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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Pat Garrett

by Clay Coppedge
Because 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.
Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett
Wikimedia Commons
Disillusioned, 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.
Pat Garrett Historical Marker, Uvalde TX
Pat Garrett Historical Marker located at the TxDot Yard on US 90 in Uvalde, TX
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson
History and 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.”
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" April 9, 2013 column

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