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.



Willow Creek Mining District Reorganizes

On Sunday, August 25, 1867, the miners of New Mexico Territory’s Willow Creek Mining District  organized themselves for the second time that year. They’d done a rush job in June. With miners pouring onto the slopes of Baldy Mountain, there hadn’t been time for organizing and mining too. But it didn’t look like things were going to settle down any time soon: There were up to 7,000 miners in the region, and activity everywhere. On Willow Creek alone, over 350 placer claims would be staked between 1867 and 1868, from high up Baldy Mountain almost to the edge of what is now Eagle Nest Lake. With the staking of claims came the potential for conflict. The only answer was to take the time to reorganize, and Sunday seemed as good a day as any.

The new Willow Creek rules allowed four claims per miner. A man could file a ravine claim (200 feet along the bottom and from bank to bank); a hill claim (200 feet along the stream by 300 feet toward the ridge), a flat claim ( 300 feet by 300 feet); and a quartz or lode claim (300 feet along the lode, with no specified width). In addition, a man who discovered a new creek, hill, flat, or load claim could also file one extra claim of any of the four types. To be considered “alive,” a claim had to be worked one day in every ten and at least once within the 15 days after it was recorded.

The Willow Creek Mining District lay on the south slopes of Baldy Mountain, much of it within the boundaries of the 20th century town of Eagle Nest, NM. The District was bounded on the east and north by the ridges that extended south from Baldy, and on the west by a divide that separated the creek’s drainage from Anniseta Gulch, which ran west in the direction of Moreno Creek and Elizabethtown.

While it never produced much lode gold, the Willow Creek District yielded well to placer operations. In fact, at one point, the main channel of Willow Creek was the highest producing creek bottom along the south and west slopes of Baldy Mountain, topping both Humbug Gulch and Grouse Gulch (see the table below). In addition, a Willow Creek side canyon called Last Chance Gulch and an area at the head of this gulch called Last Chance Flats, were both rich in gold. As a result, the District’s placers brought in 40% of the area’s placer gold in 1868 and 1869 and remained just behind Grouse Gulch’s placer production throughout the next decade.

Aug. 25 illustration.Value of load and placer mining

The high levels of gold from Willow Creek may explain why there were at least twenty miners involved in an 1869 court fight over placer claims and water rights on the creek. The battle was not resolved until Spring 1870, when Lucien Maxwell intervened, purchased all the water rights in question, and then proceeded to lease them back to just a handful of individuals. Even though Maxwell was in the process of selling the land grant, he was keeping the Willow Creek Mining District water rights—perhaps its most lasting wealth—firmly in his own hands.


Sources: R. F. Pettit, Jr. “History of mining in Colfax County, New Mexico,” Taos-Raton-Spanish Peaks Country (New Mexico and Colorado), Northrop, S. A. & Read, C. B., eds., New Mexico Geological Society 17th Annual Fall Field Conference Guidebook, 128 p., 1966; R. F. Pettit, Jr., Mineral Resources in Colfax County, NM, NMBM&MR Open-File Report 15, 1946; Colfax County New Mexico real estate records.


Virginia City, New Mexico is Born. And Dies.

On January 6, 1868 Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, co-owner of the Maxwell land grant, announced a public auction of 400 lots in Virginia City, a new town six miles east of today’s Elizabethtown. The new town was located along Willow Creek on Baldy Mountain’s southern slopes and  named after Maxwell’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Virginia.


Unfortunately, the town got off to a slow start. Only fifteen houses were in the next two months. Due to poor sales, the town had collapsed by the time Virginia married U.S. Army officer A.S.B Keyes two years later without Maxwell’s permission. What little remains of Virginia City is now on private property.

Sources: Urban, Jack. C.. Lure, Lore, and Legends of the Moreno Valley. Angel Fire, NM: Moreno Valley Writers Guild, 1997: 32.  Murphy, Larry R. Philmont. A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country. Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1972: 90. Freiberger, Lucille. Lucien Maxwell: Villain or Visionary. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999: 103.