On Monday, April 18, 1887, the U.S. Supreme Court finally confirmed the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company’s right to almost two million acres in northeast New Mexico.
The controversy over the grant’s size had been going on since the early 1870s. A survey when the Company bought the grant identified around 2 million acres, land that that included much of what is now New Mexico’s Colfax County and stretched north into Colorado.
But there was a problem. Not everyone agreed that the grant was that large. In fact, U.S. General Land Office surveys insisted that grants issued by Mexico were limited to only 22 square leagues—a far cry from the 2 million acres claimed. Based on this judgment, the Land Office declared much of the acreage open to settlement. When its agents began issuing deeds to eager homesteaders and ranchers, trouble ensued. But the Maxwell Grant Company intended that land for its own uses and this was the American West—might made right. People died.
At the same time it was using guns and intimidation to keep people off its wide-open spaces, the Company also sought legal recourse. It turned to Washington with a request for an official government survey of the grant based on the geographical descriptions in the original 1840s documents. The request was refused.
Then in 1876, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed another New Mexico land grant to encompass more than 22 square leagues. The Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company swung into action. Three weeks after the decision, the Maxwell grant was being resurveyed. It took another eleven years, four days of oral argument, and 900 pages of testimony, but the Company finally got its land.
With that ruling, the Colfax County War, which had begun in earnest in September 1875, finally wound down, making it a longer feud than New Mexico’s more famous Lincoln County War, which had lasted a mere three years (1878-1881).
And proving that if you hang in there long enough—and have enough money—you might just get what you want, after all.
Sources: Howard R. Lamar, Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, New York: Harper & Row, 1977; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont: A history of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972; Stephen Zimmer, For Good or Bad, The People of the Cimarron Country, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999; Maria E. Montoya, “Maxwell Land Grant”, Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.ha.026, accessed 1/20/22.