Mail Escort Survives October Snow

Captain Louis Felsenthal and the men of New Mexico’s Fort Union’s Company C were out in the field in September and October 1864, escorting mail-and-passenger stagecoaches between Fort Lyon and Fort Union. This should have been pleasant enough duty on the Plains in the fall of the year—the heat reduced, plenty of grass for the mules pulling the supply wagons, golden trees lining the rivers that crossed the open prairie.

But the duty wasn’t pleasant. The weather that fall was unusually cold. By October 20, Felsenthal and his men were experiencing snowstorms every few days. They hadn’t expected these kinds of conditions and didn’t have winter clothing with them. They must have been glad when their two-month rotation ended and they could head back to Fort Union.

They were en route to the Fort, on the north side of Raton Pass, when they were caught in the worst snowstorm they’d seen to date. The company and its animals struggled up and over the Pass, then down to Red River Station, where they sheltered as snow continued to fall all that night and through the next morning.

At that point, the snow on level ground was over a foot and a half deep. And still coming down. It fell steadily snow for two more days until Felsenthal, worried about the lack of forage for the mules, decided to break for Fort Union.

Oct 29 post illustration.Felsenthal

Four days later, after marching through snow that reached to their waists, men, wagons, and mules arrived at Lucien B. Maxwell’s ranch in what is today’s Cimarron). By the time they got there, many of the men had frostbitten feet and most of them were snow blind from the glare of the sun on the snow. But they’d all made it.

One reason Felsenthal and his men survived their trek is that a herd of cattle destined for Fort Union was also marooned by the storm at Red River Station. As a result, the Captain was able to buy 378 pounds of beef to feed his men, giving them the fuel they needed for their coming journey.

They were also fortunate to reach Red River Station when they did. The storm that closed in after Company C arrived there extended north and east across the Colorado plains, creating deep drifts on the stage route between Bent’s Old Fort and Denver and making the divide between the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers particularly treacherous.

You can just never tell what the weather’s going to do on the Western Plains.

Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan McKenna, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

The Lights of Cimarron: Book Review

The Lights of Cimarron cover
Five Star Publishing, April 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1432851187

It’s always a treat to discover that a book I’m reading and enjoying is part of a series, so I was delighted to discover that the characters in Jim Jones’ The Lights of Cimarron are featured in other books as well.

Set in Cimarron, New Mexico in the 1870s, The Lights of Cimarron features Tommy Stallings, a very young sheriff who has the makings of a great man. He’s fallible, a little insecure, and he has a great mentor who’s a legend among sheriffs and a wife who doesn’t take him too seriously.

Tommy has challenges, though. For one thing, Colfax County officials want him to relocate to the new county seat in Springer, away from Cimarron where his wife is a teacher. So there are marital issues.

More ominously, there’s a gang of rustlers at work in the County and they’re doing more than stealing stock. They’re killing people, women and children as well as men, and leaving mutilated bodies in their wake.

But Tommy’s been charged with taking a bribe, a charge a local mayor seems more concerned with than murder. The accusation is keeping Tommy from finding and dealing with the rustlers. In fact, the mayor seems to be using it to block the rusting investigation. Can Tommy clear his name and get the rustlers too?

In my opinion, the test of a good series is whether the books in that series can stand alone as separate stories. This one does. It’s a pleasure to read and left me wanting to know more about the characters and what will become of them in the future. I’m looking forward to locating and reading the Jared Delaney series, of which The Lights of Cimarron is a spin-off.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted Western with interesting characters and which is part of a series, I definitely recommend The Lights of Cimarron!

West of Penance: Book Review

West of Penance cover
by Thomas D. Clagett
ISBN: 9781432831417
Five Star/Cengage, 2016

There were a lot of pieces to the conflict that engulfed New Mexico’s Colfax County in the 1870s–the conflict we know today as the Colfax County War. As far as I know, no one has ever provided a good fictional account of how some of those pieces fit together and just who did what to whom. Until now.

The hero of Thomas D. Clagett’s West of Penance doesn’t get to Colfax County until a little over one-third of the way into the book. But once he does, he’s in the middle of events that actually happened. Events that Clagett lines up nicely and for which he provides explanations that not only make sense, but make for a great story.

Although Father Graintaire and the woman who takes him in are fictional characters, everyone else in this section of the book actually existed. Based on my own Colfax County research, Clagett’s conceptions of them and their actions are right on target. The portraits of Clay Allison and Sheriff Chittenden, and the explanation of why Cruz Vega was in William Lowe’s cornfield the night he was lynched are especially well done. And Clagett’s portrait of Santa Fe Ring attorney Melvin W. Mills gave me new insight into Mills’ character. I wish I’d read West of Penance before I wrote his scenes in The Pain and The Sorrow!

Given how well Clagett handles the Colfax County material in this book, I think it’s safe to assume that the first part of West of Penance  is just as authentic. I certainly feel like I know more now about the French Foreign Legion than I did before I read this book.

So, if you’re interested in the French Foreign Legion at the battle of Camerone and the role they played in acquiring Mexico for France, or in New Mexico’s Colfax County war, I recommend that you read West of Penance!

 

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.

NEWS

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