Exactly 146 years ago today, on Friday, August 4, 1871, three Methodist missionaries en route to Elizabethtown, New Mexico were struck by lightning and almost killed in Cimarron Canyon. Illinois natives Reverend N. S. Buckner and his 19 year old wife Annette had recently been appointed to take over Rev. Thomas Harwood’s responsibilities in Etown. They were travelling with Harwood, the man would go on to become the Methodist Bishop of New Mexico and co-found what is now the Harwood School in Albuquerque. The Buckners had just been assigned to assist him by taking over in Elizabethtown, where Harwood had dedicated a church building the year before.
The sun was beginning to set when Harwood and the Buckners reached the first section of Cimarron Canyon. Rev. Harwood’s buggy provided protection from the rain, so they weren’t uncomfortable. In fact, they were enjoying the thunderstorm and discussing the properties of electricity, when suddenly, thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. The buggy itself had been struck and its passengers stunned to immobility. The force of the strike tore two large holes in the ground underneath the wheels, broke the crossbar behind the horses, and knocked the animals themselves off their feet.
Once the Buckners and Harwood were able to move again, they left the horses and walked back towards Cimarron “under the blazing lightnings and almost deafening thunder, muddy, wet and barefoot, . . . three miles to the nearest American house, and thence in wagon to Cimarron City” (Harwood, Vol. I, 129).
Although they were all still feeling the effects of their lightning experience, the next morning, the little group of missionaries were back in the canyon, this time on the Saturday stage to Elizabethtown, where the men preached at the morning and evening church services the next day.
It was an inauspicious beginning to the Buckner’s work in New Mexico Territory and things don’t seem to have improved much after that. Elizabethtown was a center of resistance to the Maxwell Land Grant Company’s plan to dispossess the area’s miners, ranchers, and farmers of their land. The town was rife with tension. The Buckners returned to Colorado in 1872. A year and a half later, in January 1874, they were replaced by Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, who lived in Cimarron but held services in Elizabethtown on a regular basis. Tolby himself would not last long. He was gunned down on September 14, 1875 on his way home from the Elizabethtown church, a date that many consider to be the beginning of the Colfax County War.
For fiction based on Reverend Tolby’s life and assassination, and historical information about his death, see my May 24, 2017 post and watch for them throughout September.
Source: Thomas Harwood, History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Vol. I and II, El Albogado Press, Albuquerque, 1910; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, 1972, Albuquerque; ttps://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1871&country=1 accessed 7/17/2017