he killed Billy the Kid in New Mexico, Pat Garrett’s name is more
associated with that state than it is with Texas
but Garrett drifted in and out of the Lone Star State for most of
his life. His legacy here is of being a pretty decent buffalo hunter
and lawman but a lousy judge of cattle.
We first see Garrett in Texas in the
1870s as a buffalo
hunter, working an area from Fort
Griffin to near present-day Lubbock
where occupational hazards included weather, short tempers in the
presence of firearms, and resentful Comanches.
One day, after the weather had turned cold and nasty and the men were
testy, Garrett and hired hand Joe Briscoe got crosswise with each
other. Briscoe ended up dead. Garrett rode to Fort
Griffin and turned himself in to authorities, who called the killing
self defense and suggested he go back to hunting buffalo.
On another day, a group of Comanche warriors rode into camp and stole
the hunters’ horses, burned their wagons and destroyed 800 buffalo
hides but didn’t kill anybody. Hunters from all over the South Plains
met at Camp Reynolds, fermented some corn and discussed what to do
next. Garrett suggested they simply let the Indians move on but, armed
with more whiskey than food or ammunition, the hunters set out, without
Garrett, to find the Comanches.
They found their quarry at Yellow House Canyon and attacked but were
routed by Comanche chief Black Horse and his warriors. Back at Camp
Reynolds, Garrett might or might not have said, “Told you so.”
After the buffalo were all gone Garrett drifted to New Mexico, got
elected sheriff and killed Billy the Kid. People weren’t as grateful
to him for that famous deed as we might imagine because murderers
and cop killers like Billy were held in higher public esteem than
they are today.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, the LS and
other Panhandle ranches were being plagued by rustlers in the aftermath
of the Great Cowboy Strike of 1883. The ranchers persuaded Governor
John Ireland to form a company of Texas Rangers to take care of the
situation. Garrett was hired to head them; they were known as the
LS Pat Garrett Rangers. In February of 1885 Garrett’s rangers surprised
a group of alleged rustlers at their hideout on the Canadian
River. Killing them would have been an easy matter but Garrett
talked the men into surrendering. The ranchers were disappointed;
they only wanted dead rustlers.
Garrett drifted back to New Mexico for a number of years but returned
to Texas and bought a ranch in Uvalde
in 1891. He lived there for five years, raced horses against future
U.S. Vice-President John Nance Garner, and generally led a quiet life,
at least by his standards.
Garrett’s last stay in Texas came in
1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him as Collector
of Customs in El
Paso. Customs agents in those days appraised cattle shipped into
the states by age. A specialist usually performed the duty but Garrett
insisted on doing it himself. A hue and cry erupted. Garrett even
got into a fistfight with a Special Treasury Agent over the matter,
but this fight, between two old men, was as comical as the one on
the buffalo plains in his youth had been tragic.
Garrett also embarrassed Roosevelt by pairing him with notorious saloon
owner Tom Powers for a politically incorrect photo op. Roosevelt’s
political foes used the photo against him for years. That, combined
with dissatisfaction over the way Garrett did his job, led to him
not being appointed to another term. Garrett appealed to Roosevelt
directly but maybe the old lawman really didn’t get it because he
took Powers with him to Washington.
Pat Garrett left Texas again, never to
return. He was shot to death in New Mexico 1908 under circumstances
that continue to be disputed. Texas assassin Killing Jim Miller has
been widely believed to be the shooter but Leon Metz, Garrett’s biographer,
believes that Wayne Brezel, who was with Garrett when he was shot
and who was tried and acquitted for the murder, actually did the deed.
popular culture have not always been kind to Garrett, who is often
cast as a villain for killing Billy the Kid, much as he was in his
own day. Not everybody who knew Pat Garrett felt that way. Garner,
his old horse racing buddy in Uvalde,
in a letter to Garrett’s son Oscar in the 1950s, wrote, “I knew
your father as an honorable, honest, patriotic American. When the
movies slander him, they slander their betters.”