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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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.