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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Every Man for Himself

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.

 

 

New Mexico’s Rep Issues Warning About Americans

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.

Jesus G. Abreu.Meketa
Jesus Abreu, Santiago Abreu’s son and Lucien B. Maxwell brother-in-law Source: Louis Felsenthal by J. D. Meketa

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.

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.

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.