over the Oregon Trail (and all others) also accounts for me favoring Billy the Kid over Jesse James when sizing up outlaws. To help you make your own comparison between the two bad boys, see Markley’s article “Billy & Jesse” in the December 2021 issue. The Kid’s family soon moved from Santa Fe to Silver City, but after the Lincoln County War and his December 1880 capture by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Stinking Springs, Billy was back in Santa Fe—in irons. During his three-month stay in the capital city Billy sent Territorial Governor Lew Wallace four letters in which he sought clemency, but Wallace refused to intervene. So, Billy went to trial in Mesilla in April 1881. Convicted of murder, he would avoid the hangman’s noose with a bloody escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse, only to be gunned down by Garrett at Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881. Meanwhile, Jesse James was still doing his thing in Missouri (although his robberies were by no means confined to his home state), but not for much longer. On April 3, 1882, in the James family home in St. Joseph, Mo., gang member Bob Ford fired a fatal round into the back of Jesse’s head. Markley points out one of the biggest differences between the two outlaws: “Billy became a small-time cattle rustler and horse thief, while Jesse, brother Frank and gang robbed banks in broad daylight and held up trains—the most powerful machines of the age.” One thing they had in common was their loyalty to friends.

James has strong connections to states outside Missouri, including Minnesota (site of the botched Northfield Raid), Iowa (where the gang robbed a bank and a train) and Tennessee (he lived in the Nashville area for a time). His connection with New Mexico Territory, though, is slight. As Markley mentions in his article, James may have met Billy the Kid in July 1879 at the hot springs northwest of Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. A tall tale? Perhaps. But it’s nice to think Jesse had a hankering to head to the Southwest for a taste of green chile. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s latest historical novel is Man From Montana (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. This article was published in the December 2021 issue of Wild West.