Download a walking map of Old Mesilla here:
Doña Ana County: Not Kid Friendly
by Lori Goodloe
(first published in the 2014 Outlaw Gazette)
At least twice in his life Billy found himself in Doña Ana if only for a short time: first as a horse thief and once again a few years later as a prisoner.
After he killed his first man in Camp Grant, Arizona—a bullying blacksmith named Frank Cahill—Billy (going by the name “Kid Antrim”) appeared in Doña Ana as one of “The Boys”. Led by Jesse Evans, the Boys were the worst kind of gang. Not only thieves, but cold-blooded murderers as well, the Boys terrorized the area and few were willing to stop them.
The man who finally did stand up to them was a newspaperman and former district attorney in Mesilla: Col. Albert Jennings Fountain. Fountain used his paper, The Mesilla Valley Independent to call out the Boys. Evans and his right-hand man, Frank Baker, took umbrage with Fountain and threatened to kill him on sight. Fountain refused to back down and arrest warrants were issued against several of the Boys. But since the sheriff was reluctant to confront the gang (possibly because the men numbered about thirty at any given time or perhaps because he was friendly with the Boys), he took his time only to find the Boys had left the Mesilla Valley and relocated to Lincoln County. Soon after, the Boys, along with Billy, regrouped and stole horses belonging to John Tunstall, Alexander McSween, and Dick Brewer—an act that would seal Billy’s fate forever.
In the aftermath of the Lincoln County War it’s possible Billy came through Doña Ana now and again as he dodged the law. We know for sure he returned in shackles in March of 1881 to be tried for the murders of Buckshot Roberts and Sheriff William Brady. Although the murders were committed in Lincoln County, the powers that be knew that Billy had far too many friends in Lincoln and the odds were good he would be found “not guilty”. Doña Ana County, on the other hand, was chock-full of Billy’s enemies. District Attorney William Rynerson, a close friend of Jimmy Dolan, successfully won a change of venue to Doña Ana and the presiding judge, Warren Bristol, told the jury, “If [Billy] was present—encouraging—inciting—aiding in—abetting—advising or commanding this killing of Brady he is as much guilty as though he fired the fatal shot.” Billy’s lawyer for the Brady case was Col. Fountain and, although he was no friend of Dolan, he was appointed to the case without much, if any, knowledge of Billy or the Lincoln County War. Still, in Billy’s own words, Fountain did his best but the jury came back with a verdict of “guilty”; without money they couldn’t appeal the conviction. Billy was taken back to Lincoln to await hanging; he never stood a chance in Doña Ana County.
Once dwarfing its neighbor of Las Cruces, La Mesilla was a large community and a stop on the Butterfield Overland mail route. But when the Santa Fe Railroad was routed through Las Cruces instead of Mesilla, the county seat was moved and Mesilla became the quiet suburb while Las Cruces exploded. Today Mesilla still retains the charm it had over a hundred years ago. Many of the buildings that were there during Billy’s time still exist and can be found in and around the Mesilla Plaza.
Billy the Kid Gift Shop (Former Courthouse)
It’s believed that early in Mesilla’s history, this building housed the state capital when the town was the capital of the Arizona and New Mexico Territories. It’s also rumored that the men responsible for the Gadsden Purchase met here to work out the details. By 1880 the building was used as a courthouse and jail and it’s here that Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff William Brady.
Directly adjacent to the present-day gift shop is the former jail where the Kid was held. As of this writing, the space is vacant and boarded up but on the opposite side of the building is the alley where Billy would have disembarked from the wagon and entered the jail.
Constructed in the 1840s the La Posta Compound was used first by Sam and Roy Bean as a freight and passenger service line to Piños Altos. After the Civil War, it became an important stop on the famed Butterfield Stagecoach line. Eventually, throughout the 1870s and 1880s, it was known as the Corn Exchange Hotel—one of the finest hotels in the Southwest. As a hotel it also housed a restaurant, but the present-day restaurant was started in 1939 by Katy Griggs Camunez and is still owned and operated by her family.
There’s some sketchy evidence that Billy may have stayed at the Corn Exchange Hotel on March 16, 1876, which would have been between the time he escaped from Silver City and killed Cahill in Camp Grant. Someone with handwriting similar to Billy’s signed the register “William Bonney”. There’s no evidence that Billy had started using this alias yet since he was known as “Antrim” in Camp Grant but little is known about his time between Silver City and Arizona. It’s entirely possible that he was there just as it’s possible that it’s a coincidence or prank. (For more information take a look at a David G. Thomas’ book entitled La Posta: From the Founding of Mesilla, to Corn Exchange Hotel, to Billy the Kid Museum, to Famous Landmark.)
Gadsden Purchase Museum
Still owned by the Fountain family, this museum was once the home of Col. Fountain’s son and is dedicated to the colonel, the Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the local area. Behind the museum is a replica of Billy the Kid’s jail cell, which was created with the actual bars that once held Billy.
Built in 1905, by Albert Fountain, son of Col. Albert Fountain, this theater is the oldest movie house in New Mexico where both films and vaudeville performances were held and it’s still in operation today.
When Don Juan de Oñate trekked through New Mexico, the road his party took from Mexico City to Santa Fe was named El Camino Real (the Royal Road) but the particular passage that included Las Cruces was referred to as Jornada Del Muerto or “Journey of the Dead”. And a deadly area it was. In 1787 travelers found the bodies of several caravan drivers and buried them under wooden crosses; forty-three years later Apaches massacred a party of thirty travelers and more crosses were erected in their memory. In 1846 a woman named Susan Magoffin was traveling with her husband over the Santa Fe Trail and noted the graves in her diary. It’s possible that the name El Pueblo del Jardin de Las Cruces (the City of the Garden of the Crosses) is where the city got its name; it’s also possible Las Cruces is simply named for the Spanish word for crossroads. However it got its name, settlers weren’t scared off by death or danger and Las Cruces quickly grew into a bustling city.
Fifteen years after killing the Kid, Garrett was made sheriff of Doña Ana County (investigating the disappearance of Col. Fountain and his son Henry) and in 1901 was appointed customs collector in El Paso by Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt refused to reappoint Garrett, he retired to a ranch near Organ. It was on the trail between Organ and Las Cruces where Garrett was murdered, shot in the back of the head in 1908.
Jarvis Garrett placed a marker at the site of his father’s murder, which can be visited today if you’re willing to hike through some desert. The hearse that carried Garrett to his funeral can be viewed in the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Department museum. And Garrett, his wife, and several children are buried in the Masonic cemetery in Las Cruces (his original gravesite can be found in the Catholic cemetery across the street).
About fifteen miles north of Las Cruces, outside of the little town of Radium Springs, is a rock peak in the middle of nowhere known as Outlaw Rock. Legend has it Billy, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O’Folliard, and Dave Rudabagh scratched their names in the rock face. The stories about Billy using Outlaw Rock as a hideout may be apocryphal; much like with the Corn Exchange Hotel there’s no indisputable proof that Billy was really there. But there’s no proof that he wasn’t either.
One story says that after the Kid came from Arizona, he hooked up with John Kinney, the “King of the Cattle Rustlers”, who had a ranch near Fort Selden. If this is true, it’s probably where Billy learned of Outlaw Rock. A second story says that during the time after the Lincoln County War, when Billy was rustling cattle from John Chisum, he sold the re-branded cattle to nearby Fort Selden. From their vantage point up on Outlaw Rock he and his friends were able to spy on the fort and once the soldiers were gone could steal back the cattle.
Back in the day the names “Bonney”, “Kinney” and “Bowdre” along with the initials “DR” (thought to be for Dave Rudabaugh) and “OFF” (thought to be for O’Folliard—why there were two F’s is anyone’s guess) could easily be seen on the rocks. Today it’s a different story. During the BTKOG’s Billy the Kid Days in 2013 a few of us hiked up to Outlaw Rock to find the names. After a good hour of staring we were able to locate “OF” and “BON” but they’re unfortunately fading fast. Whether it was really Billy who scratched his name in the rock or not, it would have made an excellent hideout and it’s worth a visit just to sit in the little niche, look out over the old stage road, and play outlaw for an afternoon.
Historic Walking Tour of Mesilla, NM, Varse and Siemers, 1991.
Images of America: Las Cruces, Hunner, et al, 2003
La Posta: From the Founding of Mesilla, to Corn Exchange Hotel, to Billy the Kid Museum, to Famous Landmark, David G. Thomas, 2013.
Roadside History of New Mexico, Fugate, 1989
The West of Billy the Kid, Frederick Nolan, 1998.
“Outlaw Rock”, Herman Weisner, True West, March 1982.
Download a walking map of Old Mesilla here: