Fort Sumner Things to Do
If you’re passing through Fort Sumner and spot a sign for what looks like Billy the Kid’s grave, don’t be fooled. The one in town is a replica; to see the real thing you have to head east on Highway 84 and then south on Billy the Kid Road. Park in front of the Old Fort Sumner Museum (see next tip), but before entering this walk around the left side of it to the small cemetery behind, in which the grave lies. It is surrounded by an iron fence, after the tombstone was stolen three times since being erected here in the 1940's. William H. Bonney, to give him his real name, is buried here with two of his “pals”, Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.
Elsewhere in the cemetery is the grave of one of Billy’s victims, and also that of Lucien B. Maxwell, who bought this property (along with much of northern New Mexico) after Fort Sumner was decommissioned. It was in his son’s house, a mile away, that the shootout between Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid took place. Although there is a theory that in fact Garrett conspired with the Kid to fake the shooting, allowing him to escape to Mexico. Several other men later claimed to be Billy, though their claim was never proven. Some years ago investigators into the claims wanted to exhume the body buried here, along with that of Billy’s mother which is buried in Silver City, and do DNA testing. But the move was blocked by the mayors of Silver and Fort Sumner, so the truth may never be known.
To learn more about the life of Billy the Kid, and much else besides, you should head to the Old Fort Sumner Museum right next to the cemetery.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Confusingly for those researching a visit to Fort Sumner (or so I found it at least) there are two museums here covering very similar ground. To add to the confusion, the Billy the Kid Museum is in the town of Fort Sumner itself, while the Old Fort Sumner Museum is outside town, next to Billy the Kid’s grave site! We only visited the latter, as they sounded too similar to justify time spent at both for all but the most ardent Wild West fanatic.
The Old Fort Sumner Museum is the one closest to Billy’s final resting place (assuming the rumours mentioned above have no foundation in truth!) The front part is a shop (souvenirs, outdoor clothing etc) and you pay here to go through to the museum beyond. Admission cost us $4 (October 2011) and was worth it – not so much because the collection is great, but almost because it isn’t! This is a weird and wacky assortment, including some items relating to Billy the Kid but also many that aren’t. Among the weirdest of the latter are a stuffed two-headed calf and a display showing a multitude of different styles of barbed wire – yes, really! My third photo shows just about a quarter of the display - who ever knew (or cared) there were so many different designs of barbed wire?!
There is however an informative timeline describing the events leading up to Billy’s shooting by Pat Garrett, useful if, as we were, you are encountering him at various places on your route through New Mexico. There are also facsimiles of his surprisingly articulate letters to Governor Lew Wallace, arguing his case for clemency.
Depending on your taste for the bizarre, you could spend ages poking around in this small museum – or be in and out in a few minutes! When you have had your fill, it is time to move on to the nearby, and very different, Bosque Redondo Memorial.Related to:
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It is easy to think that Fort Sumner is all about Billy the Kid and nothing more. But while the shoot-out with Pat Garrett was obviously a black day for the Kid, it is nothing in terms of suffering when compared with the fate of thousands of Native Americans, Navajo and Mescalero Apache, who were incarcerated at the fort during the Civil War. For many years their story went untold, but this new state monument has recently been built to correct that oversight. When we visited it was still not complete, and we were almost the only people here (it was also very late in the season), so we were given a warm welcome by the rangers who not only gave us useful information on what we could see, but also told us a bit about future plans for the exhibits. I promised them that I would encourage you all to visit, so do read on ...
The design of the museum building is very striking, and was inspired by the traditional homes of the two tribes whose story is told here – the Navajo Hogan and the Apache tepee. Inside there are planned to be a series of exhibits telling that story, but in October 2011 most rooms were bare apart from the planned layout stuck on a wall. The rangers told us that they hoped all would be completed in about a year, i.e. the autumn of 2012.
For now the main area of interest is outside, behind the building. Here an interpretive trail allows you to follow the story of what happened here between 1863 and 1868. Admission costs $3 which includes a very informative audio guide.
So what did happen here? The following are extracts from the website below and echo the text of the audio guide, although much cut down.
1854, the District Court in Santa Fe ruled that under the laws of Congress, there was no Indian country in New Mexico. With one swift ruling, all Indian land was opened to New Mexican ranchers and farmers for the taking. The Native Americans viewed the new ranchers and farmers as trespassers on their land. The settlers saw the American Indian as a growing threat to their new way of life. As a result numerous forts emerged to help integrate this new territory into the expanding United States. The U.S. government believed that subduing the native population and settling these lands was their duty, their mission and their destiny.
James H. Carleton was a bright, aggressive officer who set his sights on putting his stamp on the Indian problem in New Mexico. In 1862 he obtained President Abraham Lincoln’s approval to establish a fort, which he initially justified as offering protection to settlers from the Mescalero Apache, Kiowa and Comanche. He soon had other plans in mind and felt the site of the fort on the Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River would be a good site for an Indian reservation.
On September 27th 1862, Carleton ordered Colonel Kit Carson [whom we had “met” in Taos] to pursue and kill all Apache men and take the women and children captive. He gave Carson free reign to conduct the campaign any way he wished as long as the Apaches were soundly beaten. The military, under Carson, pursued, killed and captured the Apache wherever they went. Among those captured was Chief Cadete, who was ushered to Santa Fe for peace talks and unequivocal surrender. Facing certain extermination, and tricked into thinking they would be given a new reservation in their own country, Cadete agreed to Carleton’s terms and surrendered. In January 1863 nearly 500 Mescalero Apache were forced to leave their homeland and were exiled to Fort Sumner, more than 100 miles away.
Having completed the surrender and exile of the Mescalero Apache, General Carleton turned his attention to solving the “Navajo problem” and again enlisted the help of Colonel Kit Carson. On June 15th 1863, Carleton issued the order to Carson to attack the Navajo. During the winter of 1863-1864, Carson’s New Mexico Volunteers, aided by Indian scouts and informants, ravaged the Navajo countryside, killing Navajo, burning crops and orchards, killing livestock, destroying villages, and contaminating water sources. This ‘scorched earth’ campaign of Carson’s “designed to starve the Navajo into submission” would be aptly called by the Navajos “The Fearing Time.”
With no surplus of food, and nowhere left to hide, the starving Navajos were gathered at Fort Defiance, near modern day Grants, NM, and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo reservation, some 400 miles away, through dangerous river crossings and other perilous conditions. Over several marches, between the summer of 1863 and the winter of 1866, 11,500 Navajo were forwarded to Bosque Redondo. Around 8,500 reached Fort Sumner. Some escaped and fled west, some were captured by slave traders, and many died along the way. This time of suffering is remembered as “The Long Walk.”
By March 1863, there were over 400 Mescalero Apache at the reservation. By the end of 1864, they were joined by more than 8,500 Navajo. The Army only anticipated 5,000 would be there, so providing food, water, and shelter was a serious issue from the start. The Mescalero were resentful that the work they did before the Navajos arrived were used by them, Navajo were fearful of having food withheld if they didn't work. Fighting between the Mescalero and Navajo, who had never lived in close proximity to one another, was constant. The Mescalero came from a life in densely forested mountains where game and edible plants were plentiful. The Navajo had huge flocks of sheep and goats and came from a country where good grazing, and good food and water were plentiful. Here both tribes were essentially slave labourers. The Navajos would refer to this time and place as “hweeldi”, translated as “the place of suffering.”
General Carleton’s illusion that the Bosque Redondo would spawn a farming community of thriving transplanted Native American prisoners was disastrous. By September 1864, the minority Apaches considered the Navajos enemies, and if the Army could not provide a separate reservation from them, then they should no longer be bound by their promise to stay on the reservation. Chief Cadete and his people put a carefully crafted plan into action. If everybody left at once, he decided, most might get away. By late October, before winter set in, they were ready. On November 3, 1865, all 400 Mescalero Apache deserted the fort and began their exodus back to their own country. As the normal evening campfires burned, they slipped away into the night. Only nine people, who were either too old or sick to travel, remained to keep the campfires burning to fool the military into thinking that all was normal. Carleton initiated several pursuits, and several accounts indicate numbers of Mescalero men, women, and children were killed, but most escaped.
The Navajo remained here for three more years. In the spring of 1868, General William T. Sherman and Colonel Samuel F. Tappan arrived at Fort Sumner to negotiate a new treaty with the Navajo leaders, led by Chief Barboncito, the last Navajo Chief to surrender in 1866. The Treaty of 1868 was signed in a field between the Fort and the Memorial. By definition, a treaty can only be signed by two nations. Thus, the Treaty of 1868 established, under Federal Law, the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo were allowed to return to their original homelands in the Four Corners Region.
I have reproduced all of this in some detail as the best way of giving you an idea of what we listened to as we walked the interpretive trail. Interspersed with the historical facts were many moving quotes from members of the two tribes, and some traditional music. It is a fairly short walk (maybe a mile in total) but there is a lot to take in and you could easily spend an hour doing it. As you walk you will get a strong sense of what the Navajo and Mescalero Apache suffered here, and also of a quiet satisfaction that at last that suffering and their history is being accorded the respect it deserves.
As the sign on the marker at the spot where the Navajo treaty was signed says,
”Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain an eagle to the ground and he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up to the sky which is home... and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat, and beans.”
This is my last tip; if you wish you can return to my Intro page.Related to:
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Fort Sumner Hotels
1707 Sumner Avenue
Good for: Families
Fort Sumner Tourist Traps
This should be renamed "The Museum with a lot of crap and a small section on Billy the Kid in the back - wanna by a hat?" Museum.
The place is poorly named since 90% of the stuff in it is not Billy the Kid related. There was even a slinky in the museum (used by some local dude who had syphillis or something weird like that).
Only go here if you are a die hard fan of Billy the Kid or a person who likes old useless crap.
Unique Suggestions: Go straight to the Billy the Kid section.
Fun Alternatives: Go to Lincoln and tour the museums there. They have far more legit stuff which actually has something to do wtih Billy the Kid.
Fort Sumner Favorites
Favorite thing: Visit his grave behind the souvenir emporium/museum. Bathrooms are out back. Take your portrait here posed as a gunslinger next to the famous outlaw.Related to:
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