Early Life



William Henry Bonney or “Billy the Kid,” as he is commonly known, left no record of his place of birth and date. Pat Garrett and Ash Upson, who wrote the biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the Noted Desperado of the Southwest, whose Deeds of Daring and Blood Have Made His Name a Terror in New Mexico, Arizona and Northern Mexico, came up with November 23, 1859, in New York City. This information for years had been accepted as the actual birth record of Billy the Kid, but today it’s highly questionable as being legitimate. Aside from no record to prove this date accurate, the date November 23 happens to be Ash Upson’s birth date. Did he happen to remember the Kid’s birthday because it was the same as his or was it because he needed a date to complete his biography, so he chose November 23 as a sort of tribute to himself?

As for the year 1859, the Kid’s childhood friends in Silver City claimed he was about twelve in 1873, while his friends George and Frank Coe, said he was about seventeen during the Lincoln County War in the early year of 1878, and Lily Casey, a Lincoln county resident, would say when she encountered the Kid in early November of 1877, he was barely sixteen. This indicates he may have been born in 1860-61, making his age of death nineteen or twenty. In The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, the year 1859 may have been used to make the Kid twenty-one years old at the time of his death, so when Garrett killed the Kid, it would sound better to have him kill a man of twenty-one than possibly a youth still in his teens.

While the date remains a complete mystery, New York or Indiana have become the potential birth place. New York is the most convincing since his mother arrived there from Ireland and many who knew the Kid mentioned New York as his place of birth and following his death, newspapers around the country all stated he was born in New York, so obviously folks in that era knew something we don't.

Now what about his name? He is most famously known as William H. Bonney, but as a child, it was Henry McCarty. But was Henry, really his first name? When his mother, Catherine McCarty, remarried a man named William Antrim the family now had two Williams. So Catherine started calling her son by his middle name, Henry. Childhood friend from Silver City, Chauncey Truesdell, recalled, “Henry's first name was Billy, but they called him by his middle name to keep him from getting mixed up with his stepfather.”

The Kid had a brother named Joseph, and it’s been thought he was the older of the two, but records show he was the younger brother (for more on Joseph see the Antrim Family web page). It's also speculated and rumored that the two boys were "half" brothers. Fred Nolan, an authority on Billy the Kid and biographer of “The West of Billy the Kid,” came to a rather logical conclusion about the boys’ lineage. “At the time of the Kid’s death, not just one but several newspapers referred to Joe as his half-brother.” Then he adds,  “We might have Mrs. McCarty, widow of Michael McCarty, who had been previously married to (shall we say) Mr. Bonney, who was Billy’s father. Bonney Sr. died (say, in New York, for want of better information), and his widow married a man named McCarty, with whom she went to Indiana or whom she met there; he was Joe’s father, but not Billy’s. McCarty died sometime before 1867 (let us say in Indianapolis, for want of better information), whereupon Mrs. McCarty, widow, starts to appear in Indiana directories. This theory (which of course is all it is) would accommodate Billy’s being the older brother and explain why later on, looking for a new alias, the Kid reverted to the most natural one of all.” (Page 5 in “The West of Billy the Kid”).

From the time he was born till about 1870, the Kid left no trace of his life. All we know is that, in 1870, widow Catherine McCarty and her two sons arrived in Kansas, accompanied by her long time boyfriend, William Antrim. Mrs. McCarty opened a laundry service and bought and sold town lots to earn money. The widow was making a rather good living supporting herself and her sons, until a doctor diagnosed her with tuberculosis and told her to seek a warmer and drier climate.

Loading up her family and accompanied by William Antrim, she headed west to Colorado and then south to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where on March 1, 1873, in a Presbyterian church, Catherine married Antrim. After the wedding, the family headed south to Silver City in Grant County. The warmer climate there was hoped to benefit Mrs. Antrim’s health and the opportunities of mining would benefit her prospecting husband.

In early April the family arrived in the crowded city and were lucky to acquire a cabin in the quickly growing town. Mr. Antrim found work as a carpenter and a butcher, but spent most of his time prospecting and gambling. Mrs. Antrim took in boarders in their tiny cabin and sold homemade pies and sweet cakes to make ends meet. As for her boys, they ran with the other children in town, getting into harmless mischief until the school opened in January.

Most of the residents and children who knew the Kid as a youngster in Silver City remember him affectionately. Chauncey Truesdell remembers, “Henry was only a small boy, small for his age and kind of skinny.” Louis Abraham, another schoolmate and friend recalled, “He was just an ordinary boy, I don’t remember him doing anything bad, he was just a little mischievous." All denied the story of him killing a man who had insulted his mother and not to mention, there is no legal or newspaper record of such an  incident happening.

As a youth, the Kid was slender, had small hands and rather girlish looking, so because of this stature he was a target for bullies and teasing, but what he lacked in size he made up in courage and a quick mind. He also had a wonderful sense of humor, always joking and laughing.  He had a passion for music, singing and dancing. He was a well-behaved student in school and liked to read. He wasn’t a loud obnoxious brat like some of the other boys he ran with, but rather quiet and mild mannered. Not only his childhood friends, but also folks he would meet later in life, all agreed he was an easygoing, lighthearted fellow, loyal, courteous, and brave almost to the point of recklessness. Even his enemies admitted he had good qualities.

Up until this point, as Louis Abraham said, “he was just an ordinary boy,” but as fate would have it, the Kid’s life would turn upside down and never be the same again. Ever.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Antrim’s health was deteriorating rapidly and she became bedridden. To make matters worse, her husband seemed to have deserted his family when they needed him the most and took to the hills for prospecting. On September 16, 1874, Catherine Antrim died. When her husband finally returned, he moved his stepsons to live with the Knight family. The boys continued their schooling, while their stepfather would come and go. In a matter of time, the boys were separated and bounced from one foster family to another. Bill Antrim relocated to Arizona and finally relieved himself from any parental responsibility to his stepsons and left the boys to fend for themselves.

Webmistress's photo (2000)
The headstone of Catherine Antrim, it reads:
In Memory of
Mrs. Katherine Antrim
Mother of Billy the Kid
The spelling of her name is wrong (C not K)
This is not the original headstone or location of her grave.
In 1882 the cemetery was relocated outside of town and the wooden marker
was replaced twice before this stone was donated in 1947.

During this time the Kid took advantage of his freedom to do as he pleased without any parental supervision, but because he was on his own, he lacked money and so he began his career of crime. His first offense was stealing several pounds of butter from a rancher, which he turned around and sold to a merchant. The county sheriff, Harvey H. Whitehill found out and after a tongue-lashing, he let the Kid go with a warning.

It was a year after Catherine Antrim’s death and the Kid was now living at Mrs. Brown’s boarding house. To earn money, the thirteen or fourteen year old youngster washed dishes and waited on tables at the Star Hotel. He soon befriended a young man named George Schaefer, alias Sombrero Jack. He was a thief, drunk and gambler and would no doubt become a bad influence on the impressionable boy.  At this time the Kid was looking poor and dressed in worn out clothes. Sombrero Jack had stolen a bundle of laundry from a Chinese launderer and since the Kid had no decent clothing, he gave the bundle to him, if he wanted to run the risk of getting caught with it. Mrs. Brown discovered the bundle hidden in a trunk in the Kid’s room and reported him to the sheriff. The Kid was arrested and locked in jail. The city newspaper, The Grant County Herald printed the story: “It’s believed that Henry was simply the tool of Sombrero Jack, who done the actual stealing whilst Henry done the hiding. Jack has since skinned out.” So, the Kid was left holding the bag, literally.

Sheriff Whitehill was sympathetic towards the Kid and allowed him free run of the corridor for a limited time till his hearing before the courts. After only two days of confinement, the Kid escaped up the fireplace in the corridor and then fled to one of his foster families, the Truesdells. The Kid’s stepfather, Bill Antrim had gone to Clifton, Arizona for prospecting, so the Truesdells gave the boy some money and put him on a stage to Arizona. The boy had hoped to find refuge with his stepfather, but unfortunately when the Kid told him what had happened, Antrim responded with “If that’s the kind of boy you are, get out!”

The Kid was now alone and homeless in the Arizona desert. It was dangerous for an adult man to be alone in this hostile area, let alone a teenage boy.  He wandered around and lived a hand-and-mouth existence. The Kid had trouble finding work because of his youthfulness and slender build, which made him unable to do a man’s job. He then met and went into partnership with a man named John Mackie, another thief who would influence the Kid. The duo began a career of stealing saddles and horses, particularly from the army in the Camp Grant area.

They were eventually caught and thrown into jail at Camp Grant, but the Kid escaped and fled. A few months later, he turned up again in the area. This naïve attitude of returning to the scene of a crime would be his downfall throughout his short life or because he was alone and vulnerable he was returning to familiar haunts and maybe looking for Mackie. Whatever the case, the Kid was back.

Probably after joining up with Mackie, the Kid had developed his famous nickname by which he would be forever known:
“Kid.” It wasn’t only because he was one, but he certainly looked it. Because of that, a husky bully blacksmith at Camp Grant, named Frank “Windy” Cahill immediately took pleasure in picking on the Kid every time he saw him. Gus Gildea, who was working as a ranch hand, recalled the Kid having trouble with Cahill, “Shortly after the Kid came to Fort Grant, Windy started abusing him. He would throw Billy to the floor, ruffle his hair, slap his face and humiliate him before the men in the saloon.” Finally, the Kid had enough.

On August 18, 1877, the Kid had a run in with his tormentor at Atkins’s cantina. Cahill called the Kid a pimp and the Kid returned the insult by calling him a son of a bitch. Cahill then plowed into the Kid and wrestled him to the ground. Gildea recorded, “Windy threw the youth on the floor. He sat on him, pinned his arms down with his knees and started slapping his face. Billy worked his right arm free and managed to grasp his .45. Then there was a deafening roar. Windy slumped to the side as the Kid squirmed free.” After the Kid shot Cahill mortally in the stomach, he bolted out the door, mounted the nearest horse and skinned out. As it turned out the Kid rode off on a prized racehorse, but when he found another mount he sent the valuable animal back to its owner. Despite previous abuse and Cahill being much larger and getting the upper hand in the fight, the shooting was considered unjustifiable. 

Now with a murder rap hanging over him, the young fugitive hightailed it back to New Mexico. He stopped shortly to visit his old friends the Knights and the Truesdell, but then he kept going. Once again, the Kid found himself alone and vulnerable. He headed to Dona Ana County near La Mesilla, where he joined one of the most notorious gang of rustlers and killers in the southwest, their leader was Jesse Evans and they called themselves “The Boys.”

Although Jesse Evans was captain of the gang, it was John Kinney, also known as King of the Rustlers, who coordinated the gang's rustling activities. The stolen cattle and horses were sold to those who didn’t ask questions, and no one was willing to risk their lives to stop the rustlers, including the law. But Colonel Albert Fountain, who at the time was editor of The Mesilla Valley Independent, was not only exploiting them in his paper, but also putting pressure on the law to do something. With the law finally cracking down on them, the gang eventually moved towards Lincoln County about 150 miles northeast of Dona Ana County.  The Kid was now heading into the next chapter of his tragic story.

   (to be continued….)


Bell Boze, Bob  The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid  Second Edition,
                          Tri Star-B  Productions, Inc. 1996

Nolan, Frederick   The West of Billy the Kid University of Oklahoma Press, Norman

Nolan, Frederick   Pat Garrett’s The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid,
an annotated edition with notes and commentary by Frederick
                              Nolan, University of  Oklahoma Press, Norman 2000

Weddle, Jerry   Antrim is My Stepfather’s Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid                             Historical Monograph No. 9 The Arizona Historical Society, 1993


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