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Borderlands: Pat Garrett Enjoyed Controversy 20 (2001-2002)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Pat Garrett Enjoyed Controversy

Article first published in Vol. 20 (2001-2002)

By Antonio Perez, Angel Villalobos and Jeremiah J. Miranda

""He was a gambler and a drunk, and he was downright mean and stubborn at times. He is best remembered for killing the infamous Billy the Kid. But Pat Garrett also had a history in the El Paso area that many people are unaware of.

One of six children, Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett was born in Chambers County, Alabama, on June 5, 1850 to John Lumpkin Garrett and Elizabeth Ann Jarvis. The Garretts moved their family to Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, in 1853. There they ran a 3,000-acre plantation, complete with slaves. Garrett's parents died within a year of each other, and the family lost the estate.

Pat Garrett left Louisiana at 18, becoming a cowpuncher and buffalo hunter in the Texas panhandle. In 1877, he killed his friend John Briscoe in a fight during which Briscoe had chased Garrett with an axe. Garrett turned himself into the law and was found innocent on the grounds of self-defense. Garrett had begun a life of violence and controversy.

Image caption: Portrait of Sheriff Pat Garrett, famous for killing Billy the Kid. Photo courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society

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In 1878, Garrett arrived in Ft. Sumner, a small settlement located east of Albuquerque on the Pecos River. He began working cattle for Pete Maxwell, and he met a young man who went by the name of William H. Bonney, later known as Billy the Kid. It is evident that the two were friends, but how close has not been determined. Some say that Billy the Kid was the closest friend Garrett had at that time.

Billy the Kid and his gang went on to become the most feared outlaws in the Southwest. The Lincoln County War was a struggle for political and financial control of the county, and Billy the Kid became the focus of this feud. On April 1, 1878, he murdered Sheriff William Brady.

In a biography on Garrett, Leon Metz writes Billy and his friends struck terror in the hearts of lawmen all over the state. The fear of being murdered prevented them from pursuing the Kid. Lincoln was now "a wild and bloody land," in need of a man to put an end to the lawlessness. That man would be Patrick Garrett.

In 1880, with the election for county sheriff coming up, Garrett was called upon to run for office. Two men from Roswell, New Mexico, cattle king John Chisum and Captain Joseph C. Lea, convinced him to make his home in Roswell in time to run for office. Garrett won the election on November 2, 1880. Sheriff Pat Garrett was well on his way to tracking down Billy the Kid.

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" "After Garrett found and killed Billy's buddies, Charles Bowdre and Tom O'Folliard, he captured the Kid and brought him to trial in Mesilla, New Mexico, on the charge of first-degree murder. Months later, Billy the Kid escaped from jail. Garrett knew exactly how to track him down. He used Maxwell, the man who hired him for his first job, to arrange a meeting with Billy. On July 14, 1881, the Kid arrived at Maxwell's and opened the door only to be faced with a dark room. Pat Garrett fired twice, killing Billy almost instantly.

Pat Garrett became known throughout the country as the lawman who finally stopped the notorious Billy the Kid. But critics denounced Garrett for not meeting the Kid face to face. The publicity may have made him famous, but he still was not a popular man. With a fondness for gambling and alcohol, Garrett had a temper and was often sarcastic. In any case, he did not serve as sheriff of Lincoln County again.

Image caption:  Exterior of Mesilla building that was the jail that housed Billy the Kid.  It is now a gift shop.  photo by Adam Demmons

In 1896, Governor William T. Thornton asked him to be the sheriff of Doña Ana County through the urging of Pinkerton detective J.C. Fraser. The abduction and deaths of New Mexico politician and lawyer Albert J. Fountain and his son Henry were the motives in hiring Garrett. However, the Fountain murder case remains unsolved today. Garrett's day-to-day existence as sheriff proved to be dangerous and physically exhausting, and the compensation was meager. He decided not to run for re-election.

When the job of customs collector of El Paso opened up in 1901, Garrett sought the favor of President Roosevelt. Aware of Garrett's feats as Sheriff of Lincoln County, Roosevelt was duly impressed with the lawman. Word leaked out that the President wanted to nominate Pat Garrett for the job, and immediately telegrams poured into the White House opposing the nomination because of his reputation as a "killer" and otherwise unbecoming behavior such as drinking and gambling.

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Roosevelt drew up a declaration which Garrett signed that he would "abstain from the use of intoxicating liquors" during his term in office. At Senate hearings, Garrett swore that he didn't know the difference between a straight flush and four of a kind. Metz writes that two months later, Garrett was guest of honor at a luncheon where the host joked about the President's worry about Garrett's gambling reputation: "Everybody in El Paso knows that Pat Garrett isn't a poker player. He only thinks he's a poker player."

Metz writes that most of the opposition to Garrett was basic political wrangling, and regardless of the protests, President Roosevelt sent his nomination to the Senate where it was approved on January 6, 1902, and Garrett became customs collector of El Paso.

Once in office, Garrett began creating problems for himself. He did not let specialists do their jobs of inspecting cattle coming from Mexico because he took pride in doing it himself. In one dispute with J. D. Campbell of the Corralitos ranch in Casas Grandes, Garrett judged that more than half of 3,132 head of cattle being brought over were over one year old. Campbell claimed that all of them were calves. The difference meant a great deal of money in taxes. Campbell appealed to the Board of Appraisers in New York which agreed to a "fair average estimate." While Campbell was not entirely happy with the decision, it was in his favor. Garrett took the loss personally and appealed. His case went as far as the U.S. Circuit Court where it was dismissed.

The Corralitos case was only one of many. Letters of complaint were sent to Garrett's boss, Secretary of Treasury, Leslie M. Shaw, most of which claimed Garrett was discourteous and impolite. On May 8, 1903, to make matters worse, Garrett got in a fistfight on San Antonio Street with George M. Gaither, a man he agreed to employ as appraiser. Then the last straw came in 1905.

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At a Roughriders' reunion in San Antonio, Garrett took his gambling, saloon-owning friend Tom Powers to meet Roosevelt, introducing him as a "cattleman." Garrett and Powers had their picture taken with the president, and the photo was leaked to the press, where Powers' reputation as a gambler was revealed.

Angry that he had been deceived, Roosevelt refused to see Garrett or Powers and denied that the picture had anything to do with his decision not to reappoint Garrett to the customs post. Garrett refused to end his friendship with Powers and so lost the political appointment. Pat and his wife, Apolinaira, and their nine children returned to their ranch in the San Andres Mountains.

Not having enough money for his mortgage, he leased his ranch to Wayne Brazel. Garrett told Brazel only to stock horses and cattle but discovered that Brazel was herding goats and sheep, animals that could ruin the cattle pasture. Garrett decided he had to get Brazel off his property. John Miller and his brother-in-law, Carl Adamson, agreed to lease the ranch. Pat Garrett knew these men were notorious outlaws, but he did not care. Brazel made an agreement with Garrett that he'd leave if Miller and Adamson would buy his sheep.

On February 28, Brazel, Garrett, Miller and Adamson agreed to meet at Garrett's ranch to negotiate terms of the agreement. Adamson rode up with Garrett in his buggy to meet Brazel and Miller. When they arrived, Garrett started arguing with Brazel. Stopping to urinate, Garrett walked to the back of the buggy, turning his back on Brazel and Adamson. Two shots rang out, one striking Garrett in the head and another hitting him in the stomach once he had fallen down.

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Brazel turned himself in, confessing to the slaying, but later he and Adamson changed their story to self-defense. Many people believe it was Miller who actually killed Garrett from a strategic position in the brush. Brazel was later found innocent. Garrett was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Although western legend knows him only as the man who finally killed Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett emerges as a complex character. Although he seemed to have loved the public eye, he refused to compromise when his own actions threatened his career. He killed both friend and foe. He was both gunslinger and lawman. He hated dishonesty but lied about his own drinking and gambling. In the end, Garrett died as he had lived: by the gun.


tags: biography


Pat Garrett Sources

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