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.

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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