“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.”
“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.
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.
In March 1867 Larry Bronson, Peter Kinsinger, and R.P. Kelley returned to Willow Creek and the gold they found there the previous fall. Now they were back, even though others were there before them. But even though they weren’t first on the scene, they still managed to do well by themselves, with five 200 foot claims near their original discovery point.
It’s not clear whether anyone had yet contacted the man who owned the land that they were so busily excavating. Willow Creek ran from Baldy Mountain into the canyon of the Cimarron River. All of the land in question was part of the Maxwell land grant owned by Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell and his wife Maria de la Luz Beaubien, whose inheritance it was.
Bronson, Kinsinger, and Kelly took out 14 ounces of gold that summer alone, then contracted for water rights from Bear and Willow Canyons so they could proceed on a larger scale. This involved moving from gold pan mining to hydraulic equipment. With 40 inches of water and 6 inch hoses to spray the rocks out of the hillsides, the company they formed became one of most productive operations on Willow Creek.
In the end, even Lucien Maxwell and his wife did well, partly as a result of the value of the Baldy Mountain area mining. In early 1870, they sold the entire land grant to a consortium of European investors, while retaining key portions of the grant, including mining claims on the east side of Baldy and water rights along Willow Creek. The men who bought the grant seem to have been confident that they also would do well from the gold and silver mines. However, things didn’t pan out quite as they’d hoped. The Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company was in default by the early 1880s.
But then again, right from the beginning, mining in the area had been based on “every man for himself.”
Sources: Moreno Valley Writers Guild, Lure, Lore and Legends of the Moreno Valley, Columbine Books, Angel Fire, 1997; Larry R. Murphy, Philmont, A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, 1972; Leo E Oliva, Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest, Division of History, National Park Service, Santa Fe, 1993; J. Rush Pierce, Red River City, JRP Publications, Red River, 2008; 1870 U.S. Census Records, Elizabeth City precinct; 1880 U.S. Census Records, Baldy/Ute Park precinct.
In January 1826, Santiago Abreú, New Mexico’s representative in Mexico City, sent a letter to the government officials in Santa Fe. In it, he cautioned them to be wary of the Americans in the province, especially those who wanted to settle, buy land, and marry without first obtaining the appropriate citizenship papers. In addition, the letter asked officials to record the activities of all non-Mexicans in New Mexico. This governmental policy of monitoring the Americans continued into the next decade, including after Abreú himself was appointed Governor in 1831. His duties included enforcing the laws that governed the americanos’ activities, including the regulations related to trapping and trading.
Ironically, Governor Abreú was the father of Jesús Abreú, the man who would become Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell’s brother-in-law and fellow heir (through their wives) of a substantial portion of the Beaubien-Miranda land grant east of Taos. Although Canadian-born Carlos Beaubien, Jesus Abreú’s and Lucien Maxwell’s respective wives, had become a naturalized Mexican citizen prior to the grant’s being made, there is no record that Lucien Maxwell, ultimate owner of most of the land, was ever a naturalized Mexican citizen. However, by the time Beaubien died in 1864, Maxwell’s citizen was a moot point. The thing Santiago Abreú had feared, that the Americans would eventually take over, had occurred 18 years before and many of his countrymen were in eminent danger of losing their patrimony to the men who were flooding in from the eastern States.
Sources: J. Rush Pierce, Red River City: A history of Northern New Mexico 1800-2000, JRP Publications, 2008; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, UNM Press, 2008; Jerry D. Thompson, A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, UNM Press, 2015; David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, U of Oklahoma, 1971; Stephen Zimmer, ed., For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, 1999.
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.
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.
On Sunday, August 25, 1867, the miners of New Mexico Territory’s Willow Creek Mining District organized themselves for the second time that year. They’d done a rush job in June. With miners pouring onto the slopes of Baldy Mountain, there hadn’t been time for organizing and mining too. But it didn’t look like things were going to settle down any time soon: There were up to 7,000 miners in the region, and activity everywhere. On Willow Creek alone, over 350 placer claims would be staked between 1867 and 1868, from high up Baldy Mountain almost to the edge of what is now Eagle Nest Lake. With the staking of claims came the potential for conflict. The only answer was to take the time to reorganize, and Sunday seemed as good a day as any.
The new Willow Creek rules allowed four claims per miner. A man could file a ravine claim (200 feet along the bottom and from bank to bank); a hill claim (200 feet along the stream by 300 feet toward the ridge), a flat claim ( 300 feet by 300 feet); and a quartz or lode claim (300 feet along the lode, with no specified width). In addition, a man who discovered a new creek, hill, flat, or load claim could also file one extra claim of any of the four types. To be considered “alive,” a claim had to be worked one day in every ten and at least once within the 15 days after it was recorded.
The Willow Creek Mining District lay on the south slopes of Baldy Mountain, much of it within the boundaries of the 20th century town of Eagle Nest, NM. The District was bounded on the east and north by the ridges that extended south from Baldy, and on the west by a divide that separated the creek’s drainage from Anniseta Gulch, which ran west in the direction of Moreno Creek and Elizabethtown.
While it never produced much lode gold, the Willow Creek District yielded well to placer operations. In fact, at one point, the main channel of Willow Creek was the highest producing creek bottom along the south and west slopes of Baldy Mountain, topping both Humbug Gulch and Grouse Gulch (see the table below). In addition, a Willow Creek side canyon called Last Chance Gulch and an area at the head of this gulch called Last Chance Flats, were both rich in gold. As a result, the District’s placers brought in 40% of the area’s placer gold in 1868 and 1869 and remained just behind Grouse Gulch’s placer production throughout the next decade.
The high levels of gold from Willow Creek may explain why there were at least twenty miners involved in an 1869 court fight over placer claims and water rights on the creek. The battle was not resolved until Spring 1870, when Lucien Maxwell intervened, purchased all the water rights in question, and then proceeded to lease them back to just a handful of individuals. Even though Maxwell was in the process of selling the land grant, he was keeping the Willow Creek Mining District water rights—perhaps its most lasting wealth—firmly in his own hands.
Sources: R. F. Pettit, Jr. “History of mining in Colfax County, New Mexico,” Taos-Raton-Spanish Peaks Country (New Mexico and Colorado), Northrop, S. A. & Read, C. B., eds., New Mexico Geological Society 17th Annual Fall Field Conference Guidebook, 128 p., 1966; R. F. Pettit, Jr., Mineral Resources in Colfax County, NM, NMBM&MR Open-File Report 15, 1946; Colfax County New Mexico real estate records.