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!

 

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Governor Offers Reward for Reverend Tolby’s Killer

On Thursday, October 7, 1875, three weeks after Reverend Franklin J. Tolby’s body was found shot in the back in Cimarron Canyon, New Mexico’s Territorial Governor Samuel B. Axtell announced a $500 reward for the apprehension and conviction of Tolby’s murderer. The proclamation, published in the Friday, October 8 Las Vegas Gazette, seems to indicate that the Governor felt pressured to offer the reward. “A large number of highly reputable citizens of Colfax County, including the county officers, local magistrates, local business owners, and publishers of the local newspapers” had petitioned the governor to issue the proclamation.

Las Vegas Gazette.10 8 1875.Tolby.clipped

The Governor’s apparent lack of enthusiasm lends supports to a local theory that members of the Santa Fe Ring were behind Tolby’s murder. The Governor was thought to be, at the very least, a tool of the Ring, which included Thomas B. Catron, Colfax County Probate Judge Dr. R. H. Longwill, and others, and would play a role in the Lincoln County War in the late 1870’s.

Whether the reward offer had anything to do with what happened in Colfax County in the following weeks isn’t known. What is known is that local attempts to identify Tolby’s murderer would lead to more deaths, one of them far more violent than a mere shot in the back. Stay tuned . . .

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, October 8, 1875; David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring¸ UNM Press, 2014.