Mid-April 1871 was a busy time for the newly-formed Maxwell Land Grant Company. Lucien and Luz Maxwell had received their cash for the grant, moved out of the house at Cimarron, and were busy spending their money. Lucien had used a good chunk of it to set up the First National Bank in Santa Fe. He’d also bought land at Fort Sumner. While Luz turned the former the officers quarters into a home, he bought racehorses.
However, the Company wasn’t having an easy time establishing their control over the former Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant’s vast acreage. There’d been an initial dust-up in late 1870, when the Elizabethtown miners rioted against the new owners and the Governor had to send soldiers in to squelch them. But that wasn’t the end of it. In early April 1871, the Cimarron Squatters Club organized a mass protest and fundraising meeting in front of the county courthouse.
The Company apparently decided to demonstrate a little force in response. They sent a group of employees into the Ute Creek placer mines and took over. That strategy didn’t work out too well—the miners disarmed the Company’s men and held them hostage.
Again, the Governor got involved. This time he came himself, forced the miners to free the prisoners, ordered them to abstain from further violence, and then got the Army to station soldiers from Fort Union in the area to enforce the peace.
The soldiers’ presence does seem to have calmed the boiling pot for a little while. But it was bound to boil over again—the Company was enforcing rent payments Maxwell had never bothered to collect and also kicking people off range and farmland Maxwell had allowed them to use.
Whether the Company was within their rights isn’t clear. Things got even murkier in late January 1873, when the U.S. Department of Interior ordered much of the Grant’s acreage to be treated as public lands. This brought more settlers (the Company called them “squatters”) into the area and, with them, more unrest.
With the newcomers came Methodist Episcopal missionary Rev. Franklin J. Tolby. Tolby sided with the settlers and miners and didn’t hesitate to speak his mind. In mid-September 1875 he was ambushed and killed on the canyon road between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, and the Colfax County War was on in earnest.
The conflict didn’t end until April 18, 1887, when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the Company’s right to almost two million acres. Even then, the violence didn’t come to an immediate halt. However, even the most ardent settlers didn’t have any legal arguments left in their arsenal and the Colfax County War gradually faded away.
Once again, money and political power had prevailed in the fight for control of New Mexico’s lands.
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing The Santa Fe Ring, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014; Harriet Freiberger, Lucien Maxwell,Villain or Visionary, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999; Larry Murphy, Out in God’s Country: A History of Colfax County, New Mexico, Springer, NM: 1969; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: A history of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lure, Lore and Legends of the Moreno Valley, Angel Fire, NM: Columbine Books, 1997; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, The People of the Cimarron Country, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999.