The West of Billy the Kid

The West of Billy the Kid

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by Frederick Nolan

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In The West of Billy the Kid, renowned authority Frederick Nolan has assembled a comprehensive photo gallery of the life and times of Billy the Kid. In text and in more than 250 images-many of them published here for the first time-Nolan recreates the life Billy lived and the places and people he knew. This unique assemblage is complemented by maps and a full


In The West of Billy the Kid, renowned authority Frederick Nolan has assembled a comprehensive photo gallery of the life and times of Billy the Kid. In text and in more than 250 images-many of them published here for the first time-Nolan recreates the life Billy lived and the places and people he knew. This unique assemblage is complemented by maps and a full biography that incorporates Nolan’s original research, adding fresh depth and detail to the Kid’s story and to the lives and backgrounds of those who witnessed the events of his life and death.

Here are the faces of Billy’s family, friends, and enemies: John Tunstall and John Chisum, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Governor Lew Wallace, Jimmy Dolan and Bob Olinger, Alexander McSween and Paulita Maxwell, and many others. Here are Santa Fe and Silver City as Billy the Kid saw them, Lincoln, Las Vegas, and Tascosa. Recent photographs show the Kid’s haunts as they appear today.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The outlaws of the Wild West have an enduring fascination, and Billy the Kid remains one of the most prominent in popular, literary, and cinematic imagination. His name has represented everything from a psychopathic adolescent killer to a romantic Robin Hood. Nolan is a competent professional writer who has researched Billy the Kid and his world for many years. Author of the well-received Lincoln County War (LJ 1/92), which treats the range war in which Billy was killed, Nolan paints an intriguing picture of a bright young boy largely left to find his own way in a difficult and often violent environment. Neither romanticizing nor debunking, Nolan gives an evenhanded account of the Kid and his times in a readable, nicely illustrated book. This book is a worthy addition not only to regional collections but to more general biography and U.S. history collections.--Charles V. Cowling, Drake Memorial Lib., Brockport, NY

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University of Oklahoma Press
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The West of Billy the Kid

By Frederick Nolan


Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4887-8


The Kid from Nowhere

FEW AMERICAN LIVES HAVE MORE SUCCESSFULLY resisted research than that of Billy the Kid. It is almost as if he decided at birth to leave behind as little documentary trace as he could of his entry into, and passage through, the world. Thus, in spite of a century of effort by a legion of researchers to document his early life, little more is known about him now than was current at the time of his death at Fort Sumner in 1881.

Reduced to essentials, the sum of our certain knowledge about the origins of Billy the Kid is this: at the time of her second(?) marriage his mother's name (but not necessarily her maiden name) was Catherine McCarty. After spending something like a year as close friend and neighbor of William Henry Harrison Antrim in Wichita, Kansas, she married him at Santa Fe on March 1, 1873, and among the witnesses to that ceremony were her sons Henry and Joseph M. "Josie" McCarty. The family relocated in Silver City, where Catherine McCarty, said to have been Irish or of Irish descent (although, since she married Antrim in a Presbyterian church, she could as easily have been Scots-Irish), and believed to have been forty-five years old, died in 1874.

And that is all. We do not know where Catherine McCarty was born or whence she came. We do not know the name of the man who fathered her sons or even if the same man was father to both. We do not know for certain the year of birth of either son, the places of their birth, which of them was the older, or even their full names.

Out of the gazetteer of locations which have been advanced as Billy the Kid's birthplace in a thousand books about him, three main contenders have emerged: New York, Missouri, and Indiana, with New York, until comparatively recent times, the clear favorite. The reason is simple: his first biographer—Pat Garrett's ghostwriter Marshall Ashmun Upson—and a great many people who claimed to have known the Kid (but who in all likelihood assimilated their "knowledge" from the same newspapers and dime novels as did Upson) said he was born in New York.

Adding minimal weight to this proposition is the fact that in his pension applications William H. Antrim stated that Catherine McCarty's first husband, and therefore theoretically the father of Henry McCarty, had died in New York City. This evidence might carry more conviction were it not for the demonstrable fact that Antrim's memory of his wife and his stepsons was considerably short of perfect.

If the records are to be trusted, however, the Kid neither was born in nor ever lived in New York, city or state, nor did his father die there. Meticulous line-by-line examination of 1860 census records for the fifty-nine counties of New York state has produced no family configuration of a father, mother, and two sons named McCarty matching or even resembling the one sought. An 1860 Manhattan census showing a Patrick, thirty; Catherine, twenty-nine; Bridget, seven; and Henry McCarthy, the latter just one year old, has tempted many to accept it as the genuine article. Quite apart from the misspelled surname, however, it requires us to accept wishful thinking: because Henry is one year old, and therefore fits the entirely unproven proposition that he was born in 1859, everything else must be correct. But if it is, what happened to Bridget? Why is Catherine's age given incorrectly? And what happened to the father? Careful search of available New York records for an appropriate McCarty death—either a Bridget or a Patrick—between 1860 and 1867 has produced not a single possible candidate.

In the 1950s a self-styled "descendant," Lois Telfer proposed a different solution. She said the Kid's real name was Bonney, not McCarty, and that his father was one of the twin sons of Barnabas Bonney of Lyons, Wayne County, New York. Barnabas, born in Columbia County, New York, married Kezia Park, born at Lyons in 1794, and their twin sons Orris and William were born there, Telfer contended, on July 5, 1826. Since records at Lyons go back only as far as 1880, there is no way of establishing the validity of her proposition or confirming her claim that the Kid, William Bonney's son, was born in Brooklyn.

Could it then have been in Missouri that Henry McCarty was born? After all, we apparently have it on no less an authority than the Kid himself that this was so. Between June 17 and 19, 1880, Lorenzo Labadie, former Indian agent and former sheriff of San Miguel County, enumerated the census at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In it he listed William Bonny, twenty-five, working in cattle, born in Missouri, as were both his parents.

In a comprehensive search of the 1860 census for Missouri, applying the same criteria as those used in New York, a total of 148 McCarty households was checked, including two headed by a Catharine, one by a Catherine, twelve by a William (including two named William H.), and seven by a Patrick. Not one of them even remotely matched the desired configuration. Neither was any family with the correct sequence of names located in the city of St. Louis, which was separately enumerated. Ergo, on this evidence Billy the Kid was not born in Missouri.

Last came Indiana, in many ways a more logical birthplace for the Kid, since it appears to have been in Indianapolis or its environs that William H. Antrim, the Kid's stepfather-to-be, first met Catherine McCarty, and since it was probably from that state that she emigrated first to Wichita, Kansas, and from there to New Mexico. Once the criteria previously applied are again employed, however, the proposition begins to evaporate. As with New York and Missouri, and despite the presence of a substantial number of McCarty entries, the Indiana state census for 1860 (about 40 percent of which is so badly faded that the entries are virtually illegible) appears to contain no family grouping with the appropriate details—a paterfamilias McCarty with a wife Catherine and sons Joseph and Henry or William Henry.

To be sure, there were McCartys in southeastern Indiana as far back as the 1830s, and in Warren, Owen, and Spencer Counties in the '60s. There was a Joseph McCarty in Cass County who had two sons, Joseph and Henry. There is a record of the marriage of a William H. McCarty to a Catherine Clark in Harrison County on November 18, 1858, which some Kid researchers believe might be the appropriate one. In the 1860 census there is a William H. McCarthy from Kentucky living with a group of McCartys we may presume to be his wife (Sophia, aged fifty-seven, from Pennsylvania) and their children. One of these is also a William H., aged twenty-four, born in Indiana, and about the right age to have been Billy the Kid's father, but he has no wife and does not appear in the 1870 census.

He could of course have been married soon after the census was taken to a Catherine who would have been about twenty and who had two sons—one named for his father and born in 1861 and a second, Joseph, born two years later. (And as we shall see, 1863 may well have been Joe Antrim's year of birth, and on at least one occasion he appears to have given Indiana as his birthplace.) This husband then died and the widow moved on. But once again, the proposition is impossible to document. So in Indiana, as in New York and Missouri, the records thus far examined yield nothing but another series of negatives.

To sum up: despite exhaustive search, no McCarty family entry convincingly close enough to the parameters deemed appropriate exists in the 1860 state census records of New York, Missouri, or Indiana. Not a single one. Until and unless someone is determined enough—or insane enough—to undertake the Sisyphean task of individually following through on every single one of those entries to establish whether any of the hundreds of McCarty families enumerated—not to mention those named Bonney—expanded after 1860 to include sons named Henry and Joseph, the riddle will remain stubbornly unsolved.

To the findings so far adduced can be added a further, and probably equally unanswerable, conundrum concerning Henry and Joseph McCarty Antrim. At the time of the Kid's death, not just one but several newspapers referred to Joe as his half-brother. If this were true, it might explain all the anomalies and gaps in the timetable. We might then have Mrs. McCarty, widow of Michael, who had previously been married to a (shall we say) Mr. Bonney, who was Billy's father. Bonney, Sr., died (say, in New York, for want of better information), and his widow married a man named McCarty, with whom she went to Indiana or whom she met there; he was Joe's father, but not Billy's. McCarty died sometime before 1867 (let us say in Indianapolis, for want of better information), whereupon Mrs. McCarty, widow, starts to appear in Indiana directories. This theory (which of course is all it is) would accommodate Billy's being the older brother and explain why later on, looking for a new alias, the Kid reverted to the most natural one of all.

This is not a proposition to be summarily dismissed. Some of the earlier folklore about the Kid—propagated widely (but not solely) by the Upson-Garrett Authentic Life —suggested that the Bonney family, consisting of father William Bonney, Sr., his wife Katherine, and two sons William and Edward, left New York early in the summer of 1862 and headed west. After the father's death in Coffeyville, Kansas, the widow and her sons went in a wagon train to Pueblo, Colorado, and continued from there to Santa Fe andfinally to Silver City. The possibility that William Bonney, Sr., died at Coffeyville was dismissed as fantasy because that town was not incorporated by its few white inhabitants until 1871.

Yet there was an earlier settlement on that spot called Possum Town, which at one time had its own cemetery, long since recycled. At Liberty, a few miles north, not only are there records of Bonneys but even a William (born 1859) and a Catherine McCarty, 1821–89; and in an item in the Wichita Eagle, August 25, 1935, old-time newspaperman and historian D. D. Leahy, writing about early Wichitans, noted, "They were not a paper collar crowd, but wore fine linen, laundered by such experts as Mrs. McCarty, the former Mrs. Bonney, mother of the subsequently notorious Billy the Kid, on North Market Street."

All this, of course, can as easily—and probably does—mean nothing.

Suffice it to say no more at this juncture than that, after having carefully and comprehensively examined the 1860 censuses for the states of New York, Missouri, and Indiana, one comes hesitantly to the conclusion that perhaps the simple, logical, obvious reason no one has ever been able to find legitimate documentation of the birth of Henry McCarty in these records is because he was not born when they were compiled.

The more the existing data—it is hardly evidence—is examined, the more everything about it suggests that Billy the Kid was probably younger than even Ash Upson made him. The recollections of more than a few Silver City residents who knew Henry McCarty Antrim when he lived there remembered him as being about twelve in 1874, while both Frank and George Coe said on different occasions that at the time of the Blazer's Mill fight the Kid was about seventeen, suggesting he might have been born anytime between 1861 and 1863. That would suggest Joe was the younger brother but in turn poses another problem: the unlikely proposition that Catherine McCarty, characterized as "a jolly Irish lady, full of fun," bore no children until she was nearly thirty. In that era, and in her milieu, this seems at very best highly improbable—which brings us full circle.

It might be pertinent to ask why any of this matters. It might be relevant to propose that even if we knew now exactly where Billy the Kid was born and raised, or indeed, his complete genealogy, it would not add a scintilla to our understanding of him. Yet doubtless the search will go on, and perhaps one day someone will find the answers.

For the moment, however, the intensive four-year search for clues to the origins of Billy the Kid concludes more or less where it began, in the series of dead ends set forth above. It has established nothing and changed nothing; it never seemed remotely likely that it would. Instead, the story moves on to 1869, the first point in the life of Henry McCarty for which at least minimal documentation can be found: his brief sojourn in Wichita, Kansas.



THE YEAR IS 1870. The population of the United States is 39,818,449, and the center of population is forty-eight miles east by north of Cincinnati, Ohio. During this year the states of Virginia, Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi will be readmitted to representation in Congress. John D. Rockefeller and his brother William will organize the Standard Oil Company. A cartoon donkey will become the symbol of the Democratic Party, roller skating the latest national craze. The boardwalk at Atlantic City will be completed. And America's best-loved soldier, General Robert E. Lee, will die.

As the year dawns, the strands that will intertwine to bind Catherine McCarty and her sons Henry and Joseph forever into the history of their era are still unconnected; in New Mexico the borders of the recently established Lincoln County have only just been laid out; the young English businessman John Tunstall has not yet left his London home; minister Alexander McSween has not yet abandoned his calling to enroll in law school at St. Louis; Fort Stanton post trader Lawrence G. Murphy has not yet collided irrevocably with the U.S. government; his clerk Jimmy Dolan is but a year out of the service.

Dick Brewer, a nineteen-year-old Wisconsin emigrant with an unhappy love affair behind him, is working for farmer John Schooler and his wife Mary in Mason Township, Jasper County, near Carthage, Missouri. Unassigned Major Nathan August Monroe Dudley, "North American" to his friends, is kicking his heels in Huntsville, Texas, where he has just been appointed military superintendent of prisons. Statesman Lew Wallace is in Mexico, Robert Widenmann in Michigan, attorney Montague Leverson in New York. Cadet Millard F. Goodwin is at West Point. Journalist Ash Upson is in Santa Fe. Jim Greathouse is peddling whiskey to Indians in Texas, Dr. Taylor Ealy is attending a Pennsylvania seminary, student Huston Chapman is attending the Portland Academy in Oregon, Warren Bristol is a Minnesota legislator, Frank Warner Angel is a Wall Street lawyer. And Henry McCarty is a schoolboy. But where?

As we have seen, there are reasonable grounds—although they are scarcely proof—for accepting that Catherine McCarty met William H. Antrim in Indianapolis sometime toward the end of the Civil War. How they met, what the affinity was between twenty-three-year-old Billy and thirty-five-year-old Catherine we shall never know. Antrim left no written account of how his association with her began or anything about her background before he knew her. Indeed, family members recalled in later years that whenever the subject of Catherine arose, he would become uncomfortable and change the subject as soon as possible. Perhaps with reason: there are some strange anomalies about her life.

Be that as it may, by the summer of 1870, Mrs. McCarty had become well enough acquainted with William H. Antrim to accompany him—or have him follow her—to Kansas.

On April 10, 1869, less than a month after the inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant, it was decided to make the Osage Indian Trust Land along the Kansas-Indian Territory borders available for settlement as of October 22, 1870. When news of this easily obtainable free land reached Indianapolis, William Antrim decided to make the seven-hundred-mile journey west to the Kansas frontier and try his hand at homesteading. He arrived in the early summer.

There are indications that he first spent some time in Allen County, so it may have been there he heard boomers for the new city that was to be built near the junction of the Little and Big Arkansas Rivers. Platted on March 25, 1870, by William Greiffenstein (town builders had anticipated the opening of the land for settlement and moved in early to file on and near the area), it was to be a substantial sixteen-block center set on an eighty-acre agglomeration, its main street ninety feet wide and all others seventy. It would be called Wichita.


Excerpted from The West of Billy the Kid by Frederick Nolan. Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frederick Nolan is a leading authority on outlaws and gunfighters of the Old West. His award-winning books include The West of Billy the Kid; The Wild West: History, Myth, and the Making of America; and The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History. He resides in England.

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West of Billy the Kid 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, cover to cover, was GREAT. I wanted to find out more information about the man they called Billy The Kid and this was the perfect book. This book has great pictures of people and the settings in the west around Billy's life. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about 'The Kid'