“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


“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


Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, richest man in northern New Mexico Territory, sat on one of the mismatched chairs in Elizabethtown’s makeshift Colfax County courtroom and studied the man sitting behind the Judge’s table. He’d sat at such tables himself, though he doubted he’d ever looked so uncomfortable. Joseph Palen looked out of place here in this rough mining town and angry that it had the audacity to call itself a county seat. Apparently disapproved of Nuevo Mexico, too, for that matter.

Maxwell felt the impulse to laugh, but instead lifted his right foot to his left knee and watched the crowd gather. Most of the men nodded to him politely, touching their foreheads in a kind of salute, and he nodded back. They were good people, he mused. Knew what they wanted, had no pretense about them.

Beside him, the old attorney Wheaton muttered, “Here we go,” and Judge Palen gaveled the room to attention.

“Apparently, Mr. Maxwell has deigned to honor us with his presence,” Palen said, glaring at Lucien.

Maxwell resisted the impulse to straighten his spine and put both feet on the floor. “I believe you asked to see me,” he said coolly.

Moreno Valley Sketches II

New Mexico Territory’s Chief Justice is Fooled Again

Friday, April 1 was the first day of the Spring 1870 Court session in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, and Judge Joseph G. Palen must have thought someone had pulled an April Fool’s joke on him. At the end of the 1869 Fall session, he’d made three local men responsible for selecting jurors for the Spring term, but it hadn’t done much good. Only six of the identified grand jury members had showed up, so the Judge ordered Sheriff Andrew J. Calhoun to bring in 15 more potential jurors. Which he did but eleven of them had excuses. The 57-year-old Harvard-educated Judge Palen must have wished he’d never accepted President Ulysses S. Grant’s offer to promote him from Hudson, New York postmaster to Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Court and therefore Judge of the Territory’s First District, which included Colfax County.

April 1 illustration.1870 court transcript.resized

Something similar had happened at the beginning of the Fall 1869 session, Judge Palen’s first in Colfax County, and he’d thought he’d solved the problem by giving E.B. Dennison, Benjamin F. Houx, and John Sutton the task of ensuring there’d be enough jurors for the Spring Session. But even their fellow citizens couldn’t corral the miners and ranchers of Colfax County to do their civic duty.

Late that day, the Sheriff finally brought in enough men to fill out the grand jury panel, none of them with reasons strong enough excuse them from the task. However, Palen still had no petit jury members. It was the morning of Tuesday, April 5 before he had both panels in place. Which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, except that the court session was scheduled to end on Saturday, April 9. There wasn’t much time to address the over 70 separate actions that came before the court during the week-long Spring 1870 session.

Sources: Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey, UNM Press, 2014; Colfax County District Court Civil and Criminal Record 1, 1869-1871, Serial No. 14400; The Leading Facts of New Mexico History Vol. II, Ralph E. Twitchell, Sunstone Press, 2007.