U.S. Agency Triggers Colfax County War

On Wednesday, January 28, 1874, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued the order that began New Mexico’s Colfax County War.

The Department had decided to designate the approximately 2 million acres claimed by the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company as public land, not private. This meant that the former Beaubien/Miranda land grant was now open to settlement under federal homestead laws.

The Interior Department’s decision was part of an ongoing dispute over the size of the Land Grrant. According to the Department, until that matter was settled in Federal Court, the land was public and therefore available to qualified homesteaders.

But the Land Grant Company wasn’t about to let anyone settle without payment on acreage they claimed as their own. And that payment certainly wasn’t going to go to the U.S. government.

In fact, the Company was already fighting settlers on the vast acreage they claimed. Their attorney, Frank Springer, was hard at work in New Mexico’s Territorial Courts, evicting anyone the Board believed shouldn’t be there. With evictions already occurring, opening the Grant lands to federal homestead claims was simply asking for more trouble.

Jan 28 illustration.Springer, Frank

And it came. If the Company couldn’t get rid of “squatters” through the courts, they’d try other strategies. This all cost money, of course, something that the Board was often short of. But even as the Company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, its board members continued the fight. If this required extra-legal methods, then so be it.

Right about the time the Department of the Interior announced its decision, another factor arrived in Colfax County. His name was Reverend Franklin J. Tolby. Tolby believed that the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company was taking more than its share of local resources. In fact, he advocated that some of the acreage in dispute be handed over to the Native Americans who’d hunted and lived there long before anyone even thought that American capitalists would have a use for it.

Tolby was articulate and people listened to him. This put him solidly in the sights of the Company’s board members. A lot had happened on the Grant up to this point: legal and extra-legal evictions, miners’ protests in Elizabethtown, meetings of concerned citizens in Cimarron, heated newspaper articles for and against the Grant Company. But none of that compared to what occurred after January 28, 1874. The Colfax County War was about to begin.

By the time it was over, Reverend Tolby and others would be dead, homesteaders would be burned or run out, and the Land Grant Company would be on the verge of yet another reorganization. The grant never did return the profit its investors had hoped for.

As with most wars, everyone got hurt in the end.

Source: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2014; Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lower, Lower, and Legends, a history of northern New Mexico’s Moreno Valley, Columbine Books, 1997; Victor Westphal, Thomas Benton Catron and His Era, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1973; Stephen Zimmer, editor, For Good Or Bad, People Of The Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1999.

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There was a knothole in the cabin door, in the fourth board from the right. Kenneth stood on tiptoe and peered through it at the men on the horses.

“It’s Clay Allison!” he hissed.

His little sister Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and tried to shoulder Kenneth out the way so she could see for herself. “Are you sure?” she whispered.

Kenneth nodded. “He’s tall and he’s got those black whiskers and he’s ridin’ that big blond horse Papa says is so dangerous.”

Elizabeth bit her lip and shrank back. She hugged herself tightly around her waist. “I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I’ve heard tell that he’s mean.”

“Ah, he’s only mean to those who are mean,” Kenneth scoffed. But he didn’t open the door. His mother had instructed him to stay inside if anyone came while she and his father were gone. As far as Kenneth was concerned, ‘anyone’ included the gunslinger Clay Allison. If that’s who it was. He wasn’t at all certain, now that he thought about it. He’d never seen the man close up. But he sure wasn’t gonna tell Elizabeth that.

The knothole suddenly went black and there was a thud on the wooden door that shook Kenneth in his boots. “What are we going to do?” Elizabeth gasped.

Kenneth put his hand over her mouth. “Hush!” he hissed. “He’ll hear you!”

Boots scuffed on the porch, as if whoever it was had walked away and then come back. “I believe you two young uns ought to open this door,” a man’s deep voice said. “Your Mama says you won’t be wantin’ too, but I’ve got important news for ya’ll.”

The children looked at each other. Kenneth shook his head.

“But he’ll break the door down!” Elizabeth hissed. “And if he has to do that, he’ll be really mad! And then he’ll be extra mean!”

Kenneth’s lower lip jutted out and he shook his head again. Elizabeth had seen that look before and she knew it was no use arguing with him. She sank to the floor in a heap and tried not to cry.

There was a long silence. Booted feet paced the porch. Then they stopped outside the door again. The man coughed. The children looked at each other apprehensively.

“All right,” the man said. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you my news through the door. Your Mama’s been laid up at your Aunt Ginny’s house and she says you’re to stay here until your Pa comes for you. That’ll more than likely not be till tomorrow. She says to have your chores done and your things ready, because your Pa’s gonna be taking you back to Ginny’s house so’s you can meet your new baby brother.” There was a short pause. “Or sister. Your Mama doesn’t  know yet just which it’ll be.”

The children stared at each other, then Kenneth moved to the door and looked through the knothole again. “Really and truly?” he asked.

“Really and truly,” Clay Allison said.

from Old One Eye Pete

THICKER ‘N SNOT

“It’s s’posed to be August, dadburn it.” Julius Fairfield looked gloomily out the door of the long, narrow log cabin that served as the Quartz Mill & Lode Mining Company barracks outside of Elizabethtown. “This fog is thicker’n snot.”

In one of the iron beds lining the walls behind him, somebody sneezed. “And there’s the snot for ye,” Edward Kelly, the company’s lone Irishman, chortled as he added more wood to the pot belly stove halfway down the room.

A door opened at the far end and the chief engineer came out. He ignored the men in the beds as he walked down the room to peer over Fairfield’s shoulder. “That fog’ll lift shortly,” he said. He clapped Fairfield on the back. “Be thankful it’s not rain.”

“That was yesterday’s gift to us all,” Fairfield said gloomily. He shook his head. “And here I thought New Mexico Territory’d be drier than New York.” He grinned and glanced at the engineer. “When’d you say payday was?”

Behind them, Kelly began to sing a song praising Ireland and its green hills, and a chorus of voices yowled at him to be still. The engineer chuckled and turned. “That’s enough now!” he said.

from The Valley of the Eagles

DECISION POINT

Three years after the Great Rebellion, Henry still drifted. There was nothing behind him in Georgia and nothing further west than San Francisco. Not that he wanted to go there. The California gold fields were played out.

But he needed to get out of Denver. A man could stand town life only so long and he’d been here three months. The Colorado gold fields were collasping, anyway. Played out before he even got here.

“Been too late since the day I was born,” he muttered, putting his whisky glass on the long wooden bar.

“I hear tell there’s gold in Elizabethtown,” the bartender said. He reached for Henry’s glass and began wiping it out. He knew Henry’s pockets were empty.

“Where’s Elizabethtown?”

“New Mexico Territory. Near Taos somewheres.”

Henry nodded and pushed himself away from the bar. “Elizabethtown,” he repeated as he hitched up his trousers. “Now there’s an idea.”

from Valley of the Eagles

Fire Destroys Etown!!

On Tuesday, September 1, 1903, a fire that lasted a little over an hour destroyed almost all of Elizabethtown, New Mexico’s business district and began the demise of the 36-year-old municipality.

The blaze began around 2:15 p.m. in a defective stove flue at Remsberg & Co. Mercantile. By three o’clock, nothing was left of the store except $300 in merchandise and the company’s books and cash on hand.

Sept 3 illustration.SF NM 9 4 1903
Santa Fe New Mexican, Sept. 4, 1903

In the meantime, the flames had spread to the Mutz Hotel next door. From there, Harry Brainard’s saloon and warehouse caught fire, then the general store next to Brainard’s. Flying embers ignited the Moreno Hotel and it was also destroyed.

By 3:30 p.m., almost all of Etown’s mercantile district had been reduced to ashes. The only store left standing was Herman Froelick’s.

Although the Mutz Hotel would be rebuilt in stone, the conflagration was the beginning of the end for Etown. Over the next two years, miners, store owners, the local schoolteacher, and even Elizabethtowns’ favorite vegetable wagon man would flee town for other locales. Some of the remaining buildings would eventually be dismantled and then reassembled in what is now the Village of Eagle Nest, three miles to the south.

It’s a little amazing what a single fire can do.

Sources: The Elizabethtown New Mexico Story, F. Stanley, Dumas, Texas, 1961; September 4, 1903, Santa Fe New Mexican

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR, 3 of 3

“Things are changing, Mr. Maxwell.” Judge Joseph Palen set his whisky glass on the saloon table and looked around the room. “In another year or so, these ragged placer miners will be replaced by businessmen with laborers to do the rough work.”

Maxwell nodded, following his gaze. “And many of these men will be laborers, instead of independent men with claims of their own.”

“Claims so poorly worked they bring in barely enough to keep body and soul together.” Palen flicked a speck of dust from the sleeve of his dark broadcloth suit.

“That’s all that matters, I suppose.” Maxwell grimaced. “Efficiency.”

“It’s a large territory, and its resources are going to waste.”

“So they tell me,” Maxwell said. He shook his head, put his glass on the table, and reached for his battered black hat. “I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Palen, and I happen to like Nuevo Mexico’s lack of efficiency. So do most of the men in this room, I expect.” He stood, towering over the table. “Good day to you, Judge.” A mischievous smile flashed across his face. “And good luck.”

Moreno Valley Sketches II

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR, 2 of 3

“You have an interest in a number of cases before this court,” Judge Palen said sharply.

Lucien Maxwell nodded and tilted his head toward the old lawyer beside him. “Mr. Wheaton is my designated attorney.” He raised an eyebrow. “I believe that releases me from the need to be present.” He adjusted his right foot higher on his left knee.

“You have been indicted on a serious charge.” Palen leaned forward. “That indictment requires your attendance.”

“The Probate Court issue?” Maxwell lifted a shoulder. “We have an excellent probate court clerk. As you’ll see from his records, there was no need to hold formal court.”

Palen’s lips thinned. “You committed to appearing on the first day of this session in regard to the indictment against you. It is now the fourth day.”

“I was unexpectedly detained.”

Palen stared at him for a long moment, then turned to the court clerk. “Let the record show that Mr. Maxwell has appeared and apologized for his failure to appear, and that we are satisfied no contempt was intended.”

Maxwell’s jaw tightened, then he nodded slightly and readjusted his right foot on his knee.

Moreno Valley Sketches II