Inside the Capitol

Thursday, December 09, 2010

12-13 National Treasure Endangered


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- Is one of the few documents involving the world's best-known New Mexican in serious danger?

      Yes, we're talking about Billy the Kid. Had Bill Richardson become president, or if Susana Martinez does, perhaps that changes. But until then, The Kid is still on top.

   No one may ever have as many books written about him or movies made about him as Billy. From the rankings I have seen, Smokey Bear comes in second.

   What's unfortunate about Billy the Kid's life is that there are precious few vestiges of what he was really like. Despite all the books and movies, almost nothing tangible has survived. Billy traveled light, might we say. He didn't have a place to keep his stuff.

   By far the best evidence we have about the real Kid is the letters he wrote Gov. Lew Wallace. Wallace carefully saved all those letters and they remained in his collection, at the Indiana Historical Society, in Indianapolis.

   In the 1980s, great-grandson William N. Wallace provided two of Billy's 9 known letters to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust. Subsequently, the holdings of that trust became the property of the Hubbard Museum of the American West.

   Later, that museum was taken over by the state. At that time, the letters were in a safe in Ruidoso. Concerned about conservation of the letters, author/historian Dr. Gale Cooper and others urged they be transferred to the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library in Santa Fe.

   The transfer was accomplished in August 2009 and the letters, in good condition, went on display then safe archiving amid front-page articles calling them an absolute treasure.

   And they are just that. Up to that time, historians seemed to be the only people who did not regard the Kid as just an illiterate thug. The letters cast an entirely new light on Billy. He obviously articulate, intelligent, polite and well-schooled in penmanship.

   The most famous of the letters, written in 1879, was Billy's first correspondence to Gov. Wallace. In it, he sets up the deal in which he would testify in a murder case involving the Lincoln County War aftermath in return for the state dropping charges against him for  murder indictments from that war.

   But trouble struck that famous letter. While researching her next book on Billy's writings, Cooper learned it had been put on "indefinite display" since this March. And now, Cooper claims it is seriously deteriorating after light exposure for months longer than federal guidelines for paper documents allow. She says it should be taken off display. Museum staff are taking their time.

   Cooper says professionals can make exact copies of the letters to put on display, while the originals are preserved in temperature and humidity-controlled darkness.. She has offered to pay for the foremost paper conservator in the United States to perform repairs on the original.

   She says the museum has refused her offer. She is now getting the Library of Congress and the National Archives involved in the dispute.

   The March 1979 letter, Cooper says is the most important of Billy's letters to Wallace, and arguably a national treasure. And it is now in danger of being lost to future generations of aficionados.

   And as we know from her eight years of fighting the Billy the Kid Case hoax, she does not give up.

   *  *     *

   In other New Mexico history news, the Alamogordo Daily News reports Alamogordo historian Dr. Dave Townsend as saying incoming Secretary of State Dianna Duran of Alamogordo is only the second statewide official ever to be elected from Otero County.

   Murray Morgan served as commissioner of public lands from 1957-1960. He was elected to two two-year terms.

   Former Gov. Ed Mechem was born in Alamogordo and was a playmate of my father's about the time New Mexico became a state. But both moved on to Las Cruces, from where they launched their careers.









MON, 12-13-10


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



Post a Comment

<< Home