Route 66 New Mexico Side Trip: Fort Sumner Historic Site

In the 1860s, more than 8,500 Navajo and 500 Mescalero Apache were interned on the one-million-acre Bosque Redondo reservation along the banks of the Pecos River overseen by the troops of Fort Sumner.

After the U.S. Army forced the Mescalero Apache people to leave their homeland, they brought them to Bosque Redondo in 1863. The Navajo were forced to walk hundreds of miles here, starving along the way. Upon arrival, they were then forced to build the fort, a dam, dig ditches, and plant cottonwood trees. The plan was to “teach” the Navajo and Mescalero Apache how to be self-sufficient—but they had already been self-sufficient for centuries before the Europeans arrived. No shelter was provided; instead the Navajo lived in pits and used tree branches for protection. As the U.S. government severely underestimated the amount of food needed to feed the population at the fort, approximately 20 percent of the American Indians starved to death.

bosque redondo illustration
Illustration from The History and Government of New Mexico by John H. Vaughan, published by State College, NM. Public domain photo.

Bosque Redondo Memorial

The site today is the Bosque Redondo Memorial (3647 Billy the Kid Rd., 575/355-2573, 8:30am-4:30pm Wed.-Sun., $3).

Navajo architect David Sloan designed the Mescalero Apache and Navajo memorial in the shape of an Apache teepee. Take the 0.75-mile outdoor interpretive trail to see the Indian Commissary where crops were stored, the area where the 1868 Navajo treaty was signed, and the entrance to the Fort Sumner Military Center and barracks with 30-inch adobe walls that housed 637 soldiers. There’s also a plaque at the site where Billy the Kid was killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett in 1881. The museum is being redesigned, but there are informative panels and a video recapping the history of the site. The on-site gift shop sells hand-woven rugs, pottery, books, mugs, clothing, and tribal jewelry.

Bosque Redondo Memorial in new Mexico
Bosque Redondo Memorial Site. Photo taken by Norbert Herrera and provided courtesy of Bosque Redondo Memorial.

Getting to Fort Sumner

From I-40 in Santa Rosa, take Exit 277 to get on U.S. 84 South. Drive 40 miles to the village of Fort Sumner. Turn left (east) on Highway 60 and continue on U.S. 84. Turn right (south) on Billy the Kid Road. The site is 3.5 miles on the right (west).

Billy the Kid’s Gravesite

Also in Fort Sumner is Billy the Kid’s gravesite; the famous outlaw was killed here in 1881. There are several signs claiming to have the “real grave of Billy the Kid”; it’s still unclear where he actually is, but his headstone is in the graveyard behind the Old Fort Sumner Museum. It was stolen more than once so now it’s caged up. The Billy the Kid Museum (1435 E. Sumner Ave., 575/355-2380, 8:30am-5pm daily, $5) has more stories about the infamous teenage outlaw’s life. Also on-site are his chaps, spurs, rifle, and other memorabilia.

Billy the Kid grave at Fort Sumner
Gravesite of Billy the Kid at Fort Sumner. Photo © Megan Eaves, licensed CC BY-SA.

Getting There

The gravestone is in the Old Fort Sumner Cemetery in the Fort Sumner Park near Billy the Kid Drive and Old Fort Park Road. The museum is on U.S. 60/84 in the east side of the town of Fort Sumner.

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