Thomas Catron is Named U.S. Attorney for New Mexico!!!

In early March 1872, Thomas B. Catron was named U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Territory, replacing his good friend Stephen Elkins, who’d just been elected New Mexico’s delegate to Congress. Catron had come to the Territory in 1866 at Elkins’ urging. He used his appointment to become a powerhouse in New Mexico politics and the center of what became known as the Santa Fe Ring, a group of men who sought to keep New Mexico’s political and financial power firmly in their own hands.

Catron and Elkins were business as well as law partners. They focused their efforts on anything that would increase their wealth, including banking, mining, and land speculation. Elkins left the Territory in 1877 and moved to West Virginia, but Catron stayed and continued his business and political activities. He served as Santa Fe’s mayor, president of the New Mexico Bar Association, and—perhaps most importantly—kingpin of New Mexico’s Republican party.

Source: Thomas Benton Catron and His Era by Victor Westphall

These positions and his control of the Santa Fe Ring enabled Catron to amass huge landholdings, many of them fraudulently. By the end of the 1800s, he reportedly owned around two million acres in New Mexico land and had a financial interest in another four million, much of it former Spanish and Mexican land grants.

It seems fitting that Catron County, one of New Mexico’s largest counties in terms of area but smallest in terms of population, is named after Catron. I suspect he was one of those people who didn’t tolerate others well unless they could benefit him in some way, so he needed a certain amount of elbow room. Naming a county for him that contains plenty of acreage but not many people seems appropriate.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico: A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande Book, 2007; Howard R. Lamar, Ed. The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, New York: Harper and Row, 1977; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, Office of the Attorney General, State of New Mexico, History, Powers & Responsibilities, 1846-1990. Santa Fe: State of New Mexico, 1990; Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron and his era, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973.

Stephen Elkins Takes Lucrative Federal Position

On Saturday, December 22, 1866, New Mexico Territory’s acting Governor W.F.M. Arny appointed Stephen B. Elkins Territorial Attorney General, putting Elkins into the first of a series of Federal positions that would be extremely beneficial to his bank account.

William Frederick Milton Arny had arrived in New Mexico in 1861 as President Lincoln’s  Indian Agent to the Ute and Jicarilla Apache of northern New Mexico. Stationed at what is now Cimarron, Arny worked to provide agricultural opportunities for the Native Americans for whom he was responsible. However, he was moved out of this position to that of Territorial Secretary in 1862, where he served under Governor Henry Connelly until Connelly’s death in July 1866. Arny served as interim Governor about six months, until Robert B. Mitchell took over. During that period, he appointed Stephen B. Elkins to his new job.

The two men seem to have been quite different in their approach to New Mexico. Even after he was no longer Indian agent, Arny continued to work for what he saw as the good of Native Americans in New Mexico and to express his opinions about Native American issues, even when they weren’t popular. He opposed moving the Navajo people to Bosque Redondo and suffered the political consequences of that stance. He died in Santa Fe in 1881, virtually penniless.

Dec 22 illustration.Arny, W. F. M

Elkins, on the other hand, seems to have always been focused on his own needs. He arrived in New Mexico in 1863, after resigning from his position as Captain in the Union Army in the middle of the Civil War. Elected to the Territorial House of Representatives the following year, he moved from there into Federal positions, beginning with his appointment as Attorney General. When his right to the job was challenged by Governor Mitchell, he negotiated himself into being named the Territorial U.S. District Attorney instead.

While District Attorney, Elkins also practiced law with Thomas Catron. He was elected New Mexico’s Congressional Delegate in 1872 and served two terms, during which he worked to delay New Mexico statehood, an event he and Catron felt would be detrimental to their business activities, which included land grant speculation and other questionable practices.

Elkins left New Mexico in 1877 and moved to West Virginia. There, he served as Secretary of War during the Benjamin Harrison administration and was elected to the U.S. Senate. He remained Senator until his death, all the while continuing to dabble in shady enterprises. These included exploiting the government-owned Alaska fur seal industry and participating in the mail contracts that played into the Star Route mail frauds exposed in 1881.

By the time Elkins died in 1911, he was wealthy enough to have co-founded Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. He left behind a legacy, both financial and educational.

But I’m still inclined to think that Arny was the better man. Even if he did give Elkins a leg up in his political career.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico Biographical Dictionary, Vol. I, Rio Grande Books: Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, 2007; Howard R. Lamar, The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, Harper & Row, New York, 1977; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, Office Of The Attorney General, State Of New Mexico History, Powers And Responsibilities 1846-1990, State of New Mexico, 1990.

 

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Book Review

Chasing the Santa Fe Ring cover
by David L. Caffey
University of New Mexico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8263-1947-0

In New Mexico, the words “Santa Fe Ring” convey the same concept as the words “Tammany Hall” in New York. The Ring is synonymous with collusion by a few to suppress the many, the use of political power for private ends, and the accumulation of wealth by unsavory means.

In Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey describes the beginnings, height, and end of the Ring and the people involved in it. The major figures he discusses include, of course, Thomas Catron, Governor Samuel Beach Axtell, Stephen Benton Elkins, and William Breeden. But there were a number of less well-known figures that had links to the ring—Colfax County men like physician Robert Longwill and attorney Melvin W. Mills and Santa Fe merchants like Lehman Spiegelberg and Abraham Staab. Caffey places the activities of these men in context and also provides a helpful summary of their activities in the back matter.

One of the pleasures of reading this book is learning about the connections between the Ring and the various events in New Mexico Territory that tend to be treated as stand-alone eruptions—for example, the Lincoln County War and the Colfax County War. Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is actually a great way to obtain a comprehensive history of the Territory from the lens of the Ring and its particular chronology of events.

Catron and his allies seem to have had their hands in any and every opportunity that appeared to promise a monetary return. This included something as large as using their legislative power to “open up” the land grants to acquisition by outsiders and as small as arranging for jury members to be paid in script with little or no monetary worth, buying that script up, and then forcing a law through the legislature which increased its value.

But this book isn’t just a record of the wrongs perpetuated by the Santa Fe Ring. It’s also the story of how a few people took action and brought an end to its power. One of those people was Mary Tibble McPherson, a woman who didn’t actually live in New Mexico. But her daughter did. By the time McPherson was finished raising hell, even Washington D.C. was taking notice.

Mary McPherson wasn’t the only person involved in the fight against the Ring. But to find out more, you’ll have to read the book. If you’re interested in New Mexico history in the Territorial period, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring is a great resource. I recommend it!