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Old Fort Sumner

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell of Cimarron had bought the old post in Oct., 1870, for $5,000 and had moved there the following spring with his wife and four children, along with servants and ranch hands (25-40 families in all). His purchase was a steal; the flat-roofed, adobe-and-timber post had originally cost $300,000 to build.

In 1863-69, Fort Sumner’s 600-700 men had guarded an eventual populations of 8,600 Navajo and Mescalero Apache Indians during a disastrous U.S. Government-backed attempt to convert them to farming. The 400 or so Mescaleros were there only a couple of years before they escaped back to their homeland. But for the displaced Navajos, the place where they were relocated, the Bosque Redondo, was the end of what became known as the Long Walk for the Navajos, a 350 mile long trek from Fort Defiance, Arizona. Some 3,000 Navajos never returned home.

Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drove 2,200 head of Texas Longhorn cattle west from Fort Belknap, Texas to the Pecos River and north to Fort Sumner to feed the six-company garrison and their starving Indian captives. They arrived at the Bosque Redondo in July, 1866, then drove the remaining head north to Denver, pocketing $24,000 after blazing what would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

As the U.S. Government realized that the Navajo relocation effort was a failure, it allocated fewer funds to keep the old post repaired. The worst buildings were left to neglect. The best ones were adapted to new uses. By the time the Maxwells arrived, the old post, vacant for about 20 months, had deteriorated further.

By 1872, however, as Maxwell continued to spend $10,000 to repair, renovate, and expand the salvageable homes and buildings, the place had already become home for 250 residents. He also had irrigation ditches dug, introduced Merino sheep, built up a herd of 9,000 cattle, and with the Roswell cattle baron John S. Chisum started a weekly mail service. Maxwell still had the golden touch, and his operations flourished.

But after Maxwell died of kidney failure in July, 1875, his only son, Pete, took over his family’s affairs. After ensuring his mother would live a carefree widowhood, he retired to an unremarkable life to spend the rest of his father’s fortune. Pete lived at Old Fort Sumner until 1884, when he sold out to the New England Cattle Company and moved 1½ miles (2.4km) south into a home near his mother’s place.

In 1889 the adjacent Pecos River flooded, washing away the first of the buildings on the southwest corner of the former parade ground. The cattle company cannibalized the post, then let the locals take anything else. By the early 1900’s, only some low adobe walls and rock formations remained. But a few years before the last of it disappeared in a 1937 flood, tourists in motor cars had already begun to arrive at the Kid’s grave. Some were clutching Walter Noble Burns’s best selling book, The Sage of Billy the Kid (1926). Some had also seen it adapted to a Hollywood talking film, Billy the Kid, a King Vidor-directed Western starring former University of Alabama football star Johnny Mack Brown (1930). Although Billy the outlaw was dead, Billy the Kid the national icon had just begun to cast his shadow.

Old Fort Sumner, 6½ miles (10.4 km) southeast of the village of Fort Sumner, the De Baca County seat, became a state monument in 1968.

Long before Billy the Kid fled the village of Lincoln after his daring jailbreak in April, 1881, Old Fort Sumner had become a second home. He had plenty of friends there, plus no meddlesome lawmen lived within a day’s ride. Locals spotting strangers would alert Billy, who could slip away into the countryside. There, among the campsites of Hispanic sheepherders, he’s wait until an amigo told him it was safe to return.

Pat Garrett knew Old Fort Sumner, too.  After his buffalo-hunting days in Texas, he arrived at the former post in Feb., 1878, and became a ranch hand for awhile. Garrett then tended bar there until April, 1880, the year after he married Apolinaria Gutierrez. He then moved to Roswell, and ran for Lincoln County Sheriff.

If Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett could return to the site of the Maxwell settlement at Old Fort Sumner today, they’d find the buildings lining the 300’ by 400’ parade ground, the outlying buildings, and nearly all the cottonwood trees along the Fort Sumner-to-Las Vegas and Fort Sumner-to-Texas roads, gone.

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Old Fort Sumner Museum

PO Box 566

Fort Sumner, NM 88119

575-355-2942


Annual Events

Second weekend in June, Old Fort Days, featuring the Billy the Kid Tombstone Race, parade, and arts and crafts fair, all in Ft. Sumner. 575-355-7705

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