Death by Investigation

On the night of Saturday, October 30, 1875 New Mexico Territory rancher William Low joined Mexican-born Cruz Vega beside a campfire about a mile and a half north of Cimarron. Low had hired Vega to watch his cornfields that Halloween weekend. But when a group of masked men led by Methodist missionary Oscar P. McMains showed up that night, Low wasn’t surprised. Reverend McMains had asked him to hire Vega to watch that particular cornfield. He wanted him within easy reach of the Poñil River stage road and the telegraph line that ran it.

McMains and his men had a sinister use for those telegraph poles. They suspected Vega of murdering McMain’s fellow missionary, the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby the month before, and they intended to extract a confession from him.

Oct 30 illustration
Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875

According to William Low, “One of them says, halloo boys, and he walked up toward Cruz with a lariat and put it around his neck, and says, come on, and they took him into the road and we along with him. We went up I judge about 500 yards among the timber, along the telegraph line: there was a party of men. It was pretty dark. These four or five men took him to a telegraph pole of their own accord: none of the parties said a word . . . One of the four or five men climbed the telegraph pole and put the rope over the wire and they raised him up, on their own accord, and after a few seconds let him down again.” After Vega recovered enough to talk, McMains interrogated him.

This process was repeated until McMains got all the information he was looking for. Then the Reverend returned to the Poñil River ranch where he and Low were staying the night and left Vega to the mercy of the now-drunken mob. McMains said later that he thought they were too drunk to do Vega any real damage. But shortly after McMains reached the ranch house, he and Low heard gunshots. “My God!” McMains exclaimed. “I fear these are the shots that kill Cruz Vega.”

And he was right. Vega’s body was found the next morning near the base of the telegraph pole. A clump of hair from his bashed-in head lay nearby and rope burns circled his neck.

Ironically, the information McMains gathered that night acquitted Vega of Tolby’s murder. Although Vega admitted that he’d witnessed the killing, he identified Manual Cardenas of Elizabethtown as the shooter. So the murderer was still at large. The saga of Reverend Tolby’s murder wasn’t quite over, and more deaths would ensue before it was. . . . Stay tuned.

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875. Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877.

 

 

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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.

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.

Lightning Strikes Missionaries in Cimarron Canyon

Exactly 146 years ago today, on Friday, August 4, 1871, three Methodist missionaries en route to Elizabethtown, New Mexico were struck by lightning and almost killed in Cimarron Canyon. Illinois natives Reverend N. S. Buckner and his 19 year old wife Annette had recently been appointed to take over Rev. Thomas Harwood’s responsibilities in Etown. They were travelling with Harwood, the man would go on to become the Methodist Bishop of New Mexico and co-found what is now the Harwood School in Albuquerque. The Buckners had just been assigned to assist him by taking over in Elizabethtown, where Harwood had dedicated a church building the year before.

The sun was beginning to set when Harwood and the Buckners reached the first section of Cimarron Canyon. Rev. Harwood’s buggy provided protection from the rain, so they weren’t uncomfortable. In fact, they were enjoying the thunderstorm and discussing the properties of electricity, when suddenly, thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. The buggy itself had been struck and its passengers stunned to immobility. The force of the strike tore two large holes in the ground underneath the wheels, broke the crossbar behind the horses, and knocked the animals themselves off their feet.

Once the Buckners and Harwood were able to move again, they left the horses and walked back towards Cimarron “under the blazing lightnings and almost deafening thunder, muddy, wet and barefoot, . . . three miles to the nearest American house, and thence in wagon to Cimarron City” (Harwood, Vol. I, 129).

Aug 4 illustration.Thomas Harwood photo

Although they were all still feeling the effects of their lightning experience, the next morning, the little group of  missionaries were back in the canyon, this time on the Saturday stage to Elizabethtown, where the men preached at the morning and evening church services the next day.

It was an inauspicious beginning to the Buckner’s work in New Mexico Territory and things don’t seem to have improved much after that. Elizabethtown was a center of resistance to the Maxwell Land Grant Company’s plan to dispossess the area’s miners, ranchers, and farmers of their land. The town was rife with tension. The Buckners returned to Colorado in 1872. A year and a half later, in January  1874, they were replaced by Rev. Franklin J. Tolby, who lived in Cimarron but held services in Elizabethtown on a regular basis. Tolby himself would not last long. He was gunned down on September 14, 1875 on his way home from the Elizabethtown church, a date that many consider to be the beginning of the Colfax County War.

For fiction based on Reverend Tolby’s life and assassination, and historical information about his death, see my May 24, 2017 post and watch for them throughout September.

 

Source: Thomas Harwood, History of New Mexico Spanish and English Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Vol. I and II, El Albogado Press, Albuquerque, 1910; Lawrence R. Murphy, Philmont, A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country, UNM Press, 1972, Albuquerque; ttps://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/?year=1871&country=1 accessed 7/17/2017