By Emerson Hough in 1905
The deeds of the Western sheriff often went un-chronicled or were luridly set forth in fiction as incidents of blood, interesting only because of their bloodiness. The frontier officer himself, usually not a man to boast of his own acts, quietly stepped into the background of the past and was replaced by others who more loudly proclaimed their prominence in the advancement of civilization. Yet, the typical frontier sheriff, the good man who went after bad men, and made it safe for men to live and own property and to establish homes and to build up a society and a country and a government, is a historical character of great interest. Among very many good ones, we shall perhaps best get at the type of all by giving the story of one; and we shall also learn something of the dangerous business of man hunting in a region filled with men who must be hunted down.
Patrick Floyd Garrett, better known as Pat Garrett, was a Southerner by birth. He was born in Chambers County, Alabama, June 5, 1850. In 1856, his parents moved to Claiborne Parish, Louisiana, where his father was a large landowner, and of course at that time and place, a slave owner, and among the bitter opponents of the new regime which followed the Civil War.
When young Garrett’s father died, the large estates dwindled under bad management; and when, within a short time, his mother followed her husband to the grave, the family resources, affected by the war, became involved, although the two Garrett plantations embraced nearly three thousand acres of rich Louisiana soil. On January 25, 1869, Pat Garrett, a tall and slender youth of eighteen, set out to seek his fortunes in the wild West, with no resources but such as lay in his brains and body.
He went to Lancaster, in Dallas County, Texas. A big ranch owner in southern Texas wanted men, and Pat Garrett packed up and went home with him. The world was new to him, however, and he went off with the northbound cows, like many other youngsters of the time. His herd was made up at Eagle Lake, and he only accompanied the drive as far north as Denison. There, he began to get uneasy, hearing of the delights of the still wilder life of the buffalo hunters on the great plains which lay to the west, in the Panhandle of Texas. For three winters, 1875 to 1877, he was in and out between the buffalo range and the settlements, by this time well wedded to frontier life.
In the fall of 1877, he went West once more, and this time kept on going west. With two hardy companions, he pushed on entirely across the wild and unknown Panhandle country, leaving the wagons near what was known as the “Yellow Houses,” and never returning to them. His blankets, personal belongings, etc., he never saw again. He and his friends had their heavy Sharps’ rifles, plenty of powder and lead, and their reloading tools, and they had nothing else. Their beds they made of their saddle blankets, and the food they killed from the wild herds. For their love of adventure, they rode on across an unknown country, until finally, they arrived at the little Mexican settlement of Fort Sumner, New Mexico on the Pecos River, in the month of February 1878.
Pat and his friends were hungry, but all the cash they could find was just one dollar and a half between them. They gave it to Pat and sent him over to the store to see about eating. He asked the price of meals, and they told him fifty cents per meal. They would permit them to eat but once. He concluded to buy a dollar and a half’s worth of flour and bacon, which would last for two or three meals. He joined his friends, and they went into camp on the river bank, where they cooked and ate, perfectly happy and quite careless about the future.
As they finished their breakfast, they saw up the river the dust of a cattle herd and noted that a party was working a herd, cutting out cattle for some purpose or other.
“Go up there and get a job,” said Pat to one of the boys. The latter did go up but came back reporting that the boss did not want any help.
“Well, he’s got to have help,” said Pat. So saying, he arose and started upstream himself.
Garrett was at that time, as has been said, of very great height, six feet four and one-half inches, and very slender. Unable to get trousers long enough for his legs, he had pieced down his best pair with about three feet of buffalo leggings with the hair out. Gaunt, dusty, and unshaven, he looked hard, and when he approached the herd owner and asked for work, the other was as much alarmed as pleased. He declined again, but Pat firmly told him he had come to go to work and was sorry, but it could not be helped. Something in the quiet voice of Garrett seemed to arrest the attention of the cowman. “What can you do, Lengthy?” he asked.
“Ride anything with hair, and rope better than any man you’ve got here,” answered Garrett, casting a critical glance at the other men.
The cowman hesitated a moment and then said, “Get in.” Pat got in. He stayed in. Two years later he was still at Fort Sumner and married.
Garrett moved down from Fort Sumner soon after his marriage and settled a mile east of what is now the flourishing city of Roswell, New Mexico at a spring on the bank of the Hondo River, and in the middle of what was then the virgin plains. Here, he picked up land, until he had more than 1,250 acres.
He was not, however, to live the steady life of the frontier farmer. His friend, Captain J. C. Lea, of Roswell, came to him and asked if he would run as sheriff of Lincoln County. Garrett consented and was elected. He was warned not to take this office, and word was sent to him by the bands of hard-riding outlaws of that region that if he attempted to serve any processes on them he would be killed. He paid no attention to this, and, as he was still an unknown quantity in the country, which was new and thinly settled, he seemed sure to be killed. He won the absolute confidence of the governor, who “told him to go ahead, not to stand on technicalities, but to break up the gang that had been rendering life and property unsafe for years and making the territory a mockery of civilization. If the truth were known, it might perhaps be found that sometimes Garrett arrested a bad man and got his warrant for it later when he went to the settlements. He found a straight six-shooter the best sort of warrant, and in effect, he took the matter of establishing a government in southwestern New Mexico in his own hands and did it in his own way. He was the whole machinery of the law. Sometimes he boarded his prisoners out of his own pocket. He himself was the state and his word was good, even to the worst cutthroat that ever he captured. Often he had in his care prisoners whom, under the law, he could not legally have held, had they been demanded of him; but, he held them in spite of any demand; and the worst prisoner on that border knew that he was safe in Pat Garrett’s hands, no matter what happened, and that if Pat said he would take him through to any given point, he would take him through.