Reverend Tolby Assassinated!!!!

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.

Tolby murder illustration.9 18 1875 Las Vegas Gazette
Source: Las Vegas Gazette, Sept. 18, 1875

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.

LONGER THAN USUAL

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.

Copyright © 2016, 2017 Loretta Miles Tollefson