Thunder in the West
The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid
Published by: University of Oklahoma Press
Imprint: University of Oklahoma Press
Even before he was shot and killed in 1881, Billy the Kid’s charisma and murderous career were generating stories that belied his brief life—and that only multiplied, growing to legendary proportions after his death at age twenty-one. In Thunder in the West, Richard W. Etulain takes the true measure of Billy, the man and the legend, and presents the clearest picture yet of his life and his ever-shifting place and presence in the cultural landscape of the Old West.
Billy the Kid—born Henry McCarty in 1859, and also known as William H. Bonney—emerges from these pages in all his complexity, at once a gentleman and gregarious companion, and a thief and violent murderer. Tapping new depths of research, Etulain traces Billy’s short life from his mysterious origins in the East through his wanderings in New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. As we move from his peripatetic early years through the wild West to his fatal involvement in the Lincoln County Wars, we see the impressionable boy give way to the conflicted young man and, finally, to the opportunistic and often amoral outlaw who was out for himself, for revenge, and for whatever he could steal along the way.
Against this deftly drawn portrait, Etulain considers the stories and myths spawned by Billy’s life and death. Beginning with the dime novels featuring Billy the Kid, even during his lifetime, and ranging across the myriad newspaper accounts, novels, and movies that alternately celebrated his outlaw life and condemned his exploits, Etulain offers a uniquely informed view of the changing interpretations that have shaped and reshaped the reputation of this enduring icon of the Old West. In his portrayal, Billy the Kid lives on, not as a cut-throat desperado or a young charmer but as both—hero and villain, myth and man, fully realized in this twenty-first-century interpretation.
Richard W. Etulain is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico. He has served as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review and is the author or editor of more than 60 books, including Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West, Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry, and The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane.
“In this well-written, carefully researched, and thoughtfully presented account, Richard W. Etulain offers the gold standard in the fields of history and lore on Lincoln County, New Mexico, and Billy the Kid.”—David V. Holtby, author of Forty-Seventh Star: New Mexico’s Struggle for Statehood
“Thunder in the West is not just a biography of America’s most famous outlaw but also a study in how the young killer has been viewed against the background of a changing America.”— Sunday Denver Post
“Richard W. Etulain is one of the best known writers of the Wild West. His latest, Thunder in the West, deals with not only the biographical aspects of Kid’s life but also delves into aspects of how the Kid has been treated in the century plus since his death in 1881. Of significant importance is Etulain’s treatment of the many writers and researchers who have been fascinated with the Kid’s story, producing a mountain of books and articles as well as films dealing with some aspect of the Kid’s life. Many readers will be familiar with some of these but Etulain has somehow dug deeper than others. Highly recommend!”—Tombstone Epitaph
“As an introduction to Billy the Kid and New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, Thunder in the West is solid, carefully researched, and well written. It also serves as a guide to areas for western historians’ further research. Along with this book, Etulain’s companion volume, Billy the Kid: A Reader’sGuide (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) offers a strong research base from which to expand. These are two fine volumes emanating from a distinguished western scholar.”--- Southwestern Historical Quarterly
“Dr. Etulain had spent decades researching The Kid, searching exhaustively for facts about his life, his death, and everything that has come since. Thunder in the West is the culmination of his efforts, and is a valuable resource not only for professional or amateur Billy historians, but even for the casual reader who is merely fascinated or curious about The Life and Legends of Billy the Kid.”—Panhandle Plains Historical Review