Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Book Review

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring cover
by David L. Caffey
University of New Mexico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8263-1947-0

In New Mexico, the words “Santa Fe Ring” convey the same concept as the words “Tammany Hall” in New York. The Ring is synonymous with collusion by a few to suppress the many, the use of political power for private ends, and the accumulation of wealth by unsavory means.

In Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey describes the beginnings, height, and end of the Ring and the people involved in it. The major figures he discusses include, of course, Thomas Catron, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell, Stephen Benton Elkins, and William Breeden. But there were a number of less well-known figures that had links to the ring—Colfax County men like physician Robert Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills and Santa Fe merchants like Lehman Spiegelberg and Abraham Staab. Caffey places the activities of these men in context and also provides a helpful summary of their activities in the back matter.

One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about the connections between the Ring and the various events in New Mexico Territory that tend to be treated as stand-alone eruptions—for example, the Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War. Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is actually a great way to obtain a comprehensive history of the Territory from the lens of the Ring and its particular chronology of events.

Catron and his allies seem to have had their hands in any and every opportunity that appeared to promise a monetary return. This included something as large as using their legislative power to “open up” the land grants to acquisition by outsiders and as small as arranging for jury members to be paid in script with little or no monetary worth, buying that script up, and then forcing a law through the legislature which increased its value.

But this book isn’t just a record of the wrongs perpetuated by the Santa Fe Ring. It’s also the story of how a few people took action and brought an end to its power. One of those people was Mary Tibble McPherson, a woman who didn’t actually live in New Mexico. But her daughter did. By the time McPherson was finished raising hell, even Washington D.C. was taking notice.

Mary McPherson wasn’t the only person involved in the fight against the Ring. But to find out more, you’ll have to read the book. If you’re interested in New Mexico history in the Territorial period, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is a great resource. I recommend it!

 

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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

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.