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Lew Wallace Letters Go West

Wallace letterThe 96,000-square-foot New Mexico History Museum opened its doors for the very first time Memorial Day weekend 2009, and while taking a comprehensive look at the Western state’s past, it includes some Hoosier history as well. Indiana native and military general Lew Wallace is largely known as the author of the best-selling book Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, but his life included many other experiences, accomplishments and accolades, which later included an appointment as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Wallace actually wrote his first draft of Ben-Hur during his time in the New Mexico Territory. Perhaps the most colorful part of Wallace’s past took place a little more than a decade after his Civil War service, when he was tapped by President Rutherford B. Hayes to become governor of the New Mexico Territory – a position that plunged him into the world of the Lincoln County War and into contact with William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid.

Two letters between Wallace and the famous young outlaw are currently on loan from IHS to the New Mexico museum. One is a letter from Wallace to Bonney written March 15, 1879, which includes a request to meet with Billy the Kid at the home of old Squire Wilson and indicates that he can exempt Billy the Kid from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. The other is from Bonney to Wallace, dated March 20, 1879, in which Bonney confirms his intention to surrender and expresses concern about being killed after his arrest. “… I am not afraid to die like a man fighting but I would not like to be killed like a dog unarmed,” he writes.

While IHS makes many loans from its extensive collections, this particular case was more involved because of the special nature of the items, their destination and the timing of the request. “I think it’s important that the exhibit looks at Wallace’s role instead of just glorifying Billy the Kid,” says Paul Brockman, director of IHS Manuscript and Visual Collections. “In the grand scheme of Lew Wallace’s career, the Lincoln County War period is just a part. He was trusted to come in and clean things up, and he had a reputation for honesty.”

The letters, part of the IHS’s Lew Wallace Collection, were returned to IHS in December 2009 and replaced with copies, as the originals may only be on display for six months at a time for conservation reasons.