I drive through Fort Sumner, New Mexico four or five times a year on my way to Colorado and I always enjoy the visit. Fort Sumner is a small town with a big history, though some of its history is heartbreaking. Fort Sumner was the destination of the long walks led by Colonel "Kit" Carson in 1864 when approximately 9000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache were "relocated" to the Bosque Redondo Reservation. Over 200 Navajo died during the 300 mile walks and an additional 1/3 of the prisoners died in captivity.
Fort Sumner was also the home of Lucien Maxwell, who at one time was the largest private land owner in the world with 1,714,765 acres in New Mexico and Colorado. Lucien had a son named Peter, and "Pete" Maxwell was a close friend of the Regulator and outlaw, William Henry McCarty, or Billy the Kid.
In 1881, Billy the Kid showed up on Maxwell’s ranch seeking refuge after escaping from jail. Although there are some historians who dispute this, it is widely believed that Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked Billy the Kid to the Maxwell property and shot him in Maxwell’s home.
Billy the Kid’s grave is in Fort Sumner, along with an extensive collection of memorabilia in the Billy the Kid Museum. However, there is one piece of memorabilia that is not in the Billy the Kid Museum--the only authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid. According to Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction, the tintype of Billy the Kid will be sold at auction on June 25, 2011 in the Denver Merchandise Mart at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old West Show & Auction. According to information on Brian Lebel's Old West Show & Auction website, the photograph is expected to sell for somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000.
Brian Lebel's website also has an extensive history of the photograph along with a statement by historian and collector Bob McCubbin. McCubbin explains why he believes the tintype is authentic, but he also explains why he believes the photograph is of Billy the Kid. McCubbin points out that Pat Garrett included the image in the book he authored, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, and Charley Siringo used the same image of Billy the Kid in his book, A Texas Cowboy. Garret and Siringo were both well-enough acquainted with Billy the Kid to be able to positively identify him in a photograph.
Billy the Kid has been immortalized in many books and films over the years. Some presented him in a favorable way, and others showed him in a more negative light. In December of 1880, Billy the Kid told a Las Vegas Gazette Reporter: “I don’t blame you for writing of me as you have. You had to believe other stories, but then I don’t know if any one would believe anything good of me anyway.”