Many Las Cruces festivals involve musical bands — maybe mariachi — and dancers in colorful costumes. Most, but not all.Earlier this year, the Doña Ana County Historical Society and the Rio Grande Theatre presented the first ever Pat Garrett Western Heritage Festival. There was music. There was drama. There were compelling lectures. All that was missing were the dancers.
Pat Garrett is known as the lawman who pursued Billy the Kid, the iconic New Mexican hero/outlaw who somehow managed to avoid jail even after being sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff William Brady in the Lincoln County War. Garrett is perhaps best known for killing “The Kid” in Pete Maxwell’s Fort Sumner house on July 14, 1881. The festival provided insights into Garrett’s life more than a century after his death.“This is the first Western Heritage Festival,” said David Thomas, Las Cruces historian, author, and a member of the historical society. “We’re hoping to do this every year. There’s lots more about Pat Garrett’s life that’s interesting to explore. And there are many other historical people who could be the subject of the festival.”David presented a lecture, providing the background leading to Garrett’s death on February 29, 1908 — leap day.
Garrett had been sheriff of Lincoln County, he explained. He had a ranch in Uvalde, Texas, which he lost from financial difficulties. He was appointed customs inspector in El Paso by President Theodore Roosevelt. His job was to inspect cattle shipped from Mexico. The older the cattle, the higher the tariff. “Previous inspectors were quite generous,” David Msaid. They often counted two- and three-year-old cattle as one year old, at a lower tax rate. “Garrett was just too honest,” he continued. “He did his own inspections. As a result, there were much higher tariffs.” Cattlemen, naturally, didn’t want to pay higher rates, so they campaigned against Garrett, and he wasn’t reappointed.In 1906, Garrett had two ranches east of the San Andres mountains. He lost one due to money problems and leased the other to Wayne Brazel, who was supposed to graze cattle. Instead, Brazel brought in goats, which set up the chain of events leading to Garrett’s death on the way to Las Cruces to complete the sale of the land to James Miller of El Paso. Carl Adamson, Miller’s bother-in-law, was negotiating the deal. Along the way they met up with Brazel.
A couple miles from town, an argument ensued, and Brazel shot Garrett twice, killing him. Brazel surrendered to the sheriff and was indicted at an inquest.The next part of the festival was a reenactment of the preliminary examination into Brazel’s shooting of Garrett, using the actual words of the inquest transcript. Local actor John Wood portrayed New Mexico Attorney General James Hervey, Jason Wyatt appeared as Defense Attorney Herbert Holt, Scott Galbreath recreated Carl Adamson, and Mozart Pierson was Brazel. Several other actors portrayed other characters in the event.In an otherwise Perry-Mason-style court hearing, the lawyers argued and the judge remanded Brazel to be held on $10,000 bail — about $250,000 in today’s dollars.
Then, the audience was treated to a surprise. Teddy Aspen-Sanchez, portraying a reporter from the El Paso Herald, ran onto the stage and demanded of Brazel, “Why did you shoot Mr. Garrett?”Brazel replied, “He threatened me. It was self-defense.”As Brazel walked off stage in custody, the reporter shouted after him. “The coroner shows Mr. Garrett was shot in the back of the head. If it was self defense, why was he shot in the back of the head?”Like most events in life, this one, too, had consequences. David returned to the lectern to explain some of them. It turns out, when Brazel was tried neither Adamson nor Miller appeared in court to testify. Previously, it was thought Miller was dead and Adamson in jail. David said, “Both men were available. They just didn’t show up.” There was also evidence never presented to the court of a potential second shooter. “These inconsistencies,” he said, “have been the source of conspiracies ever since.” Regardless of evidence, admitted and not, Brazel was acquitted, not an unusual event in pre-statehood New Mexico. Territorial law said self-defense could be claimed if the person charged could prove he had been threatened and feared for his life, giving permission to shoot first.Closing out this first Western Heritage Festival was a presentation by Karla Steen, who — along with Sally Kading — is co-authoring a book on Pat Garrett’s letters to his family, revealing a gentler side of the man. Both women are local historians. Karla recommended the audience, “Notch it back a bit, sit back, and let’s talk about something important to all of us: love. I have often thought love is life, and life is a journey — and tonight we’re going back in time on a journey of love.”Karla showed how much Garrett loved his wife, Apolinaria, and their seven children. She and Sally discovered quite a different man in Garrett’s letters. “They changed the perception of who he was.” Loving, compassionate, concerned — all words you’ll find in his letters to his family.Sally added, “Garrett was a lucky man to have had a wife like Apolinaria who could handle the house and children, the milk delivery service, the orchards and gardens, the men who worked for them. Pat’s family was the cornerstone of his happiness.
Everything revolved around his connection with them and when separated, he was miserable.”You discover this reading his letters. Here are a few excerpts.These were written from New Orleans where he was trying to sell horses:It is 7 O’clock and 15 minutes. I can almost see you sitting around the kitchen table…I never was so homesick in my life. Send me a kiss on one corner of your letter. Woke at one and can’t sleep. What a terrible thing it is for a man to be so poor that he is compelled to stay away from his wife and children this way. Hope I will never have to go anywhere again without you.While his family was visiting relatives in Louisiana and Garrett remained at their Uvalde ranch, he wrote:Just finished reading your letters for the 3rd time. I get so [unreadable] to see you all, so take consolation by rereading your letters. Of historical note is the photo of Garrett used on the program flyer. Karla and Sally came upon this tintype of Garrett, which a museum was auctioning.
They had the winning bid and received provenance authenticating the picture. Sally said, “We don’t have a date, but in one of Garrett’s letters he mentions sending a picture to his wife.” They are continuing their research on the photo, which they will incorporate in their book of Garrett love letters.
“WE DON’T HAVE A DATE, BUT IN ONE OF GARRETT’S LETTERS HE MENTIONS SENDING A PICTURE TO HIS WIFE.”
Sally Kading and Karla Steen hold a print and the tintype of Pat Garrett they recently purchased at auction.ABOVEScott Davis of Kentucky, Garrett’s great grandson — descended from Oscar Lohman Garrett — places a stone from the family’s Louisiana plantation on the memorial located in the Alameda arroyo where Garrett was murdered. Courtesy photo.If you are a lover of Southwestern history, and in particular Doña Ana County history, keep an eye peeled for David Thomas’ book on the life of Pat Garrett, Karla Steen and Sally Kading’s book on Garrett’s love letters, and next year’s event. By then it will be the second annual Pat Garrett Western Heritage Festival, which will take place on the anniversary of Garrett’s death on February 29, 2020. In the meantime, you can always attend the Doña Ana County Historical Society’s popular monthly meetings at Good Samaritan
Las Cruces Village, 3011 Buena Vida Circle, in the downstairs auditorium. Meetings are held the third Thursday of the month at 7 p.m., except June through August. More information at donaanacountyhistsoc.org.Bob Gamboa
Written by Bud Russo