Land grants, water rights, and property ownership have consistently been a point of contention and ongoing conflict in New Mexico, long before the region became a territory of the United States. Powerful interests, driven by greed, have found ways to separate vulnerable populations from their property and possessions for almost 500 years in this region. The land was occupied when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, but absent European style codified law and court systems, there was no acknowledgement of indigenous land ownership. It wouldn’t have mattered. European arrival came in the form of an invasion. The Spanish took what they wanted by force. They perceived the indigenous inhabitants as heathen or, in some way, less than themselves, to be ruled as subjects of the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism.
American tactics were slightly different, playing out via politics and the courts rather than conquest. Prolific corruption, at the highest levels of territorial government, paved the way for unscrupulous, powerful men to use the courts and political institutions to pillage the territory and its inhabitants. Locals referred to these men collectively as the Santa Fe Ring, “Ring” being a common moniker at the time for corrupt political coalitions. The “Ring” seized millions of acres of land, as well as livestock and other property. They displaced native inhabitants and poor, Hispanic farmers. The men involved were powerful, they were wealthy, and they totally got away with it. In fact, one of the ringleaders, Thomas Catron, became New Mexico’s first Senator in 1912.
Range Wars | The Colfax County War
Hundreds of people died in range wars arising from encroachment on ancestral homeland and land disputes between homesteaders and large companies moving in to exploit resources in the American West. The impact of those events continues to reverberate throughout New Mexico today, including in the courts, as people continue to battle it out for property and water rights.
The Colfax County War, one of the most brutal, protracted range wars, lasting more than 15 years, with approximately 200 deaths. The land in contention was 1,700,000 acres of prime real estate, the Maxwell Land Grant. The grant is an enormous expanse of property in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado that represents a consolidation of Mexican land grants approved a few years before the Mexican American War.
Land Grant, Land Grab
Charles Beaubien and a close friend of his, Guadalupe Miranda, petitioned Governor Manuel Armijo for possession of a large tract of land east of Taos in 1841. For context, Miranda was Governor Armijo’s private secretary and Beaubien was a successful businessman in Taos. The petition was based on developing the resources of the area and attracting settlers to the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristos to serve as a buffer between Santa Fe, the Ute and Apache raiders, as well as the Americans encroaching from the east. Governor Armijo granted Beaubien and Miranda’s request a mere three days later.
The almost two-million acres encompassed the entire western portion of today’s Colfax County and the southern part of Las Animas County, Colorado. The Cimarron and Canadian Rivers defined the land on the east. The tract extended westward to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Overall, it is a spectacular area, rich in natural and mineral resources. Narrow, fertile valleys separate tall, snow-capped peaks. Small creeks, teeming with fish, feed lush meadows of wild grasses and wildflowers.
Land grants invariably encompassed occupied land. Hispanic farmers, Jicarilla Apache and Ute Indians inhabited the land, relying on it for farming, hunting, and ranching. Furthermore, Beaubien and Miranda defined the property boundaries poorly, leaving ample room for legal challenges.
Based on the transactions that followed, there was a good bit of self-enrichment motivating the transaction. For example, Miranda and Beaubien conveyed a quarter interest in the grant to Governor Armijo to make sure the deed wasn’t contested in court. After Armijo secured his quarter stake in 1843 (aka payoff), he approved an adjacent grant for Beaubien’s young son, Narciso (age 8), and another for Beaubien’s son-in-law, Stephen Louis Lee. Additionally, Beaubien and Miranda deeded a quarter to Charles Bent, a Taos merchant, in exchange for his promise to oversee colonization efforts.
Narciso Beaubien, Stephen Lee, and Charles Bent were killed during the Taos uprising in 1847. Beaubien inherited his son’s land. He purchased Stephen Lee and Charles Bent’s portions of the grant within a year and turned development efforts over to his other son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell. Lucien launched several successful commercial enterprises. Read more about his incredible life and influence here.
Maxwell Land Grant
Charles Beaubien died in 1864 and left his share of the grant to his six children. Lucien and Luz bought out the other five heirs for amounts ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 dollars over the next five years, paying a total of $35,245 for 1,714,765 acres. In doing so, they became the largest landowners in the world, establishing their fiefdom in Cimarron, the Maxwell Land Grant.
Lucien Maxwell sold the Maxwell Land Grant to a group of investors from Colorado and New Mexico for $650,000 in 1870. He retained a small property surrounding his home and some of his mining interests. The investors formed the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company, selling the grant to a group of English investors for $1,350,000 a couple of years later.
Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company
The new owners aggressively exploited the resources of the grant, opening a sales office at Maxwell’s old place in Cimarron and evicting settlers. Though they expected customers to rush in, the mining boom was coming to an end. Faltering gold production and the potential for Indian attacks spooked potential buyers. Meanwhile, the settlers on the grant were increasingly hostile towards the company due to aggressive rent collection and forcible evictions by groups of company thugs. Collecting rent wasn’t a new problem. Lucien Maxwell had issues collecting rents and payments from his many tenants. However, locals respected Lucien. They resented the foreign owners and the Santa Fe Ring.
In the meantime, property developers working for the company complained that miners and farmers, who they considered squatters, were disrupting their work and impeding production. Many of these settlers were white, Spanish and Native American people who believed that the land was in the public domain or felt that they had been given Maxwell’s unwritten permission to live on the grant. Animosity developed between the two sides.
During the court wrangling, evictions continued. The company’s attorney, Frank Springer, namesake of Springer, New Mexico, continued to leverage New Mexico’s Territorial Court to evict anyone the Board of Directors wanted removed. When the company could no longer get rid of squatters through the courts due to the Homestead ruling, they opted for violent, illegal tactics. Why not? They controlled the local courts and most of the local lawmen.
As the grant owners escalated attacks on squatters, they attempted to get the grant approved by the U. S. Interior based on the full 1,700,000 acres. However, the government ruled that the grant was 97,000 acres based on a Mexican land grant law that limited grants to 92,000 acres. This ruling, combined with the lack of land sales and nominal rental income, forced the British investors to sell the grant to New Mexico investors, backed by Dutch investors. Unfortunately, there were numerous members of the Santa Fe Ring in the group of New Mexico investors, which changed the dynamic.
The Santa Fe Ring controlled politics and the courts through the end of the 19th century, well into the 20th century. Their specialty was seizing land, property and livestock, usually from Hispanic or Native American farmers and small ranchers.
Santa Fe Ring
The Santa Fe Ring’s two prime movers were attorney Thomas Benton Catron and his law firm partner, Steven Benton Elkins. The “Ring” selected members based on political and financial influence, combined with a lack of ethics and/or integrity. Two Cimarron locals, Melvin Mills and Robert H. Longwell, were known to support the “Ring.” During a controversial local election in 1875 Dr. Longwell became the probate judge and Mills joined the state legislature.
Cimarron was already well-known as an unruly, lawless, violent town. The Santa Fe Ring began making false allegations against locals and sending hired goons to attack squatters, homesteaders and small ranchers. Bringing in hired guns was like putting a match to a powder keg. Predictably, the situation exploded with the murder of a brave Methodist preacher who advocated vocally on behalf of the settlers. His death triggered a sequence of events that culminated in the Colfax County War.
Reverend Franklin J. Tolby
Franklin J. Tolby was born in White county, Indiana, in 1842. He served briefly in the the Civil War prior to volunteering for the Methodist Missions in New Mexico. He served as a mobile preacher, assigned to parishes between Elizabethtown and Cimarron.
Based on those who met him, and left their impressions to posterity, Tolby was well regarded, personable and well received in the small communities of northern New Mexico. He loved the area and planned to make it his home permanently. Even the notoriously cantankerous Clay Allison respected and liked the man.
The 33-year old Tolby was a compelling speaker and often spoke out against the violent tactics used by the grant owners and their enablers. A scathing opinion piece condemning the Santa Fe Ring and exposing their corrupt political methods was published in the New York Sun. Though the op-ed was published anonymously, many attributed the article to Reverend Tolby.
Enemies of the Santa Fe Ring had predictably short lives and they rarely died of natural causes, which was Tolby’s fate. He was found dead on September 14, 1875 in Cimarron Canyon, near Clear Creek, on the Elizabethtown-Cimarron Road. Everyone assumed it was a hit job, because the preacher’s horse, saddle and belongings were found with his body. Five days later the Daily New Mexican of Santa Fe reported: “It is thought the murderer is a white man and paid for the job.”
The Territory of New Mexico offered a substantial reward for the killer but no one ever claimed the reward. Though many men were accused, and many others were implicated, Reverend Tolby’s murder remains unsolved.
Colfax County Ring
If the goal was to silence Tolby and subdue the opposition, it backfired spectacularly. The Reverend’s death set in motion a series of vengeance killings that caused chaos and, ultimately, decimated the communities of Elizabethtown and Cimarron for years, forcing families to move to avoid the bloodshed. The conflict was known as the Colfax County War.
Tolby’s colleague Reverend Oscar P. McMains took up the cause, becoming an incendiary opponent of the grant owners. In a public speech shortly after Tolby’s murder, McMains said, “The war is on; the precious blood of settlers has been shed; and we must fight it out on this line. No quarter now for the foreign land thieves and their hired assassins…” He spent 20 years fighting the grant owners; giving speeches, writing, and engaging in direct political action.
However, despite a $3,000 reward for the murderer, no progress was made on finding Tolby’s killer. Rumors began to circulate that the Cimarron sheriff, Cruz Vega, was involved so McMains enlisted the help of Clay Allison, a local rancher and notorious gunslinger.
Clay Allison was a vigilante by nature, with a short fuse on his best day. Whereas McMains wanted to take on the grant owners and the Santa Fe Ring based on principle, Allison wanted to avenge Tolby, a man he liked and respected, based purely on revenge. Allison rallied men from Cimarron to Elizabethtown, including Pastor McMains. They confronted Vega on October 30, 1875. Vega, as one would expect, denied involvement, blaming it on another guy, Manuel Cardenas. However, the mob didn’t care for his excuses. Vega was beaten and hanged by the neck from a telegraph pole. Reverend McMains, as a man of the cloth, discovered he wasn’t cut out for violence. He fled midway through the confrontation.
Vega was the first casualty of many. The mob of hostile settlers called themselves “The Colfax County Ring.” Groups of them rode across the countryside like avenging angels. Guilt, guilt by association, innocent…it didn’t really matter. Everyone in the area was forced to pick sides as the Colfax County War escalated.
Vega’s uncle, Francisco, swore to avenge his nephew’s death by killing Clay Allison. He managed to confront Allison at the saloon of the St. James Hotel on November 1, but he didn’t have Allison’s gun-fighting speed or skills. Allison shot him twice in the chest, killing him. Allison was charged with murder, but the shooting was ruled self-defense.
Ten days later, Manuel Cardenas, the man who Vega had implicated, was arrested. Cardenas claimed Vega had shot the minister, implicating Mills and Longwell, local members of the Santa Fe Ring. Mills barely escaped the lynch mob and was later arrested. Longwell fled to Fort Union with Clay and John Allison hot on his heels. Mills was granted a trial, but was bailed out by soldiers from Fort Union on Governor Axtell’s orders (another member of the “Ring”).
The grant owners retaliated, hiring thugs to conduct nighttime raids on the settlers, destroying their property, burning their crops, and murdering all who fought back. Governor Samuel Axtell, another member of the Santa Fe Ring, dispatched soldiers from Fort Union to Cimarron, with orders to arrest Clay Allison. A rumor swept across the valley that Axtell planned to have troops kill the leaders of the opposition when an incriminating letter surfaced, allegedly written by Axtell. Of course, he denounced the letter as a forgery.
Later, Cardenas retracted his earlier accusations against Mills and Longwell. He claimed that Joseph Herberger coerced him into implicating them at gunpoint as payback for a deal gone sideways. No one to know if there is any truth to that story, because Cardenas was shot one evening while being transported from court back to jail. Most folks blamed Clay Allison, though it is officially another unsolved murder. Regardless, with charges mounting, and the noose tightening, Clay Allison decided to move his family to Texas. However, Reverend McMains continued to fight on behalf of the settlers until his death in 1899, trying valiantly to persuade local and national politicians to either allow the settlers to stay on their lands or be adequately reimbursed for leaving. In total, approximately 200 people died in the Colfax County War.
Meanwhile in Court
In 1876 U. S. Land Commissioner J. A. Williamson ordered a new survey of the grant. After rejecting two surveyors based on concerns about bias, he approved the hiring of John Elkins. John was the brother of Stephen B. Elkins, who was a leading member of the Santa Fe Ring with significant financial interest in the grant. Major conflict of interest, but corruption was the game of the day and divesting folks from their property was the specialty of this crew.
The survey of the grant was 1,700,000 acres. The Colfax County War came to an end with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the company. The court confirmed the company’s ownership of the land five weeks later. They concluded, “We are entirely satisfied that the Grant, as confirmed by the action of Congress, is a valid grant, that the survey and the patent issued upon it are entirely free from any fraud.” The government gave the owners full title to the Maxwell land grant.
Colfax County War Aftermath
President Grover Cleveland refused to support the settlers’ claims and the opposition’s fire waned. Many settlers realized that with no further legal options. Some of the settlers left. Others managed to stay, often through sheer tenacity. Evictions and random violence continued until about 1894. Richard Russell was one of the last victims of the Colfax County War. Company thugs killed him in a shootout near his ranch in Stonewall, Colorado in 1888. The company had either evicted or settled with most of the settlers by the late 1890s
Although the Colfax County War was over by 1900, the Maxwell Land Grant Company continued to have serious financial issues. They had a variety of revenue streams from rents, cattle, agricultural products, irrigation projects, gold and coal mining, timber, and cement manufacturing; however, those markets are volatile and the expenses are high. They sold land to cover shortfalls. By the early 1960s, the Maxwell Land Grant Company sold their remaining assets and ceased operations in New Mexico.
Vermejo Park Club
During the early 1900’s the grant owners gradually subdivided the land. Ranchers, loggers, and private organizations bought the property. Grain baron William H. Bartlett purchased 500,000 acres of the upper Vermejo River in 1902. He built three mansions and a railroad for his guests’ convenience. Later, he sold 200,000 acres of the private retreat and it became the Vermejo Park Club. Members included celebrities and the wealthy, such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Herbert Hoover and Harvey Firestone. However, when the depression wiped out the economy, the club closed and the property reverted to ranching.
Philmont Boy Scout Ranch
Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips purchased 330,000 acres in 1922. He spent six months of each year on the ranch and renamed it Philmont, which is based on the Spanish word for mountain “Monte.” The property was a ranching showpiece, where cattle and sheep grazed in expansive pastures. He built a large Spanish Mediterranean home for his family and named it Villa Monte, developing horse trails, hiking trails, and hunting cabins for his friends and family.
Waite Phillips gave 35,857 acres of the ranch to the Boy Scouts of America in 1938, along with $61,000 for development. He gifted an additional 91,000 acres in 1941, because he realized that the cost for maintenance and development of the property couldn’t be derived entirely from camper fees. Additionally, he included his 23-story Philtower Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the endowment. Later, through the generosity of Norton Clapp, VP of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, 10,098 acres of the Maxwell Land Grand was added to Philmont in 1963, which included the Baldy Mountain mining area.
The remaining adobe buildings of Lucien Maxwell’s first town, Rayado, are now maintained by the Philmont Scout Ranch. They restored the two original rooms that survived, an 1860 stagecoach stop, store, and accommodations for stage passengers.
Vermejo and Valle Vidal
The Vermejo Park property and other lands, which total almost one million acres, were eventually sold to W.J. Gourley, a Texas oil man from Fort Worth. Gourley wanted to expand the elk herd and purchased several hundred elk from Yellowstone National Park for $5/head. He also raised wild turkeys to increase the wild bird population. Gourley died in 1970. His heirs sold the estate to the Pennzoil Company for oil and gas development.
Pennzoil donated 100,000 acres of the land, the Valle Vidal, to the Carson Nation Forest to be preserved for its invaluable natural and wildlife resources in 1982. Hat tip to Gourley…the largest herd of elk in the state of New Mexico is in the Valle Vidal. Ted Turner’s Vermejo Ranch encompasses a significant portion of the original grant, bordering the Valle Vidal.