Pat Garrett Biography

Government Official, Law Enforcement (1850–1908)
Pat Garrett was an American Old West lawman and customs agent best known for killing Billy the Kid.


Pat Garrett, born in Chambers County, Alabama, on June 5, 1850, became an American Old West lawman. He is best known for killing Billy the Kid in 1881, an act that eventually sullied his reputation to some. Garrett became friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him to be a customs agent in El Paso, Texas. He later retired to his ranch in New Mexico and was allegedly killed by Jesse Wayne Brazel in 1908.

Heading West

Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett was born in Chambers County, Alabama, on June 5, 1850. When Garrett was 3 years old, his father purchased a plantation and moved the family to Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where Garrett and his siblings were raised. However, by the time he had reached his late teens, both his parents were dead and their plantation was deeply in debt. Seeing no prospects for himself in the South, Garrett headed West to seek his fortune.

Arriving in Dallas County, Texas, Garrett worked briefly as a cowboy and gunman on a ranch before leaving to hunt buffalo on the Southern Plains. Garrett proved an adept hunter and for a while did well for himself. But trouble soon came looking for him. In 1876, he became involved in an argument with a buffalo hunter named Joe Briscoe that escalated to violence and only ended when Garrett shot and killed the man. Though Garrett was never prosecuted for his actions, the incident marked the end of his buffalo hunting career.

Big Casino and Little Casino

In 1878, Garrett left Texas for New Mexico, where he worked on a ranch for a year. His next move brought him to Fort Sumner, where he bartended at a saloon. He also married around this time, though his wife died shortly thereafter. He then married her sister, with whom he would have nine children.

While working and gambling at the saloon, Garrett first made the acquaintance of one Henry McCarty, aka William Bonney and best known as Billy the Kid. The two men were such regular fixtures at the gambling tables that they soon earned the nicknames Big Casino (in reference to Garrett’s six-foot-four height) and Little Casino (a comment on Billy the Kid’s much smaller stature). Though the nature of the two men’s acquaintance at this time is a matter of some speculation, what is known is that their futures would be indelibly entwined.

Famous Lawman

In 1880, Garrett was elected sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, and immediately prioritized the capture of his former acquaintance Billy the Kid. By this time Billy was wanted for murder, most recently for the killing of a sheriff and his deputy. After unsuccessfully pursuing the outlaw, in December of that year Garrett and his posse confronted Billy the Kid and his gang when they rode into Fort Sumner. Billy and most of his men escaped. However, shortly thereafter, Garrett and his posse tracked them down to the Stinking Springs area. After a brief skirmish, the lawmen brought Billy and his gang back to Lincoln, New Mexico, to stand trial.

In April 1881, Billy the Kid was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. But while awaiting execution, he managed to escape, killing two of his captors in the process. Once again in pursuit, Garrett traveled to the ranch of a man named Peter Maxwell, whom he hoped might know of Billy’s whereabouts. While there he learned that Billy had in fact been staying in Maxwell’s home. On the night of July 14, 1881, while Garrett and Maxwell were whispering in a darkened room, Billy entered the space, whereupon Garrett shot him dead. Recognized by a coroner's jury, his killing of the West’s most famous outlaw quickly made Garrett a celebrity. Capitalizing on this notoriety, he told his story in The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid, published a year later.

(Alternative stories alleged that Garrett had actually shot another man or worked with Billy himself to stage the killing. With a man named Ollie "Brushy Bill" Roberts maintaining in 1950 that he was the original Kid, rumors continued to swirl unabated. During the early 2000s, this almost resulted in the actual digging up of graves, with historian Robert Stahl later calling for an official death certificate to be drawn up to help end the rumors.) 

A Tumultuous Trail

In 1882, Garrett’s terms as sheriff ended and he moved his family to Texas, finding work in 1884 as a lieutenant in the Texas Rangers. He resigned a short while later, however, and returned to his ranch in New Mexico. Over the next decade, Garrett undertook several failed business ventures in both New Mexico and Texas before returning to the life of a lawman in 1897, when he was appointed sheriff of Dona Ana County, New Mexico. He held the post until his resignation in 1900.

In late 1901, Garrett seemed to be headed for a reversal of fortune when President Theodore Roosevelt (who had supposedly read Garrett’s book) appointed Garrett collector of customs in El Paso, Texas. However, questions about Garrett’s character quickly arose, followed by a wave of complaints about his lack of qualifications for the post. Amidst these controversies, Garrett resigned in 1906.

Mysterious End

Returning to New Mexico, Garrett attempted to resume the life of a rancher. But as the case with many of the endeavors in his life, he met with little success and was forced to lease part of his land to a man named Jesse Wayne Brazel. In early 1908, Garrett and Brazel became involved in a dispute over the terms of that lease and Garrett sought to settle the matter by involving a rancher named Carl Adamson. But on February 29, 1908, as Garrett and Adamson were riding in a wagon to Las Cruces, New Mexico, Brazel arrived on horseback. More angry words ensued and Brazel left the scene. Garrett was then shot dead shortly afterwards under questionable circumstances, with Adamson stating that he didn't see who had committed the act. Later claiming that he only shot Garrett in self-defense, Brazel was acquitted after a brief trial the following year.

Since his death, there have been numerous theories regarding the identity of Garrett’s killer or killers, with some evidence suggesting that he had been shot by more than one person. The apparent mystery has only added to the legend of this famous Old West lawman. 

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