This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series New Mexico

E.T. and the Kid

Today, I have a challenge for you.

Despite its relatively young age, the United States is a nation full of pop-culture character sensations. Some real – Elvis, Calamity Jane, Johnny Appleseed – some fictitious – Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Bigfoot.

On a county-by-county basis, it’s hard to beat the folklore pedigree of Lincoln County, New Mexico. Named for the 16th President of the United States, this administrative area was the locus for two subjects that continue to loom in the imaginations of Americans in the 21st century. Can any other location boast the birthplace of two bigger sensational American mythologies?

Find a county that can produce more star power than Billy the Kid and the Roswell Incident.

Lincoln County's New Mexico location

Lincoln County has one leg up on the pop-culture competition: it’s huge. At one point, it was the largest county in the United States. With 4,831 square miles of land, the county is four times the size of Rhode Island, more than double the size of Delaware, and just shy of Connecticut. Today, it’s just the 69th largest county in the country and not even the largest Lincoln (that designation goes to Nevada’s version).

It’s also incredibly empty when it comes to humans. Under 20,000 individuals reside there, meaning each square mile features just 4 people.

So, if an alien civilization threw at the dartboard of Earth’s surface and crashed in a random spot, Lincoln County has a decent shot at being the winner. But, when it comes to an icon of human origin, Lincoln County’s natural resources pale in comparison to more populated areas.

The only authenticated photo of Billy the Kid

The county was established in 1869 when New Mexico was still just a territory. In 1878, a truly American conflict erupted, now known as the Lincoln County War. When John Tunstall and Alexander McQueen arrived with notions of setting up a dry goods store and a ranch, the interests that operated a monopoly in those business areas didn’t much like it. With the help of the sheriff and an organized gang of gunmen, James Dolan moved to permanently eliminate his would-be competitors. In response, Tunstall turned to the Lincoln County Regulators for protection.

If you’ve ever seen the film Young Guns, starring Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kieffer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Terence Stamp, you have a basic, dramatized understanding of the Lincoln County War (you also have insight into the origin of 1990s banger Regulate by Warren G!). 

One of the Regulators was a young man, born Henry McCarty. In 1877, he adopted the pseudonym William H. Bonney, but we know him better as Billy the Kid. Through the events of the Lincoln County War, Billy the Kid became, perhaps, the most famous and notorious figure of the Old West. McCarty allegedly killed 21 people during his brief life, though he and others disputed his responsibility for many of them (a slew of evidence seems to exonerate McCarty from a decent number of his supposed murders). After the death of Tunstall, McCarty’s revenge campaign garnered him a reputation as a sharpshooting quickdraw, a ruthless marauder, and an escape artist. When the Battle of Lincoln transpired in 1878, he was just 18 years old. By 20, newspapers had already made him a national figure.

Courthouse and jail, from which McCarty escaped, in Lincoln, New Mexico
Wanted poster for Billy the Kid

At just 21, Billy the Kid had participated in all the events that would immortalize him. On 14 July 1881, sheriff Pat Garrett shot McCarty after three months on the run.

To this day, many of the locations tied to the Lincoln County War and the trials of McCarty survive and can be visited. Though a gravesite in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, bears the name William Bonney, legends persisted for more than half a century that Billy the Kid had survived. In 1948, an interesting date that ties into the second half of today’s tale, a man named Brushy Bill Roberts claimed to be Billy the Kid and sought a pardon from the governor of New Mexico. While the claims were officially dismissed, McCarty/Roberts would have been 67 years old if true.

Billy the Kid would have survived past the end of World War II and even reached the Alien Age.

Just a year before Brushy Bill proclaimed himself The Kid, a flying saucer craze overtook the United States. On 26 June 1947, aviator Kenneth Arnold reported seeing unidentified aircraft near Mount Rainier. These ships seemed to be like “saucers skipping on water.” The modern UFO phenomenon was born.

Major Jesse Marcel inspects debris from the Roswell incident - University of Texas

Just weeks later, the famous Roswell incident captured the nation’s attention and catapulted the notion of extraterrestrials into the stratosphere.

At this point, a good student of New Mexico geography will stop us. You might say, “Aha! Roswell isn’t in Lincoln County! It’s the county seat of Chaves County!”

And you would be correct.

How can the Roswell incident earn a spot in the history of Lincoln County? Read on!

At a spot approximately 32 miles north of the jail from which Billy the Kid escaped in Lincoln, a rancher named Mac Brazel found a field of debris in a remote section of the property on which he worked. Without a telephone or radio, Brazel did not hear about the flying disks in the news until he visited nearby Carona, New Mexico. When he heard the news, he connected the crashed materials he discovered to the disks.

On 7 July 1947, Brazel gathered some of the material and took it to the sheriff’s office in Roswell, which sits about 75 miles to the southeast. There, the authorities contacted the Army, which, at the time, housed one of its largest bases in Roswell. The debris made it to the base, which issued a press statement saying it had recovered a “flying disc.” From that point, Roswell became attached to the entire incident.

Roswell Daily Record from 9 July 1947

After the uproar that surrounded the Army admitting it had captured a possible alien craft, they quickly retracted the statement. Instead, they amended, they had simply found a weather balloon. You can imagine the dubious response from some sectors. Can you tell the difference between a flying saucer and a weather balloon?

The official story made a bit more sense in 1994 when authorities divulged that the craft retrieved in Lincoln County had been part of Project Mogul. The debris came from a crashed nuclear test surveillance balloon, whose existence was top secret in 1947. One can almost see government officials giddy with the readymade excuse for their downed craft. Just weeks before, a pilot had given them the flying saucer justification. No attention will possibly come from claiming we recovered a flying saucer!

To this date, many patently disbelieve the official Roswell explanation. The officer in charge of recovering and studying the debris, Major Jesse Marcel, claimed later in life that he believed the items were extraterrestrial in origin.

Today, Roswell is the alien capital of the planet, taking advantage of a notoriety that’s literally out of this world. You can visit a McDonald’s in the shape of a flying saucer, the International UFO museum, and have dozens of little green men stare at you as you drive through the streets.

Checking out the Roswell welcome sign - photo by Kyle Stout
Turning the tables on abductions - photo by Deborah Stout
Do they whip up lattes in space? - photo by Kyle Stout

But it was on a private ranch in Lincoln County where the craft – whatever it was – impacted Earth.

And just a relative stone’s throw from the locations of some of the Old West’s greatest confrontations.

Lincoln County, New Mexico, progenitor of two of America’s greatest larger-than-life mythologies.

Further Reading and Exploration

Lincoln County – Official Website

Lincoln, New Mexico – Wild Wild West Frozen in Time – Legends of America

Lincoln Historic Site – New Mexico Historic Sites

City of Roswell – Official Website

What Really Happened at Roswell? – History

Reports of UFOs: 1947 Roswell Incident – National Air and Space Museum

In 1947, A High-Altitude Balloon Crash Landed in Roswell. The Aliens Never Left – Smithsonian Magazine

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