The three men and two mules stopped and stared up the mountainside. A fall of broken rock blocked their way.
“Well, shit!” Gus said. “How’re we supposed to get to that old mine shaft with this in the way?”
Herbert pulled off his hat and fanned his week-old beard. “Maybe we can go around.”
Alonzo pulled his suspenders away from his rounded belly and looked down and then up the sharply-angled slope. “Mules ain’t gonna like that,” he said.
“Guess we’re done then.” Gus rubbed his jaw. “Hell, I needed that gold.”
Herbert shrugged and began maneuvering the mules to face back down the mountainside.
Alonzo stared across the slope at the fractured stone. “That’s rotten quartz,” he said thoughtfully. He moved out onto the rocks.
“Careful there,” Gus said, but Alonzo only crouched down and stretched to pluck a piece from near the center of the rock fall. He turned it carefully. “Will you look at that,” he said wonderingly.
Gus and Herbert looked at each other, then Alonzo. He grinned back at them. “Might be this is as far’s we need to go,” he said. He lifted the quartz in his hand. “Looks like there’s gold enough right here!”
Cruz Vega didn’t go quietly to his death. He told the Cimarron, New Mexico Territory mob who lynched him that they were killing the wrong man. He hadn’t shot Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby in Cimarron Canyon on September 14, 1875. Manuel Cardenas had.
Vega’s accusation didn’t save him from death, but it did turn attention to Elizabethtown in the mountains west of Cimarron, where Cardenas lived. When word of Vega’s accusation reached the mining town on Saturday, November 6, 1875, Cardenas turned himself in rather than face a lynch mob of his own. Then he proceeded to tell Etown’s Justice of the Peace what some county residents had suspected from the beginning: Santa Fe Ring members were responsible for Tolby’s murder.
The Santa Fe Ring controlled the Maxwell Land Grant Company and they’d badly wanted to silence Reverend Tolby. Tolby inveighed regularly against the Company evictions of people they considered squatters as well as the Company’s other efforts to get maximum value from the land they’d purchased from Luz and Lucien Maxwell five years before. According to Tolby, the grant lands were open to homesteading and, if anything, at least part of it should be returned to the Ute and Apache bands who’d used it before the Anglo invasion.
Manuel Cardenas told the Elizabethtown Justice of the Peace that three men associated with the Santa Fe Ring—mail contractor Florencio Donoghue, County probate judge Dr. Robert Longwill, and Attorney Melvin W. Mills—had offered him $500 to kill Tolby. However, according to Cardenas, he turned the job down and the trio hired the now-dead Cruz Vega to shoot Tolby instead.
Cardenas’ charges resulted in a flurry of activity. Robert Longwill fled to Santa Fe pursued by a posse led by anti-Grant Company gunman Clay Allison. Since Allison had bested Santa Fe Ring enforcer Juan Francisco “Pancho” Griego in a shootout at Henri Lambert’s Cimarron saloon earlier that week, Longwill was wise to take him seriously.
Melvin Mills was made of sterner stuff. He’d been in Colorado when the charges were made and he returned to Cimarron, indignantly insisting on his innocence. Mills must have arrived back in town around the same time the cavalry detachment from Fort Union showed up on Monday, November 8. The horse soldiers had been dispatched to Cimarron to maintain civil order, sent out at the request of Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell, who just happened to also be a member of the Santa Fe Ring.
With Longwill safely in Santa Fe, Cardenas and Donaghue in jail, and Mills released for lack of evidence, it seemed reasonable to assume that things had quieted down and would remain so. A hearing date to address Cardenas’ evidence was set for Wednesday, Nov. 10. But there was going to be a least one more death before it was all over. Can you guess who? . . . . Stay tuned.
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983
In Fall 1875, when Rev. Oscar P. McMains took over for the murdered Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, he provided more than ministerial services. He also played detective, and went to work hunting for Tolby’s killer. Colfax County’s collective finger pointed at Cruz Vega, a Civil War veteran who’d run the mail right past the spot in Cimarron Canyon where Tolby had died September 14th. But Vega hadn’t reported seeing Tolby’s body, which many locals deemed mighty suspicious.
Rev. McMains wanted badly to talk with Vega, but he was having trouble locating him. When he did find him, he was going to have another problem: McMains didn’t speak Spanish, the Mexican-born Vega’s native (and apparently only) language.
McMains first attempted to locate Vega through Isaiah Rinehart, the rancher that Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell would appoint Colfax County Sheriff the following spring. While Rinehart believed that Vega knew something about Tolby’s death, he declined to get involved: a logical stance for someone who wanted to stay in good standing with the Santa Fe Ring-enmeshed Governor. After all, the Ring was suspected of ordering Reverend Tolby’s execution.
But Reverend McMains was not a man to bow to the mighty or those connected to them, and he didn’t give up. Sometime in the period between October 21 and October 26, he convinced local miner and rancher William Lowe to help him “find” Cruz Vega in Lowe’s Ponil Creek cornfields north of Cimarron. Lowe agreed to hire Vega to watch his fields over the Halloween weekend and McMains arranged to be there with a translator on Saturday, October 30. What happened that night was a story worthy of Halloween. Stay tuned. . .
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983. Will Steinsiek, “O.P. McMains, The Agitator” in New Mexico Conference United Methodist History Journal, Nov. 2011.
On Thursday, September 16, 1875, 142 years ago today, the body of Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby was found lying beside the Cimarron Canyon road near the mouth of Clear Creek, shot in the back. He’d been there two days, killed while returning from church services at Elizabethtown. His horse was tethered nearby and none of Tolby’s goods were missing. It was clearly a case of assassination and many people believed they knew why he was killed. But who did it and who’d ordered the killing? Those were the burning questions that some people believe were never answered.
Tolby had begun preaching vehemently against the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company almost as soon as he’d arrived in Colfax County in early 1874. The Company had bought the Beaubien-Miranda Grant from Lucien B. Maxwell and his wife four years before. The fact that the Grant boundaries were disputed wasn’t going to stop them from maximizing their profits from every bit of its roughly 1.9 million acres. They would use whatever means necessary to keep anyone they deemed a squatter off the Grant, even people the Maxwells had work/share agreements with prior to the sale.
The 33 year old Reverend Tolby preached that the farmers and ranchers were more in the right than the Grant people. After all, the U.S. Department of the Interior had ordered the grant land to be treated as public, which made it available to homesteaders.
In addition, Tolby advocated that part of the grant be set aside a reservation for the bands of Utes and Arapahoes who traditionally hunted there. And he said so quite strongly.
Tolby became increasingly annoying to the Company, whose board of directors included Dr. Robert Longwill (Colfax County Probate Judge), Stephen B. Elkins (New Mexico Territorial delegate to Congress), and Thomas B. Catron (U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Territory), all members of the Santa Fe Ring and working hard to extract as much money as possible from the Territory in general and the former Maxwell Grant in particular.
Any of these men and their associates, including Cimarron Attorney Melvin W. Mills and its part-time Justice of the Peace (who was Mills’ office clerk) had reason to wish Tolby dead. After all, the Reverend was interfering with their business interests! But consensus among the anti-Grant folks in the County was that none of the Ring men were likely to dirty their hands with the actual deed itself. In fact, many suspected substitute mail carrier Cruz Vega of killing Tolby. After all, Vega’s Tuesday, September 14 mail route took him through the Cimarron Canyon, but he hadn’t reported seeing a body. This seemed mighty suspicious. Clearly, he knew something.
But Vega spoke only Spanish, which was a problem for the primarily English-speaking men who suspected him. They couldn’t find out what he knew. And they weren’t getting much help from the County’s Spanish-speaking population.
But there was another stubborn Methodist minister in Cimarron, and this one would prove to be even more tenacious than his predecessor. Rev. Tolby’s assistant Rev. Oscar P. McMains was now in charge, and he was hell bent on finding out what Vega knew. It would take six weeks before that confrontation occurred, and when it did it would create even more havoc. Stay tuned . . .
Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lure, Lore and Legends of the Moreno Valley, Columbine Books 1997; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Stephen Zimmer, Sunstone Press, 1999.
Mary Tolby frowned at the potatoes she was peeling, then out the kitchen window at the dusty Cimarron sky. It seemed as if a grit-filled wind had blown every day of the eighteen months since she and Franklin had arrived here to begin his Methodist Episcopal mission work. Mary sighed, washed her hands, and lifted the towel sheltering her rising bread dough. It was taking longer than usual to double its size. But then, Franklin was taking longer than usual to return from his Sunday services at Elizabethtown. He was usually back before Tuesday noon, following his meeting with the church board and various other discussions on Monday.
Mary frowned and looked out the window again. There was so much dust in the air, she could hardly see the sun. Franklin was undoubtedly talking with someone in Etown or Ute Park about the Maxwell Land Grant and its wholesale eviction of the small farmers who’d been here before the present corporation had purchased the grant.
She shook her head and turned back to her work. She very much doubted that her husband was speaking with anyone about the state of their soul. Not many people in Colfax County seemed to care about God or religion. Land and water were all that mattered. That and gold. How she longed sometimes for Indiana!
* * *
Two days before, the man had hovered outside Etown’s tiny Protestant church just long enough to confirm that Franklin Tolby was preaching there. He couldn’t stay longer: the air sucked out of his lungs at the thought of Tolby’s teachings, so contrary to Holy Church. But it was long enough to confirm that the heretic minister would be traveling down-canyon this Tuesday morning, as he always did after a Sunday in Elizabethtown.
The man waited now, rifle tucked to his chest, in the shadow of the big ponderosa at the mouth of Clear Creek. How pleasant it would be to stop the minister’s preaching. The men who’d paid him to silence Tolby had other reasons for desiring his death, reasons of power and money and land. The waiting man cared nothing for those things, although the gold they’d given him would be useful enough. He could leave the grant now, take his family someplace where americanos had not yet stolen the land from those who farmed it, those whose fathers had tilled it before them.
He turned his head, listening. Someone was coming: A man singing a raucous heretical hymn. Tolby, most certainly. The minister would stop at Clear Creek as usual, to water his horse and drink from the hollowed-out wooden trough placed there for the refreshment of travelers. His back would be to the big ponderosa. But there was no dishonor in shooting a heretic in the back: a man who would steal one’s very soul if he could, destroy the very fabric of one’s Catholic life.
The rider in his clay-brown coat dismounted and the gunman eased into position. He held his breath as his finger touched the trigger, squeezing so gently and slowly that Tolby dropped to the ground before the shooter registered the sound of the bullet’s discharge, saw the neat hole it made in the brown coat.
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
On July 16, 1899, bullets began raining down on Black Jack Ketchum’s Turkey Creek Canyon hideout west of Cimarron, New Mexico Territory, and the outlaw began the last hand in his life’s game of cards.
Two years earlier, Ketchum and his gang had barricaded a cave in the upper reaches of the canyon with logs and built a corral nearby for their horses, in case they needed a hideout, which seemed highly likely. Black Jack had been a brutal teenager with a penchant for malicious activities like burning Hispano sheepherders’ camps and he’d grown into an outlaw with a taste for theft, women, and gambling, hence the name “Black Jack.” In fact, shortly after they’d constructed their Turkey Creek Canyon hideout in 1897, Black Jack and his buddies hit Cimarron’s gambling halls, with Black Jack losing heavily the night before they ventured out to hold up their first Colorado and Southern train near Folsum, New Mexico.
Two years later, Ketchum and his gang robbed another Colorado and Southern train near Folsum, then made a run for Turkey Creek Canyon. But a sheriff’s posse tracked them down and opened fire the morning of July 16. In the ensuing conflict, the sheriff and two posse members were killed, Black Jack’s brother Sam was fatally wounded, and gang member William McGinnis was injured.
Black Jack escaped, but not for long. He was arrested the following month in Union County, New Mexico. The trial and then the plans for the hanging took a while, but in April 1901, when his hand was truly up.
However, Ketchum’s death didn’t come easily. Today, he’s remembered in New Mexico as the man who lost his head in a hanging. The Clayton, NM executioner didn’t calculate the rope weight and length correctly and Ketchum had been indulging during his prison stay, adding extra pounds. When the trap door opened, his body swung through but his head was cut off by the rope: A truly grisly way to die.
On July 4, 1871, up-and-coming lawyer Melvin Whitson Mills delivered the Independence Day oration at Baldy, the center of gold mining activity on the east side of Baldy Mountain north of Ute Park, New Mexico Territory. The celebrations included a parade of 500 people marching to a grove of trees outside town. There, the local newspaper editor read the United States Declaration of Independence and Mills, the young lawyer and would be politician who had so ably defended serial killer Charles Kennedy a year and a half before, delivered a “spread eagle” oration. A formal dance ended the day.
Although there were those who weren’t impressed that Mills had almost succeeded in rescuing Kennedy from the hangman’s noose, he was respected enough in the county to be elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1873 as well as various other municipal, county, and Territorial positions. Along with his legal practice and his connections to the Santa Fe Ring, these activities gave Mills the financial ability by the end of the decade to construct a handsome three-story mansard-roofed home in Springer which was known throughout the territory for its more than twenty rooms and its maple interior trim. He also owned a large ranch outside in eastern Colfax County, where he raised cattle and planted the fruit trees that can still be seen in what is now Mills Canyon.
150 years ago today, on June 12, 1907, Colfax County rancher and businessman Charles Springer submitted an application to the New Mexico Territorial Engineer to build a dam at the head of the Cimarron River, thereby creating what would become known as Eagle Nest Lake.
The application called for impounding 113,700 acre feet of what it called “surplus flood waters” from the Cimarron and its tributaries: Cieneguilla, Moreno, and other creeks in the Cimarron watershed. The water would be “used for power plants as it goes down Cimarron canyon and for irrigation, for supplying cities and towns and water users generally, . . . for irrigating, mining power and other purposes.”
Charles Springer, who had arrived in the Territory in 1878, was brother to Frank Springer, one-time attorney for the Maxwell Land Grant Company. The Springer application to dam the headwaters of the Cimarron was approved in August 1907. Due to a variety of issues, including lack of capital and the need to buy the lands to be flooded from the people who owned them, construction of the impound dam did not get underway until Spring 1917.
The half-grown pup had followed Old Pete and the mule from the Ute Indian encampment down-canyon. It was a gangly thing, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Pete looked at it in disgust as it half-crouched at his feet.
“Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete muttered. He poked the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolled over obligingly, paws in the air. “Buck.” Pete toed it again. “Well, you won’t last long, I expect. Be runnin’ off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turned and twitched the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”
They trailed the Cimarron River up-canyon through the afternoon and settled into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light began to fade. It was still early: the sunlight went sooner as the canyon walls narrowed. But Old Pete was in no particular hurry and the pup was acting a mite tired.
“Gonna hafta keep up,” Pete told it as he cut pieces of venison off the haunch he’d traded from the Utes. The dog slunk toward the fire and Pete tossed it a scrap. “Too small fer my roaster anyway,” he muttered as he skewered a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and lifted it over the flames.