By Jan Girand
Once upon a time – well it was more than a century ago –
there was a boy called Billy in the Territory of New Mexico.
Now Billy wasn’t his name back at the beginning of his life;
they say that it was Henry and he was born to one then not a wife.
His mama was called Catherine, and he had a brother named Joe.
His mama’s last name was McCarty, so too was his and Joe’s.
Historians say Henry McCarty was born without a dad
in New York to an Irish lassie and the way they lived was sad.
Our Henry had arrived there on his birthing day
in an Irish slum in 1859, so some historians say.
Still, little is known about him, back in his early years
except “How am I going to feed him?” was his mama’s greatest fear.
They lived a while in Kansas, made a stopover in Denver, too;
why they landed in New Mexico, historians had no clue.
What was it drove them onward? Why did they end up here?
Were they searching for a better life? Or was it plain despair?
Some say their lives got better before arriving here,
‘cause Catherine took a partner to share her load with her.
At any rate, they came here, to live in this wild place,
Catherine, Joe, Henry – and Will, a guy historians trace
to Kansas on the plains, a place called Wichita.
Even then, young Henry called William “Pa.”
So, long before they got here, they’d ambled other places,
frustrating historians by leaving few traces.
Census, courts and archives, even churches cast
Few, if any, clues upon our mysterious Billy’s past.
One thing they know for certain (at least they think they do)
the Santa Fe Book of Marriages holds their first recorded clue.
The widow, Catherine McCarty, in Santa Fe, New Mexico,
stood with Henry and Josie (what they called her boy Joe) –
as she said her wedding vows, the boys stood up with them
at First Presbyterian, with her and William Henry Antrim.
That was the first known record establishing when he –
our Bonney lad – was in New Mexico; that was in 1873.
Like his mom, Henry McCarty just then changed his name
to Antrim. “William or Will like my new dad, if it’s all the same.”
Confusing historians, he was Henry McCarty just the same
but William Henry Antrim right then became his name.
In Santa Fe the Antrims’ days of traveling still weren’t done;
they traveled to Silver City to bask in its arid sun.
It was there the young William Antrim, called “Will,”
took yet another name: “Just call me the Kid or Bill.”
Then his beloved mother died of consumption or T.B.
It broke the heart of Billy, and a boy he’d no longer be
for it was then this childish lad began his criminality;
on a lark he stole some clothes from a Chinaman’s laundry.
It was only for the fun of it, but the sheriff did not laugh.
The Kid was thrown in jail but his lock-up did not last.
Billy vowed a little space with just a cot and pail
was not to be the end of this, our cunning boy’s tale.
He conned the sheriff’s deputy, and knew well how to shimmy
so he made quick his escape right up that red brick chimney.
That proved to him and all the rest his wiles and slippery ways,
and that was just the beginning of his desperado days.
(Now, what could you expect, since Billy’s home-life wasn’t sound?
And his step-dad didn’t care much to have the boy around.)
He was a homely kid, buckteeth and prominent ears,
so he relied upon his ways of charm and lack of boyish fears
to win him loyal friendships, cause girls to think him cute.
Still, his winning way was because … boy could he shoot!
To cause more consternation, some time after that,
To his aliases added he another, and not a simple “Mac.”
As if he hadn‘t then enough, he took a whole new name –
this newest one was Bonney, and his life was changed again.
Have you heard of that one? From whom or where was it taken?
It has to come from somewhere; was his family line forsaken?
He was Irish, they’d said? And Bonnie Prince Charlie was Scot,
So that’s not it … hmmm … and “a bonnie wee lad” he was not.
“It is just a name,” philosophers and poets will tell you;
the name is not the thing, they say, it is the deeds you do.
Well! It’s certainly true that Henry/William/Billy the “Kid”
McCarty/Antrim/Bonney did not out-live the deeds he did.
And daring-do deeds he did, they say, in books, movies and songs.
His multiple lives and legends through mighty tall tales live on.
Twenty-one killings, say they, one for each year of his life;
those “facts” of his shootings aren’t true, perhaps too the years of his life.
His life, especially if shorter, was certainly filled with strife,
but too many killings were credited him, extolling a violent life.
On the 1880 census, said Billy, the year before he died,
he was born in Missouri and his years were twenty-five.
But historian, Herman Weisner, said Billy was nineteen instead
when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him, and there declared him dead
in Pete Maxwell’s Fort Sumner adobe that July night of ’81.
Billy died in that darkened bedroom, a tragic end for Catherine’s son.
Twenty-one killings intended just wasn’t the way that it was –
Four, maybe five altogether, only a few of those were his.
One was Ollinger in Lincoln who’d bullied the poor lad so
and made false accusations. Our Billy just had to go
for if he hung around there long, a hanging would be his fate.
He had to make fast his getaway before it was too late!
Billy made a run for it, armed Bell and Ollinger stood in his way
so Billy had to shoot them to make good his getaway.
So – who was our Henry McCarty, William H. Bonney, “the Kid?”
Where did he come from, who was his ma, why did he do what he did?
Of his latter years, alas so few, we know his story well
for many, including Pat Garrett, his stories loved to tell.
His antics, shoot-outs, hot pursuits are documented well
in books, in movies and in songs stretched out so they would sell.
And sell they did, even in England, for folks there love a tale
of strife, romance and intrigue as they quaff their brew and ale.
Now, about “the Kid” Billy Bonney too much has already been said;
I had no interest in him, I preferred reading Gothics instead.
Although I live near Lincoln, I never gave him much thought;
intrigue and mystery were my choices, cowboy shoot-em-ups were not.
Now, stories that I really loved were ones my mama would tell
of her intriguing family history. Ah, those tales she told so well!
My mama, born in ’09, had an uncle of whom she spoke,
he had babysat her when he was an aged cowpoke;
the bewhiskered old man would hold her when she began to cry.
Ramon Bonney was his name, and he lived in a cabin nearby.
His place was in a desolate spot on the picturesque canyon rim
overlooking the Yegua, a lonesome place for him.
My mama was a wee child then, her memories were vague, you see.
Ramon, her great-half-uncle, was lonesome for company
so often he rode his donkey to her parents’ ranch for chats
and meals and recognition, and a rub by their sociable cat.
He was nearly blind by then and hungered for more company
than that of his decrepit old mules and his faded memories.
He spoke only in Spanish; English was not his tongue
so his nephew’s wife, his hostess, tried to teach him some.
In exchange he taught her Spanish; she, a German, needed that
for she was in New Mexico now where Español was the format.
My mama’s mama, Emma, smiled and cooked for him huge meals
so Ramon would go home replenished, his spirit and stomach filled.
Back then, the children thought of him as just a silly old guy;
they were bored by his retold tales, scared of his cataract-scarred eyes.
They didn’t listen to his stories, thought they’d better ones of their own,
and they laughed when his donkey hid from him behind the scrawny piñons.
He hated growing older and with odd things dyed his hair
so it blossomed in many colors until Emma pointed there,
gently chiding: “No shame in growing older, no need to despair,
for with age comes greater wisdom.” Thus ended the blooming hair.
“Old Uncle Bonney” they called him, even Emma and Dan.
An old man he was then, but he once was a virile young man
who had fathered many children. Still … he chose not a domestic life.
Husbandry wasn’t for him; he was the nomadic type.
He lit out for adventure, and excitement is what he got
as he roamed the hills and canyons and mountain lions he shot.
He had a wagon caravan, and he took it far and wide,
to St. Louie, Santa Fe, Denver, far beyond the Great Divide.
He peddled pots and pans then, bolts of calico, tatted laces
while he pushed great herds of cattle as he roamed about the places.
Born of James Bonney and Bibiana Martín in 1846,
Ramon was Bibiana’s first-born but – we know – not his.
James Bonney was an Englishman who’d traveled far and wide;
Bibiana was not the first one he had taken for his “bride.”
James had lived in Missouri prior to New Mexico
And before he met Bibiana; that’s something we do know.
In Missouri he had a wife and kids (we know at least of two);
but that’s a fact, I suspect, Great-Great-Grandma Bibi never knew.
After he came to New Mexico (there’s still more to this story),
he had yet another family in the New Mexico Territory.
So when James took young Bibiana and fathered our Ramon,
He had already two other places he’d previously called home.
We think James was a rogue but he was immortalized anyway.
Twitchell, in his history book, said Bonney saved the day
during the American Occupation. With his prime cattle he had fed
Stephen Kearney’s hungry soldiers, that’s what R.E. Twitchell said.
Soon after Ramon was born, his Bonney dad was killed
not far from his La Junta ranch, James’ English blood was spilled.
James was killed by Indians, our family stories say,
while he was tracking his stolen horses one sunny autumn day.
James had been a rich man, with two ranches stocked with cattle,
but now his neighbors took everything, leaving Bibiana just her saddle.
With her man and properties gone, she, by wagon team,
returned to Buena Vista to Bernardo and ‘Polonia Martín.
The lovely young Bibiana, along with her babe, Ramon,
lost everything she had then, so she returned to her childhood home.
(Later, my Great-Great-Grandma Bibiana had another relationship
with Daniel Eberle, my Great-Great-Granddad, who was a German Swiss.)
Eventually Ramon grew up and his nomadic life began
as a wagoneer, a herdsman, a merchant-suppliers’ man.
On a caravan to Denver, he met a man he’d not known
who claimed to be brother of James, the papa of Ramon.
The uncle was quite wealthy, so the family stories told,
And he wanted to adopt Ramon and share with him his gold.
Ramon declined the offer, the strings to the deal too tight:
he was required to stay in Denver and quit the nomadic life
and never see his mother. He liked the life he chose
so he declined the offer his uncle had proposed.
Ramon never saw him again, that Englishman uncle he had
brother of James – so he lost all his known ties to his dad.
When Ramon was somewhat older, he like all the others,
had heard of bad boy Billy. He wondered if they were brothers.
Since they had the same last name, he thought they might be kin
so when Billy was locked up in ‘Vegas, there Ramon visited him.
Billy and Ramon found no connection, so my family said,
but other New Mexico Bonneys say, “Oh yes there is!” now that Billy is dead.
An Englishman named James Bonney and a connection with Denver too!
Those caught the attention of an historian who thought they might be clues.
Cousin Karl brought Herman Weisner to see my mama and me.
A southwestern history buff and a published writer was he.
He’d heard of our Ramon Bonney and he just had to come and see
if he could find a Billy connection, and he thought he did, he told me.
“I think Billy and the New Mexico Bonneys have a common link –
the odds of it NOT being so are long, Verna, don’t you think?”
He and my mama, Verna, made an intriguing pair,
Their lifelong love of history gave them much to share.
“Especially when I tell you all the things that I now know,”
said Weisner. “It’s true Billy’s life didn’t begin in New Mexico.
His mother was named Catherine, that part is true as well,
but that is where I depart from others when I continue with his tale.
Catherine wasn’t a New Yorker, she came from Missouri instead,
and an Englishman named James Bonney had been Catherine’s dad.
I know as a young boy, Billy had lived in Denver a while
with an aunt, some kin of his, when he was just a child.
Billy was born in Missouri in ’61; he was nineteen when he was shot.
It wasn’t in New York in ’59; a twenty-one-year-old he was not.”
To the historian, Frederick Nolan, I spoke of the theories we had,
that James Bonney, Englishman, might have been Billy’s granddad.
Mr. Nolan, an English gentleman, was receptive when we spoke.
Our theory did not surprise him, ‘though he stood by what he wrote.
But what he wrote was not really in conflict: Catherine, Henry and Joe
might not have been from New York; historians have said they don’t know.
So, my friends, it seems to me, Ramon Bonney and Billy’s ma
could have had the same Bonney Englishman for their roving roguish pa!
An agreement was made in 1829 between the two republics – the United States and Mexico – that each would provide, along their own portions of the Santa Fe Trail route, troops for protection to the travelers on the Trail. It was that which first brought U.S. General Stephen Watts Kearney to New Mexico, and which caused the United States to begin to covet that land known as New Mexico. U.S. Topographical Engineer, James William Abert, Trader Josiah Gregg and several soldiers with the Army of the West kept journals as they traversed the Trail during those eventful times.
When they marched over Bonney’s land at La Junta, James Bonney marched – briefly and unmemorably to all but a few who cared – into recorded history.
Those various early-day journalists, historians and descendents of James Bonney said he was born in England or that he was a blue-eyed Irishman from the British Isles. He was described as handsome, with red hair and beard. That he had blue eyes has never been disputed. Those blue eyes, which must have been a dominant gene, have passed down for generations.
James immigrated to the United States, some stories say a brother came with him, and he settled in Missouri – where and about when the Santa Fe Trail began.
For a while, it was said, he ran a successful freighting business over the Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe and back again. About 1825, he began a settlement at what was then called La Junta – the junction – because of the fertile valley made by the crossing of two rivers, the Mora and the Sapello.
He settled in northern New Mexico and began another family. Bonney carefully chose the site for his trading post. It was Mora grant land given to him by his new father-in-law, Miguel Mascarenas, located at the lower plaza. The place he wanted, and which Miguel deeded to him, was beside the Santa Fe Trail. In fact, it was near where two of the Trail’s branches – the Mountain Branch and the Jornada or Cimarron Cutoff with the Ocate Crossing – joined and became one before it went on to Santa Fe. It was also beside the trail that went west, up over the mountain to the high valley of lo de Moro where a settlement of grantees – one of the earliest white/Hispanic settlements in New Mexico – was already established on the upper plaza.
The summer of 1846, U.S. Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearney and his Army of the West passed through New Mexico and, without firing a shot, successfully claimed it for the United States from Mexico. When the battalions led by Kearney – one under the command of Alexander W. Doniphan, Colonel First Regiment Missouri Volunteers – marched over the Santa Fe Trail that had begun 25 years earlier, they passed through the “civilized valley” of La Junta. The soldiers considered it civilized because it had plentiful water, fine grass, flocks of sheep, droves of horses, and large herds of cattle. James Bonney had a settlement there, and the dugout dwelling, log cabin, trading post, livestock, garden and animal pens those early journalists wrote of were his.
Just a few years earlier, Bonney had hired Mexican laborers to dig an irrigation ditch from the junction of the two rivers to the higher ground where he built his settlement and trading post. That ditch, still functioning in the new millennium, is called the Bonney Ditch.
“The first settlement we had seen in 775 miles,” wrote Lieutenant Emery, a journalist with the Army of the West. He also wrote, “Mr. Boney (sic) … has been some time in this country, and is the owner of a large number of horses and cattle which he manages to keep in defiance of wolves, Indians and Mexicans. He is a perfect specimen of a generous, openhearted adventurer, and in appearance what, I have pictured to myself, Daniel Boone of Kentucky must have been in his day. He drove a heard of cattle into camp and picked out the largest and fattest, which he presented to the Army.”
Another early-day journalist who met him recorded that Bonney had red hair and beard and was an Englishman.
The battalions led by Kearney were guests of James Bonney on the night of August 13, 1846. His wet and bedraggled guests on the second night were those of the artillery battalion commanded by Doniphan, slowed by their wagons and cannons and the inclement weather. This is history recorded in several early records and journals.
Lore that passed down verbally for generations from Bibiana Martín’s family and from New Mexico descendents of Bonney have said too, that those two groups of American soldiers spent those two nights camped beside the river on Bonney land and for their evening meals, James had fed them his choicest beef.
1846 was a memorable year for the very young Bibiana. Her son, Ramon, by James was born and soon after had come armies of American soldiers, the first she had ever seen, who were brief guests of her family. Less than two months later, James Bonney was killed in early October, not far from his home.
Indians had stolen some of his horses; the next morning, while the signs were still fresh for tracking, James took an Indian servant for translation, and a bag of freshly made tortillas for barter, and went in pursuit of his horses.
His arrow-studded body was later found beside Dog Creek, beyond Valmora. It is said that he was buried in what later became the Tiptonville cemetery. There are still some who believe they can identify his unmarked grave.
No American forts had yet been built along the Santa Fe Trail because the Territory had only just become property of the United States, but soon there would be many. In 1851, Fort Union was built – near what had been James Bonney’s trading post. The fort was, perhaps, built upon Bonney land. At any rate, Bonney’s grown children told Fort Union they owed them rent.
In New Mexico are many descendents of James Bonney. Most of them come from Cleofas, Santiago (James Bonney, Jr.) and Rafaela – his three children by Juana Maria Mascarenas. Juana was the daughter of Miguel Mascarenas, the 42nd grantee of the Mora Land Grant. That liaison was recognized as a marriage in early New Mexico court documents.
Some descendents also come from Ramon, the son of James and Maria Bibiana Martín, the daughter of Apolonia and Bernardo Martín, the 40th grantee of the Mora Land Grant. The one between James and the very young Bibiana was his second child-producing relationship in New Mexico, but his third known family.
James had an earlier relationship or marriage in Missouri that produced children. Historian, Herman Weisner, connected a blue-eyed Englishman named James Bonney to a family in Missouri. Into that family, said my friend and published historian, was born a child named Catherine who might have later become the mother of Billy the Kid Bonney. He found several coincidences or links to believe that was a possiblity. Herman died in January 2003 without fully proving his theory.
In the middle of the year 2001, I traveled back 150 or 175 years in one hour of one day. What transported me was being told that I stood upon the site where James Bonney had built his dugout dwelling, store and trading post along the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800s. Who transported me was 76-year-old Joe Lopez who has startlingly blue eyes. He said they came from his great-great-grandfather, James Bonney. Joe owns some of that land that Bonney had owned so long ago, including the site where we stood that day.
Years after James Bonney’s death, his Mascarenas descendents legally fought for and regained ownership to his lands from Samuel B. Watrous, Tipton and other settlers of the area who had taken possession of them after Bonney died.
Near that settlement, known as La Junta 150 years ago in northeastern New Mexico, were two other settlements. The better-known one was called Tiptonville after an early area settler.
Rafaela’s husband, Trinidad Lopez, founded the other settlement after James Bonney’s adult children by Juana regained his lands. Soldiers at Ft. Union recommended to Trinidad – who had himself once been a lieutenant, Company A, First Infantry stationed at Ft. Union – that he establish a community to protect himself and his family from Indian attacks. The adage of “safety in numbers” was then even more poignant. Trinidad named that settlement Bonneyville.
It, like Tiptonville, is now long gone.
Cleofas, Santiago and Rafaela and their families built their adobe homes there at Bonneyville, as did many others. The three adobe Bonney abodes still stand, but only one or two non-Bonney abodes remain. Still, if you look closely and know what you are looking at, you can see foundations and indentations, stones and adobe, the earthly remains of Bonneyville, as well as a Jesuit church founded by Cleofas. All of this is now on private posted land.
Although I am not descended from James Bonney, he has always fascinated me because Bibiana Martín was my great-great-grandmother. She later had other children in addition to Ramon.
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