Henry McCarty is one of the most prominent figures from the Wild West era. Most people know him better as Billy the Kid.
He is known to have killed at least eight men before he himself was shot and killed at the age of 21.
McCarty became an orphan at age 15. He led a hard life without his parents, getting arrested for stealing food the following year. Only ten days later, he robbed a laundry and got caught again – but he escaped soon after.
That’s when he fled New Mexico for Arizona, turning himself into a federal fugitive and an outlaw. McCarty started calling himself William Bonney to try to avoid capture.
He Killed a Blacksmith in Arizona and Returned to New Mexico
After an altercation with a blacksmith in 1877, he decided to return to New Mexico. After joining some cattle rustlers, he became a well-known name in the territory. That’s when he took part in the Lincoln County War of 1878.
It wasn’t until the Las Vegas, NM newspaper ran stories about his crimes that McCarty’s notoriety grew. It only took a local sheriff a month to capture him after that feature, where he was tried and convicted for the murder of another sheriff during the Lincoln County War.
He was sentenced to hang the next month, but he escaped from jail on April 28, 1881, after killing two deputies. After evading capture for two months, he was shot and killed by law enforcement.
Legends grew that he survived the encounter, with several men claiming to be Billy the Kid.
When you think about the Wild West, what comes to mind? It is a set of stories about cowboys, Native Americans, gangs, sheriffs, and the occasional gold rush for many people.
It’s one of the most romanticized eras of American history. If you look at what happened in the late 1800s, it’s also about two decades of homesteading that doesn’t fit the fantastic tales Westerns offer.
If you want to know about the real stories of American cowboys, here are the books you’ll want to read.
1. Lonesome Dove
Although there are some fantastical elements in this story, it has everything from cattle drives to riverboat gamblers. It’s one of the few stories that paint an overview of the myth while keeping the people real and flawed.
2. Legends of the Fall
This collection of three novellas is one of the best stories of cowboys in the Wild West that you can find. The author uses an omniscient view that shows a lifetime of trials (and sometimes tragedy) that families encountered after moving West.
If you want to catch some authentic dialogue from a Wild West marshal, you’ll want to pick up this book to read. It’s a classic tale of a lawless town with new lawmen providing some cover. You’ll get a feel for the authentic environment without everything getting blown out of proportion.
4. Desert Solitaire
This non-fiction book delivers a tribute to the American west, including all of the wild places you can find in the southwestern states. It’s written by a ranger who served at Arches National Park, delivering an honest commentary on what it means to live on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.
5. Cowboy Life: Reconstructing an American Myth
This 1975 novel is a landmark study on the legendary role of the American cowboy in the Wild West. It follows the daily duties of what this life was like in the Great Plains from the 1860s to about 1900, including a discussion about how Lonesome Dove and other stories influence modern perceptions about it.
What are some of your favorite cowboy stories that you’d recommend?