Methodist Reverend Parson Franklin J Tolby was well-liked in the Cimarron area of northeast New Mexico so a lot of folks were shocked when his body was found in Cimarron Canyon on September 14, 1875. He'd been shot in the back. Suspicion fell on Cimarron's new Constable, Cruz Vega. On the evening of October 30, a masked mob led by Clay Allison (today remembered as one of the most deadly gunfighters of the 19th century West), seized Vega and lynched him. Two days later, Allison gunned down Vega's friend, Francisco "Pancho" Griego, during a confrontation in a local saloon. More violence was to follow. A lot more.
On our road trips, THC and Mrs THC enjoy learning about the history of the areas we drive through. Often, as we pass a town or site of interest, whomever isn't driving will look it up on Wikipedia. While traveling I-25 in New Mexico and Colorado (and, by the way, the stretch of Interstate from Santa Fe to Denver with the Rockies on your left and the Great Plains on the right is gloriously scenic) a small reference in the Wikipedia entry on the town of Cimarron, New Mexico (present day population, 1021) led us to discover the tale of the Colfax County War, a violent, 15-year confrontation between landowners and squatters that took up to 200 lives and culminated in a decision by the United States Supreme Court.
The origins of the war go back to the days when Mexico governed the province of Nuevo Mexico. It starts with Charles H Beaubien, born in Quebec in 1800, who emigrated first to the United States and then to New Mexico, arriving there in the early 1820s, shortly after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. Settling in Taos, he applied to become a Mexican citizen and in the process his first name was recorded as Carlos, a name retained in all of his future records. Beaubien married Maria Paula Lobato . Scrambling to make a leaving during the governorship of Manuel Armijo, who placed discriminatory taxes on non-native Mexicans, Beaubien was able to enlist the governor's secretary, Guadalupe Miranda, in a scheme to obtain a land grant in northeast Nuevo Mexico. In 1841 the partners were successful in obtaining a grant of 1.7 million acres on the Great Plains, east of the Sangre de Christo Mountains (various sources claim that grants of more than 90,000 acres were not permitted under Mexican law).
Settlement of the grant was delayed by several years. First, by invasions from the new Republic of Texas, which claimed that its western border extended to the Rio Grande. The largest of these, while "unofficial", resulted in a Texian force being captured by Mexican troops. Second, by the American-Mexican War of 1846-8, in which Nuevo Mexico was conquered by the American army.
Beaubien weathered the transition, being appointed to the new American territory's Supreme Court and having his grant confirmed by the peace treaty. As for Miranda, after the war he left the territory and became mayor of Juarez in Mexico.
Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois in 1814. At a young age, he went west and became a fur trapper and trader. He also served as chief hunter for John C Fremont's 1841 expedition of exploration through the Rockies, a journey on which he met and became fast friends with Kit Carson. Kit and Lucien settled in Taos and in a dual ceremony in 1844, Maxwell married the daughter of Carlos Beaubien and Carson the daughter of another prominent local family.
In the 1850s, Lucien Maxwell took on the active management of the land grant (now referred to as the Maxwell Land Grant) and, when Beaubien died in 1864, he inherited his share of the grant (in 1858, Miranda had sold his share of the grant to Maxwell for $2,745). According to most sources the Maxwell Land Grant was one of the three largest contiguous property holdings in American history.
In 1870, Maxwell sold the grant to financiers from Chicago representing British investors for the sum of $1,375,000 and retired to Fort Sumner, New Mexico where he died in 1875 (six years later, Sheriff Pat Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid at Maxwell's Fort Sumner home, then owned by his son).
(Lucien Maxwell from legends of america)
What did the new investors find when they took possession? Lucien Maxwell, moved to the settlement of Cimarron sometime in the 1850s (the town was formally chartered in 1859). While he sold some parcels, there were an increasing number of squatters; miners and farmers of Anglo, Spanish and Indian origin and given the size of the grant, Maxwell was pretty casual about enforcing his property rights. The number of squatters accelerated with the 1866 discovery of gold on Baldy Peak which quickly led to the founding of the boom town of Elizabethtown which had a population of 7,000 within a year. Both the town and the gold fields were within the land grant. In 1869, Colfax County was created by carving off an portion formerly belonging to Taos County and Elizabethtown became the county seat.
(from usgwa archives)
Unlike Maxwell, the new owners wanted to establish their property rights. The initial attempts by the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company to assert its rights were a failure. With the assistance of the Territorial Attorney General, eviction notices were served but mostly ignored.
Before going further, let's take a moment to sort out the players on the ownership side. While the original investors were British, the company was eventually taken over by Dutch investors. At some point, Stephen Benton Elkins was installed as president of the company. Elkins was a big figure in New Mexico history. From 1867 to 1877 he served as Territorial Attorney General, US District Attorney, Territorial Delegate to Congress, as well as maintaining a law practice and becoming president of the Santa Fe National Bank. Along with a couple of associates he formed what became known as the Santa Fe Ring, which, through its manipulation of the territorial judicial process was able to control some of the old Spanish and Mexican land grants and play a major role in triggering both the Colfax Country and Lincoln County Wars (it was the latter, taking place from 1878-81 in which Billy the Kid attained national fame). In later life, Elkins moved to West Virginia, became Secretary of War in President Benjamin Harrison's administration and served as Senator from the state from 1895 until his death in 1911. [Note: The ownership trail and the role of Elkins and the Santa Fe Ring remain disputed; if you read ten accounts they will give you ten different versions of the story - THC has chosen to simplify it as best he can].
The Territorial Attorney General to whom the land company turned for assistance was a friend and business associate of Elkins. The attempts to serve eviction notices in the squatter stronghold of Elizabethtown backfired, provoking a riot and leading the Territorial Governor to call for federal troops to restore order, a request that was ignored.
(Harvesting grain on the Maxwell Land Grant, from tumblr)
However, other means were available. The first was in 1872 to transfer the county seat to Cimarron where the land company was headquartered. A further round of eviction notices followed and, like the first, were mostly ignored, along with more complicated maneuvering, summarized by one source as follows:
At this point the land grant company elected as vice president and COO the chief construction engineer of the Santa Fe Railroad, one William Raymond Morley. Morley was aware that the grant company controlled the key right-of-way over Raton Pass and he took a leave of absence from the railroad to try to strengthen the relationship between the land grant and the railroad. Aware of the impasse between the land grant company and the squatters, Morley requested his friend, Frank Springer, of his native Iowa, to come and help sort out the problem. Springer was a brilliant, analytical and honest attorney. He became one of the most respected of the territorial pioneers. He and his brother Charles founded the CS Ranch, which is still owned and operated by their descendants.Scattered violence was already taking place, but it was the events of 1875 that ignited the War.
In 1874, ignoring the 1860 Act of Congress, the Federal Department of the Interior declared the land grant to be public domain. At about the same time, the Maxwell Land Grant Company defaulted on their property tax obligations. A public auction was held and Melvin Mills, an associate of Thomas Catron, bought the property for $16,479 in back taxes, intending to sell it to Catron for $20,000. When this plan was exposed, the Dutch owners raised enough money to redeem the property. And exposure of this plan shed light on the “Santa Fe Ring,” a secret Republican coalition designed to control public offices in New Mexico, especially the judiciary.
Widely suspected as members of the Ring were Stephen Elkins, Dr. Robert Longwill, Melvin Mills and Thomas Catron (who, by then, was no longer the Territorial Attorney General). When they became aware of possible hidden motives, Morley and Springer founded The Cimarron News and Press, a newspaper which regularly criticized the Santa Fe Ring. This got both men marked for assassination.
Rev. Tolby had arrived in Colfax County and ministered to its population, becoming an advocate for many against the land company and the Santa Fe Ring. In July 1875, letters were published in the New York Sun, denouncing the Ring and naming Elkins, Catron and local judge Joseph Palen as key members. Tolby was suspected to be one of the authors. In early September, Rev Tolby publicly criticized Judge Palen and a local grand jury for failing to indict Pancho Griego for the killing of two soldiers. Later that month, while riding from Cimarron to Elizabethtown, Tolby was shot twice in the back in an ambush.
As related above, Cruz Vega was suspected of the murder, seized and hanged, but before that he was tortured and implicated Manuel Cardenas as an accomplice (Cardenas was killed on November 10) followed by the shoot out in which Clay Allison killed Griego.
(Clay Allison from legends of america)
Clay Allison already had a reputation as a dangerous man. In 1870 he led an Elizabethtown mob in attacking a jail and seizing and lynching a prisoner and in 1874 had killed another well known gunfighter, Chunk Colbert. The year after shooting Griego, Allison shot and killed Constable Charles Faber of Bent County, Colorado. Eventually relocating to Dodge City he is also alleged to have had a confrontation with Wyatt Earp, though that may just be a piece of Western myth (for more on that legendary cowboy town read The Dodge City Peace Commission).
The violence and legal maneuvering continued over the next decade. At one point, the land company recruited Bat Masterson's brother, James along with 35 enforcers to handle evictions and even got the governor to briefly give them militia status! In the meantime, the county seat was transferred yet again in 1881 to the new town of Springer.. In 1885, the lawn of the new country courthouse in Springer was the site of yet shootout that left two men dead.
The legal aspect of the dispute reached the Supreme Court in 1887 with the court hearing four days of oral argument. The case centered on whether the land grant was valid since there was evidence that the size of the grant far exceeded that allowed under Mexican law at the time. At the same time the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago, ending the Mexican-American War, as well as the 1860 Act of Congress declared the grant valid. The Court, Justice Miller writing on its behalf (United States v Maxwell Land Grant Co., 122 U.S. 365), found that the grant was indeed valid and noting in conclusion :
The case itself has been pending in the courts of the United States since August, 1882, and, on account of its importance, was advanced out of its order for hearing in this court. The arguments on both sides of the case were unrestricted in point of time, and were wanting in no element of ability, industrious research, or clear apprehension of the principles involved in it. The court was thoroughly impressed with the importance of the case, not only as regarded the extent of the grant and its value, but also on account of its involving principles which will become precedents in cases of a similar nature, now rapidly increasing in number. It was therefore given a most careful examination, and this petition for a rehearing has had a similar attentive consideration. The result is that we are entirely satisfied that the grant, as confirmed by the action of congress, is a valid grant; that the survey, and the patent issued upon it, as well as the original grant by Armijo, are entirely free from any fraud on the part of the grantees, or those claiming under them; and that the decision could be no other than that which the learned judge of the circuit court below made, and which this court affirmed.With the Court's decision most of the remaining squatters settled with the company or left. The last casualty was rancher Richard Russell, killed by company enforcers in 1888.
The gold was running out in Elizabethtown by the 1890s. Today it's a ghost town.