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!

 

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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.

Death by Investigation

On the night of Saturday, October 30, 1875 New Mexico Territory rancher William Low joined Mexican-born Cruz Vega beside a campfire about a mile and a half north of Cimarron. Low had hired Vega to watch his cornfields that Halloween weekend. But when a group of masked men led by Methodist missionary Oscar P. McMains showed up that night, Low wasn’t surprised. Reverend McMains had asked him to hire Vega to watch that particular cornfield. He wanted him within easy reach of the Poñil River stage road and the telegraph line that ran it.

McMains and his men had a sinister use for those telegraph poles. They suspected Vega of murdering McMain’s fellow missionary, the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby the month before, and they intended to extract a confession from him.

Oct 30 illustration
Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875

According to William Low, “One of them says, halloo boys, and he walked up toward Cruz with a lariat and put it around his neck, and says, come on, and they took him into the road and we along with him. We went up I judge about 500 yards among the timber, along the telegraph line: there was a party of men. It was pretty dark. These four or five men took him to a telegraph pole of their own accord: none of the parties said a word . . . One of the four or five men climbed the telegraph pole and put the rope over the wire and they raised him up, on their own accord, and after a few seconds let him down again.” After Vega recovered enough to talk, McMains interrogated him.

This process was repeated until McMains got all the information he was looking for. Then the Reverend returned to the Poñil River ranch where he and Low were staying the night and left Vega to the mercy of the now-drunken mob. McMains said later that he thought they were too drunk to do Vega any real damage. But shortly after McMains reached the ranch house, he and Low heard gunshots. “My God!” McMains exclaimed. “I fear these are the shots that kill Cruz Vega.”

And he was right. Vega’s body was found the next morning near the base of the telegraph pole. A clump of hair from his bashed-in head lay nearby and rope burns circled his neck.

Ironically, the information McMains gathered that night acquitted Vega of Tolby’s murder. Although Vega admitted that he’d witnessed the killing, he identified Manual Cardenas of Elizabethtown as the shooter. So the murderer was still at large. The saga of Reverend Tolby’s murder wasn’t quite over, and more deaths would ensue before it was. . . . Stay tuned.

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875. Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877.

 

 

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

 

 

 

Let The Evictions Begin!!!

In the summer of 1870, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company closed their sale with Lucien B. and Luz Maxwell for the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant and the Company began moving to take full possession of the land. This move began with sending notices to anyone who hadn’t arranged with Maxwell for formal title to their land, including miners who had paid Maxwell for the privilege of working their mines or farmers who had been providing produce in lieu of cash money. These “squatters” were informed that they must either make arrangements with the Company or leave. When they didn’t the Company initiated ejectment proceedings. Conveniently, Stephen B. Elkins, a member of the Company Board and the company’s attorney, also happened to be New Mexico Territory’s U.S. Attorney General at the time. None of these cases appeared before the court in the Fall 1870 session, so it appears that there was some time provided to the persons in question who had the resources to make the necessary “arrangements.”

The process was not a smooth or a simple one and the Company’s actions reverberated as far as the East Coast. By the summer of 1875, a series of articles had appeared in a New York newspaper criticizing Santa Fe ring members Elkins, Catron, Palen and others. One of the authors was the Reverend Franklin Tolby, who used his pulpit as a platform for preaching against the Land Grant Company’s eviction process and advocating that the government buy at least of a portion of the grant  as a reservation for the local bands of Utes and Arapahos—a solution to the “Indian problem” that Kit Carson and Indian Agent William Frederick Milton Arny  had proposed prior to the sale of the grant. After all, they’d been here first. This, of course, didn’t happen and local settlers would continue to be evicted and tensions would continue to rise throughout the first half of the 1870’s, beginning with a riot in Etown in 1870 and reaching a crescendo in 1875 with Reverend Tolby’s death and the lynching of a (possibly) innocent man. Stay with me as I look at Reverend Tolby’s activities and death, and the resulting lynching, in the months to come….

Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, University of New Mexico Press, 2014; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, 1999; Victor Westphall, Thomas B. Catron and His Era, University of Arizona Press, 1973.