For decades, historians have been hungry to determine whether any official document existed that assigned blame for the murder of former Doña Ana County and Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett – the man who gained fame and notoriety for tracking down and killing Billy the Kid.
Late last year, a Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office employee came across that document in a box of unarchived materials.
Dated February 9, 1908, the handwritten Coroner’s Jury Report – signed by seven jurors – reads as follows: “We the undersigned Justices of the Peace and Coroners Jury have attended the investigation of the body of Pat Garrett who was reported dead within the limits of Precinct No. 20, County of Doña Ana, territory of New Mexico on about five miles northeast of the town of Las Cruces and find that the deceased came to his death by gunshot wounds inflicted by one Wayne Brazel.”
“Finding the Pat Garrett document is exciting for our community because it enriches New Mexican history,” said Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling. “We’re excited to launch our project to preserve this collection of documents ranging from 1854 to 1963. Historians note that we are sitting on a gold mine of rich historical documents waiting to be discovered. Our goal is to provide full access to the public, so we are seeking more funding to complete the project. Since family roots run deep in Doña Ana County, our hope is that these documents enrich our stories and get more people excited about our history and culture.”
Arizona State University Professor Emeritus Dr. Robert J. Stahl estimates the value of the document in the tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of dollars if it were to be sold on the open market, and he has written a strong letter of support for the Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office to receive additional grant funding to catalogue its remaining documentation.
“Not only will these documents add to, fill in, and correct bits and pieces of New Mexico and Doña Ana County histories,” Stahl wrote, “they will raise the prestige and esteem of your Office, its Historical Preservation Grant Team, and the County Government. What has been completely overlooked in your County’s view of these files is that once they are found, filed, and made available, hundreds of historians, genealogists, and just ‘plain folk’ will come from all over the world and spend millions of dollars each year to get their eyes on what you have. You are sitting on a gold mine in more ways than one.”
Krahling said the Garrett document was found by a staffer last November and was soon placed into a safety deposit box for protection. He said the circle of people who knew about the document was kept small until a plan could be put in place for a public unveiling. He said the office also needed to make plans for the expected deluge of interest once the knowledge of the document’s existence became widely known.
“We are still cataloging documents from the late 1800s and early 1900s,” he said. “As we find and catalog them, we will work with historians like Dr. Stahl to determine which have enduring value – both historic and monetary – to safeguard the integrity of the documents while making them available for inspection by interested parties.”
Krahling said the Garrett document will be unveiled to the public at a special ceremony on June 16 in the Commission Chambers of the Doña Ana County Government Center. Thereafter, his staff will schedule one-hour, supervised appointments with people interested in viewing archived historical documents.
Ultimately, he said, the most prized documents found during the archival process will be turned over to the state’s Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe for long-term maintenance and preservation.
Krahling said he and his staff expect to find out this week whether additional grant funding will be allocated to continue the archiving initiative, which began in 2015.
“We know some of what we have, and it’s pretty exciting,” he said. “What we’re certain of is that we will find more documents that rival the Garrett document in their value and importance, and we’re eager to get to work on cataloguing each and every one of them. There are thousands of historical documents still to be reviewed.”