January 25

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 25, 1869:

Pat Garrett leaves Louisiana

Pat Garrett, both celebrated and despised as the man who killed Billy the Kid, abandons a life of luxury in Louisiana and heads west.

Born into a wealthy southern farming family in 1850, Patrick Floyd Garrett grew up in a world of privilege on a large Louisiana plantation. When his parents died after the Civil War, a bitter estate feud erupted among the children, and Garrett received almost nothing. Like many other rootless post-war Southerners, Garrett decided to try his luck in the promised land of the West, and in 1869, he left Louisiana for Texas, where he worked for several years as a cowboy and buffalo hunter.

After 10 years of drifting around Texas, in 1879 Garrett finally settled in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he won election as sheriff the following year. A new sheriff could hardly have faced a more difficult time to try keeping the peace. Lincoln County was in the final days of a war between two powerful groups of ranchers and businessmen, both of which had hired former cowboys to become illegal soldiers and assassins. Although the war itself was winding down, some of these hired gunmen continued their crime sprees, including a young killer named Billy the Kid, who became Garrett's public enemy number one.

Following a failed attempt to ambush the Kid near Fort Sumner in December 1880, Garrett tracked him to a stone cabin near Stinking Springs, New Mexico, where he finally arrested the young gunslinger. A Lincoln County jury quickly found the Kid guilty of murder and sentenced him to hang, but while Garrett was out of town on April 28, 1881, Billy the Kid managed to kill two of his guards and escape.

Garrett renewed the manhunt, and learned that the Kid was still foolishly hanging around Fort Sumner in order to be near his girlfriend. On the night of July 14, Garrett unexpectedly encountered the Kid in a darkened room and shot him dead without warning. When news of Billy the Kid's death came out, some attacked Garrett for having violated the informal "code of the West," arguing the sheriff should have given the Kid a fair chance to defend himself. Garrett responded that he had merely done what was necessary to bring a vicious killer to justice, later writing, "I, at no time, contemplated taking any chances [with Billy the Kid] which I could avoid with caution or cunning."

With Billy the Kid dead and the war all but over, Garrett turned to quieter pursuits. His 1882 ghost-written book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, was not very authentic but it won Garrett enduring fame and cemented Billy the Kid's place in the pantheon of legendary western gunslingers. After several more stints as a sheriff and an unsuccessful attempt at horse ranching, Garret was shot to death by a disgruntled business associate in 1908.

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