Review: JUAN PATRON: A Fallen Star in the Days of Billy the Kid

People interested in U.S. history often underestimate how different a story it is from region to region. I’ve recently been reading revolutionary history and naturally that means descriptions of British colonial communities, northeastern geography, and a decidedly European sensibility.

It can be startling how differently statehood evolved in the west. Paul L. Tsompanas tells the story of one man heavily involved in  the early days of New Mexican statehood in his book titled JUAN PATRON: A Fallen Star in the Days of Billy the Kid.

Tsompanas describes a west where there were no continental armies fighting over who would rule. Instead, the gradual increase in settlers along with often brutal local wars established the nature of communities only until another wave of settlers or another political crisis forced yet more change. In many ways it was a roiling process, with groups and individuals in power one day and hunted the next. Before enforceable laws and a solid legal system, it was all about how much one could get and keep from everyone else, often with no holds barred.

The author describes Patron’s youth as he attended newly built Catholic schools in New Mexico territory. Patron then established himself in various county offices, working against corruption as New Mexico developed its state systems and official politics. According to Tsompanas, contemporaries considered Patron a community leader involved in church building, school building and running a business.

While the origins of cities, schools and fights over construction contracts are interesting (although construction issues never seem to change), it is the “wild west” portions, or unofficial politics, of this biography that offer Patron’s more unique, if not more important, contributions to New Mexican and U.S. history.

Patron lived through and was involved in what are now known as the “Lincoln County Wars,” a series of deadly altercations between neighbors and hired guns over property and power. Researching government, church, individual and news records to recreate events as closely as possible, Tsompanas describes “wild west” shootouts, corrupt politicians, cattle rustling, vendettas, hired guns, thievery and more.

Since this is Juan Patron’s story, the author highlights Patron’s efforts to intervene in increasingly deadly arguments as well as his connection to hired guns – specifically Billy the Kid. (Happily, the author includes several photographs, maps and copies of documents. See Patron’s request for reimbursement from state government for boarding Billy the Kid and others.) Perhaps not surprising given the times, Patron died young of a gunshot wound.

Tsompanas tells Patron’s story from the perspective of a local historian along with a familial sensibility, having at one time married a descendant of Patron’s.  Readers familiar with or particularly interested in New Mexican history will enjoy the detail, maps, pictures and bibliography. Readers not so familiar will gain some insight into how the western U.S. took shape and now reflects its early settlers and communities.

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