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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Who Shot Manuel Cardenas and Why?

On Wednesday, November 10, 1875 Manuel Cardenas was shot and killed by an unknown gunman in the short distance between the Colfax County jail and courtroom in Cimarron, New Mexico Territory. Cardenas had been on his way to tell the justice of the peace what he knew about the mid-September death of Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby. Because Cardenas died when he did, the mystery of who shot Reverend Tolby, and why, was never solved.

Tolby had been a bur under the Maxwell Land Grant Company’s saddle since he’d arrived in the Territory in early 1874. He pointed out that Congress had thrown the grant land was open to homesteaders and objected strenuously to the Company’s program against the settlers they called “squatters.” Because of Tolby’s status as a minister of the gospel, people listened to him and resisted the Land Gant Company’s enforcers.

When Tolby was killed in the Cimarron canyon in September, many thought Civil War veteran Cruz Vega was responsible. As a result, Vegas was tortured and killed, but before he died, Vega fingered Manuel Cardenas as the man who’d shot Tolby.

Cardenas, in turn, claimed that the now-dead Vega had killed the minister. More importantly, he asserted that three prominent members of the community—men who were believed to be part of the Santa Ring—had ordered the killing. Since members of the Ring had a controlling interest in the Maxwell Land Grant Company, Cardenas’ claim made a lot of sense to many Colfax county residents.

However, Cardenas had yet to make his accusations before the County Court. And he died before he could do so. Since his killer was never identified, questions about Tolby’s killing and its aftermath remain to this day: Who killed Manuel Cardenas and why? Was it a Cruz Vega adherent, revenging the aspersion on his good name? Was it Clay Allison or a member of the vigilante group that killed Cruz Vega, seeking vengeance for Reverend Tolby’s death? Or did the Santa Fe Ring send out a killer to take out their killer before he could officially name names? For that matter, who killed Reverend Tolby? Was it Cruz Vega or Manuel Cardenas? And did members of the Santa Fe Ring really put them up to it? If so, how far did the conspiracy go? The Governor’s office? Unless new evidence shows up now, 142 years later, we’ll never know for sure.

And so the saga of Reverend Tolby’s death ends with more questions raised than answered. This is the stuff that novels are made of!

Sources: Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014.

Santa Fe Ring Implicated in Reverend Tolby’s Unsolved Murder!!!!

Cruz Vega didn’t go quietly to his death. He told the Cimarron, New Mexico Territory mob who lynched him that they were killing the wrong man. He hadn’t shot Methodist missionary Franklin J. Tolby in Cimarron Canyon on September 14, 1875. Manuel Cardenas had.

Vega’s accusation didn’t save him from death, but it did turn attention to Elizabethtown in the mountains west of Cimarron, where Cardenas lived. When word of Vega’s accusation reached the mining town on Saturday, November 6, 1875, Cardenas turned himself in rather than face a lynch mob of his own. Then he proceeded to tell Etown’s Justice of the Peace what some county residents had suspected from the beginning: Santa Fe Ring members were responsible for Tolby’s murder.

The Santa Fe Ring controlled the Maxwell Land Grant Company and they’d badly wanted to silence  Reverend Tolby. Tolby inveighed regularly against the Company evictions of people they considered squatters as well as the Company’s other efforts to get maximum value from the land they’d purchased from Luz and Lucien Maxwell five years before. According to Tolby, the grant lands were open to homesteading and, if anything, at least part of it should be returned to the Ute and Apache bands who’d used it before the Anglo invasion.

Manuel Cardenas told the Elizabethtown Justice of the Peace that three men associated with the Santa Fe Ring—mail contractor Florencio Donoghue, County probate judge Dr. Robert Longwill, and Attorney Melvin W. Mills—had offered him $500 to kill Tolby. However, according to Cardenas, he turned the job down and the trio hired the now-dead Cruz Vega to shoot Tolby instead.

Cardenas’ charges resulted in a flurry of activity. Robert Longwill fled to Santa Fe pursued by a posse led by anti-Grant Company gunman Clay Allison. Since Allison had bested Santa Fe Ring enforcer Juan Francisco “Pancho” Griego in a shootout at Henri Lambert’s Cimarron saloon earlier that week,  Longwill was wise to take him seriously.

Nov 6 illustration.robert longwill.parsons book
Source: Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Chuck Parsons

Melvin Mills was made of sterner stuff. He’d been in Colorado when the charges were made and  he returned to Cimarron, indignantly insisting on his innocence. Mills must have arrived back in town around the same time the cavalry detachment from Fort Union showed up on Monday, November 8.  The horse soldiers had been dispatched to Cimarron to maintain civil order, sent out at the request of Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell, who just happened to also be a member of the Santa Fe Ring.

With Longwill safely in Santa Fe, Cardenas and Donaghue in jail, and Mills released for lack of evidence, it seemed reasonable to assume that things had quieted down and would remain so. A hearing date to address Cardenas’ evidence was set for Wednesday, Nov. 10. But there was going to be a least one more death before it was all over. Can you guess who? . . . . Stay tuned.

 

Nov 6 illustration.robert longwill.parsons bookSources:  David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, portrait of a shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983

Clay Allison Kills Pancho Griego in Lambert’s Saloon!!!

Monday, November 1, 1875 in Cimarron, New Mexico should have been a quiet day after an eventful weekend. Cruz Vega, the man thought to have murdered Methodist missionary Reverend Franklin J. Tolby in September, was dead and buried. Now the County could get back to ranching and mining. But Vega’s confession at his Saturday, October 30  lynching had not put the matter to rest.

Vega confessed merely to being involved in the plot to kill Reverend Tolby. He said Manuel Cardenas was the actual shooter. So there was still that to deal with.

Then there was the matter of how Vega had died. Following the telegraph-pole lynching that produced his accusation against Cardenas, Vega was shot and killed. When his battered body was found the next day, his friends and relatives were upset, to say the least. Their thoughts turned almost immediately to revenge. In fact, before the funeral was over, Civil War veteran Juan Francisco “Pancho” Griego vowed vengeance on the men who’d tortured and killed his friend.

There’s no concrete evidence that gunslinger R. Clay Allison was part of the Vega lynch mob, but the fact that Griego confronted him about it implies that Allison either participated in the lynching or was concerned for the welfare of those who had.

At any rate, Griego and Allison met late Monday, November 1 at Henri Lambert’s saloon in Cimarron (today’s St. James Hotel) and Griego didn’t make it out alive. According to Lambert, who’d been born in France, “Pancho try to pull the pistol. Mr. Allison smarter.” When Pancho fell, Lambert ordered everybody out and closed up shop. It was a smart thing to do. Allison and his friends spent the night “hoorahing” the town and probably would have caused more damage to Lambert’s place besides the blood-stained saloon floor if he hadn’t closed down when he did.

But Tolby’s killer still needed to be dealt with and there were still strong suspicions that the Santa Fe Ring was somehow behind it all. Certainly, the bloodshed hadn’t ended. There would be more in the coming days. Stay tuned . . . .

 

Nov 1 illustration.pancho griego.parsons book
Source: Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Chuck Parsons

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, November 14, 1875. Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983.

Reverend McMains Hunts Franklin Tolby’s Killer

In Fall 1875, when Rev. Oscar P. McMains took over for the murdered Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, he provided more than ministerial services. He also played detective, and went to work hunting for Tolby’s killer. Colfax County’s collective finger pointed at Cruz Vega, a Civil War veteran who’d run the mail right past the spot in Cimarron Canyon where Tolby had died September 14th. But Vega hadn’t reported seeing Tolby’s body, which many locals deemed mighty suspicious.

Rev. McMains wanted badly to talk with Vega, but he was having trouble locating him. When he did find him, he was going to have another problem: McMains didn’t speak Spanish, the Mexican-born Vega’s native (and apparently only) language.

10 22 17 illustration.Oscar P. McMains
Source: NM Conference United Methodist History Journal, Nov. 2011

McMains first attempted to locate Vega through Isaiah Rinehart, the rancher that Territorial Governor Samuel Axtell would appoint Colfax County Sheriff the following spring. While Rinehart believed that Vega knew something about Tolby’s death, he declined to get involved: a logical stance for someone who wanted to stay in good standing with the Santa Fe Ring-enmeshed Governor. After all, the Ring was suspected of ordering Reverend Tolby’s execution.

But Reverend McMains was not a man to bow to the mighty or those connected to them, and he didn’t give up. Sometime in the period between October 21 and October 26, he convinced local miner and rancher William Lowe to help him “find” Cruz Vega in Lowe’s Ponil Creek cornfields north of Cimarron. Lowe agreed to hire Vega to watch his fields over the Halloween weekend and McMains arranged to be there with a translator on Saturday, October 30. What happened that night was a story worthy of Halloween. Stay tuned. . .

Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press, 2014; Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877; Chuck Parsons, Clay Allison, Portrait of a Shootist, Pioneer Book Publishers, 1983. Will Steinsiek, “O.P. McMains, The Agitator” in New Mexico Conference United Methodist History Journal, Nov. 2011.

Governor Offers Reward for Reverend Tolby’s Killer

On Thursday, October 7, 1875, three weeks after Reverend Franklin J. Tolby’s body was found shot in the back in Cimarron Canyon, New Mexico’s Territorial Governor Samuel B. Axtell announced a $500 reward for the apprehension and conviction of Tolby’s murderer. The proclamation, published in the Friday, October 8 Las Vegas Gazette, seems to indicate that the Governor felt pressured to offer the reward. “A large number of highly reputable citizens of Colfax County, including the county officers, local magistrates, local business owners, and publishers of the local newspapers” had petitioned the governor to issue the proclamation.

Las Vegas Gazette.10 8 1875.Tolby.clipped

The Governor’s apparent lack of enthusiasm lends supports to a local theory that members of the Santa Fe Ring were behind Tolby’s murder. The Governor was thought to be, at the very least, a tool of the Ring, which included Thomas B. Catron, Colfax County Probate Judge Dr. R. H. Longwill, and others, and would play a role in the Lincoln County War in the late 1870’s.

Whether the reward offer had anything to do with what happened in Colfax County in the following weeks isn’t known. What is known is that local attempts to identify Tolby’s murderer would lead to more deaths, one of them far more violent than a mere shot in the back. Stay tuned . . .

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, October 8, 1875; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring¸ UNM Press, 2014.

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.