The allure and opportunities of the American west attracted countless adventurous souls in the 1800s. A host of larger than life characters populate the tall tales of small towns throughout the state of New Mexico. Of the many well-known names, one of the most influential figures was Lucien Maxwell. He was a fur trader from Illinois who became a insanely wealthy entrepreneur and one of the largest land owners in history.
Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell was born on September 14, 1818 in Kaskaskia, a small town in the Illinois territory, about three months before Illinois became a state. His father, Hugh Maxwell, was an Irish immigrant. His mother, Odile Menard, was the daughter of Pierre Menard, a French Canadian fur trader who served on the Illinois Territorial Council. Pierre was famed for successfully negotiating with Indian tribes on behalf of the government. President John Quincy Adams tapped him to convene a major peace conference in Wisconsin in 1828. Shortly after Lucien’s birth, Pierre became the first Lieutenant Governor of the State of Illinois.
Pierre wasn’t the only notable influence. Lucien’s great uncle was James Maxwell, the Vicar General of Upper Louisiana. Reverend Maxwell received a large Spanish land grant. He populated the property with Irish Catholic immigrants, including his nephew, Hugh, Lucien’s father. Lucien’s cousin, Michel Branamour Menard, established a trading post that eventually grew into Galveston, Texas. One of his childhood neighbors was Stephen Austin, the namesake of Austin, Texas.
American Fur Company
The French were legends in the fur trading industry and Lucien’s grandfather embodied this mythos. Pierre took young Lucien under his wing, teaching his grandson how to hunt and trap. Ultimately, Lucien followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. He left home at 15-years old, in 1833. His father, Hugh, died the following year. Lucien completed two years of study at Vincentian college in Missouri before heading west with the American Fur Company, owned by a relative, Auguste Chouteau.
It was during his stint with the American Fur Company that he met a man who would become one of his best friends for the rest of his life, Kit Carson. Though Carson was nine years older than Maxwell, the two formed a bond with northern New Mexico and one another.
The job with the American Fur Company involved attending fur trade fairs, including a large annual fair in Taos, New Mexico. During these visits, Lucien befriended a French Canadian merchant in Taos, Charles Hipolite Trotier Beaubien. Beaubien was a French-Canadian trapper who came to New Mexico in 1832. He married a 16-year old local girl from a prominent Spanish family and became a Mexican citizen, opening a store in Taos.
Occasionally, Lucien would work at Beaubien’s store, where he met and courted his employer’s daughter, María de la Luz. He married her when she turned 13 in 1842. After his marriage, Maxwell continued to lead a nomadic existence. He was a rough and tumble fur trapper prior to obtaining his fame and fortune later in life. John C. Frémont hired him as a hunter based on the recommendation of Kit Carson. He was one of 28 men on Frémont’s first expedition to Oregon in 1842. Additionally, Lucien Maxwell accompanied Frémont on his controversial trip in 1845-46 (when the U.S. seized California from Mexico).
There was a peculiar, albeit popular concept, circulating in D.C. known as “Manifest Destiny,” which was based on the the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. Basically, it was a justification to invade and conquer without provocation.
With this mantra in mind, the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 when General Stephen Kearney led approximately 2,500 troops into Mexican territory looking for a fight. The provincial governor, Governor Armijo, briefly attempted to defend Santa Fe with a small, poorly equipped, poorly trained militia. However, when it became obvious that resistance was likely fatal, he fled to Chihuahua. The Mexican troops in the territory withdrew to northern Mexico, which allowed Kearny’s forces to quickly seize the territory. The U.S. incorporated New Mexico as a territory. However, due to the isolation and the Apache, Ute, and Comanche raids, the area attracted few settlers.
Meanwhile, time to back up a few years to consider concurrent developments in Taos during this period. Prior to the Mexican-American War, Charles Beaubien and a close friend, Guadalupe Miranda, submitted a petition for a land grant to Governor Manuel Armijo in 1841. The petition was based on a desire to develop the resources on the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristos. Furthermore, they wanted to attract settlers to the region to reduce Apache and Ute raids and to deter American settlers drifting into the province with increasing frequency. The governor granted Beaubien and Miranda’s request three days after the petition was presented. Based on the transactions that followed there was a good bit of self-enrichment motivating the transaction.
Beaubien and Miranda erected a handful of boundary markers and completed the title transfer in 1843. At the time no one assessed acreage, which became a contentious legal issue decades later. However, the almost two-million acre parcel was two times larger than the state of Rhode Island. It encompassed the entire western portion of today’s Colfax County and the southern part of Las Animas County, Colorado. Eventually the grant encompassed the towns of Cimarron, Springer, Raton and Elizabethtown, as well as Segundo and other towns in Colorado. The area is spectacular, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, carved by narrow, fertile valleys, with lush meadows fed by small creeks teeming with fish.
The conflict between small farmers and the ambitious investors was immediate. Father Antonio José Martínez of Taos protested the grant with the support of Taos Pueblo leaders. He pointed out that the grant illegally included Taos Pueblo’s communal grazing and hunting lands and that it was detrimental to the Hispanic people, because it impeded access to grazing land and water.
Land Grant or Land Grab?
Land grants have created ongoing controversy, contention and conflict in New Mexico for centuries. This one was no exception. The land wasn’t uninhabited. In the 1800s, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado was the undisputed territory of the Apache and Ute Indians, later the Comanche. Development involved displacement and provoked violent confrontations between settlers and the native inhabitants.
Miranda and Beaubien conveyed a quarter interest in the grant to Governor Armijo. Another quarter was deeded to Charles Bent, a Taos merchant, in return for his promise to develop the land. After Armijo received his quarter interest in 1843, he approved an additional adjacent grant to Beaubien’s young son, Narciso, and another to his son-in-law, Stephen Louis Lee. Now that you have those names and pieces set up, let’s continue the convoluted tale of how all of the pieces came to be owned by Lucien Maxwell and how that led to a war.
Taos Revolt of 1847
The change in territorial management initially had no impact on Charles Beaubien; however, the Taos Revolt hit close to home. A coalition of Puebloans and Mexican patriots joined forces to repel the Americans in January, 1847. Beaubien’s 13-year old son, Narciso, and his son-in-law, Sheriff Stephen Lee, were killed, as was Charles Bent, who the U.S. Army had installed as New Mexico’s civilian governor. Beaubien inherited his son’s land and he purchased Stephen Lee’s land for $100 the following year. However, he had lost interest in the project and turned it over to his other son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell. The other grantee, Guadalupe Miranda, fled to El Paso during the war. He sold his portion of the grant to Maxwell in 1857 for $2745.
Though Lucien’s professional experience was fur trapper, trader, scout, and guide, he acclimated to his role as magnanimous, entrepreneurial land baron like a fish to water. It was like he had the midas touch when it came to investments and ranching. He was a visionary, known for his grand ideas and generous hospitality, and known to have a short fuse for B.S.
Maxwell immediately got a herd of cattle established on the grant, rapidly increasing the size of the herds by setting up ranchers with cattle. He set up payment plans to insure a steady revenue stream. Layaway for livestock. In the meantime, he carefully selected the best animals, crossbreeding and upgrading his herds, including cattle, horses, sheep, and goats.
Random trivia: Buffalo Bill Cody was the manager of Maxwell’s goat ranch in his youth.
Once the conflict in Taos calmed down, Maxwell and Kit Carson founded the town of Rayado on the southern portion of Beaubien’s grant in the spring of 1847. Rayado means “streaked” in Spanish, which may have been a hat tip to the beautiful cliffs near the settlement. The community was located about 11 miles south of today’s Cimarron. Lucien and Luz moved to Rayado full time in 1848 to start their family. The couple built an expansive one-story hacienda, which is currently a museum at Philmont Scout Ranch. Their first child, Peter, was born in 1848, followed by a pack of girls: Virginia, Emilia, Sofia, Paulita, and Odile. Three other children died in infancy.
Rayado was the first settlement east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and became a stagecoach and wagon stop along the Santa Fe Trail. Maxwell and Carson assembled herds of sheep and drove them over a thousand miles to California, netting $20,000-$50,000 on each trip, which was a small fortune at the time. In 1850, the United States Army established a post at Rayado. Maxwell rented his first home to the officers. Partially subsidized by the $200/month rent he received, Lucien started construction on a second home that eventually grew to 16+ rooms. Additionally, he established lucrative contracts supplying meat and grain to the fort. By 1851, 20 families had settled at Rayado. The arrangement was a southwestern form of share-cropping. All of them paid rent to, or worked shares for, Beaubien and Maxwell.
In 1858 Charles Beaubien paid a Santa Fe law firm to petition Congress for confirmation of the grant under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The court described the grant boundaries as vague, which was foreshadowing of the legal controversy to come. However, once the case made its way through the courts, the grant, which would eventually be known as the Maxwell Land Grant, ended up being over two million acres. That same year, Lucien moved to the banks of the Cimarron River 12 miles north of Rayado. He built a third home as the base for his ranching headquarters and established another town, Cimarron. Once again, Maxwell invited other families to settle on the land in exchange for a cut of their production, whether agricultural or livestock.
Charles Beaubien died in 1864. He left his share of the grant to his six children. However, 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. They became the largest landowners in the world. They renamed the property the Maxwell Land Grant and established their own fiefdom, with headquarters in Cimarron.
The Maxwell Land Grant
The ranching operation managed 20,000 sheep, 1,500 cattle, and 400 horses and mules. They built a gristmill in 1864, ran a store in Cimarron, and bought the Kitchen Brothers’ Hotel in Las Vegas. Maxwell’s innovative agricultural methods and introduction of new breeds to New Mexican livestock benefited ranchers throughout the territory. He invested thousands of dollars in equipment in machinery that was otherwise too expensive for farmers in the territory.
Lucien had money coming in from every direction. His portfolio of enterprises flourished, especially during the Civil War when he secured lucrative supply contracts with the U.S. Army. He furnished supplies to troops and supplied grain and beef to the Fort Sumner Reservation after the Long Walk, which isn’t surprising considering Kit Carson’s role in the Long Walk. He served as Indian agent at Cimarron for the Jicarilla Apaches and Utes who lived on and around the grant.
The Maxwell House
Their palatial home, The Maxwell House, became a focal point for entertainment and commerce. It was the size of a city block and included a hotel, gambling rooms, a saloon, dance hall, billiard parlor, a racetrack, and an area for women of “special virtue.” Yes, he had a brothel in his home.
In the rough and rugged small towns of the Old West, Maxwell’s opulence and wealth was staggering. Though Maxwell was arrogant and known to be vicious when crossed, he was generally respected and held in high regard, considered fair and generous. His guest register reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Wild West: Kit Carson, Clay Allison, and Buffalo Bill Cody, the former manager of Lucien’s goat ranch. Buffalo Bill organized his first Wild West Show in Cimarron.
Lucien Maxwell knew there was gold on his land. Natives had been bringing gold nuggets to the Maxwell store for years. He kept some in his desk drawer for his kids to play with. Unfortunately, that became common knowledge in 1866, when prospectors from Fort Union found gold in Willow Creek, on Maxwell’s property. Word spread like wildfire. Prospectors were swarming the slopes within a matter of months. Maxwell, ever the businessman, was pragmatic. He couldn’t control the influx of people so he capitalized on every facet of the mining boom.
Maxwell joined Captain William Moore, the founder of Elizabethtown, and a few other investors to form the Copper Mining Company in 1867. They found the first lode of gold and began extracting ore from Baldy Peak. The mine produced a million dollars during its first year of operation. Additionally, Lucien leased claims to miners, sold them goods, put up smelters, opened new ditches, built toll roads and sawmills. As Elizabethtown and Red River became thriving boom towns., he was the middleman in a disproportionate number of the commercial transaction. Ultimately, he made a fortune off the mining boom in the Moreno Valley, on top of the fortune he already had, but he wasn’t happy.
Selling an Empire
When Colfax County was created in 1869, Elizabethtown became the county seat. A group of investors presented Lucien with an offer. Based on the prior legal issues, Lucien tried to establish clear title. He requested a survey from New Mexico’s surveyor general, T. Rush Spencer. Spencer sent a survey crew to Cimarron to begin the work, but he reported the project to the Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington.
When the commissioner reviewed the documentation he noticed that the grant extended into Colorado, which led him to question Spencer’s jurisdiction over the entire grant. He ordered Spencer to cancel the survey until more information could be obtained and referred the entire issue to the Secretary of the Interior. The Secretary of the Interior ruled that the New Mexico Congress had not intended to approve that much land to the two original grantees. He proposed a limit that was significantly smaller than Maxwell’s actual land holdings. Further, he stipulated that the survey would only be completed if Maxwell agreed to the limit. Otherwise, they would return the deposit paid for the survey and his claim would be ignored.
Well, that response didn’t go over well with Maxwell, a man accustomed to being THE boss. He ignored the ruling and accepted the investor’s offer in April, 1869, selling the grant for $650,000. The Colfax County clerk received the deed transferring ownership of Lucien and Luz’s land to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company on July 23, 1870. The Maxwell’s sold their Cimarron house and the remainder of the Colfax County property for an additional $125,000 a few weeks later. He bought Fort Sumner, which had been decommissioned by the U.S. Army. He paid $5000 for the property and buildings. The Maxwell family departed Cimarron in September, 1870. 25-30 families from Cimarron accompanied them…the Maxwell entourage.
Fort Sumner was well situated on the cattle trails. The property had enormous potential as a ranching operation. The Maxwell’s remodeled the adobe officers’ quarters, creating a luxurious 20-room home, with corrals, storehouses and stables. Lucien built an irrigation system five miles north of the post, including a dam. The 12-foot-wide acequia is more than six miles long, with 15 miles of secondary ditches. After the move to Fort Sumner, Lucien turned over most of his business affairs to his son, Peter. His semi-retirement didn’t last long. He died unexpectedly on July, 1875. His death was attributed to kidney failure. He was buried at Fort Sumner. He didn’t leave a will.
By selling the grant when he did, Lucien Maxwell avoided the controversy and the cost associated with the litigation that plagued the new owners for decades. Furthermore, he sold the property without negotiating terms on behalf of the hundreds of people living on the grant. Violence erupted in Colfax County after Lucien’s departure, a range war known as the Colfax County War. The Santa Fe Ring, a powerful group of politicians and land speculators, entered the fray on behalf of the new owners. They evicted people who had worked the land for 30 years, and forced native inhabitants off their ancestral homeland. Not until 1887 did the U.S. Supreme Court recognize the official 1877 survey. Disputes have lingered into the present day.
Luz outlived her husband by 25 years. She was a partner in the Maxwell and Brazil Cattle Company. A few years after her husband’s death, Luz Maxwell’s sheep holdings numbered 17,000. The herds were managed by her son-in-law, Manuel Abreu. When the New England Cattle Co. bought out the ranching operation in 1884, Luz moved to a wood-framed adobe house in what became the second Fort Sumner. She died on July 13, 1900. The Abreu family owned the house until 1979.
It took 75 years to erect a monument to Lucien Maxwell at Fort Sumner, though it is a popular tourist stop because Billy the Kid is buried there. It seems odd that a 21-year old orphan turned outlaw has more name recognition than Lucien Maxwell. More than a century after his death, his influence can still be felt throughout northern New Mexico.
Prior to publishing this article, I sent it to Art Jaramillo, a descendant of Lucien Maxwell, and ardent lover of New Mexico history. He has a few additions,
“Kit Carson was a lifelong friend of Lucien Maxwell and even married a Jaramillo woman from Taos, after having had two Native American wives, both of whom “divorced” him. I can’t justify Carson’s treatment of Native Americans during his time with The U.S. Territorial Government, or of Maxwell’s treatment of poor Hispanic residents of this area when he was a rich land baron, but both were prominent in New Mexico’s history.
Maxwell and Carson were both previously fur trappers, so called “Mountain Men.” They were very much a product of their times and not gentrified city dwellers. Maxwell was particularly rough not only with people who “crossed him,” but with Hispanics in general, although as you mentioned he was extraordinarily generous with those whom he liked.
His son, Pete (Pedro) Maxwell was a huge disappointment to Lucien. Pete was pretty much a bum living off his father’s fortune his entire life. He believed that he didn’t need to work and squandered whatever was left of Maxwell’s fortune after his Mother, Luz died.
It’s also worth mentioning that Lucien Maxwell started the first bank in the New Mexico Territory in Santa Fe. A good idea, but he was out of his element. He quickly sold it. He was an extraordinarily lucky and perhaps “savvy” businessman who made some very poor business decisions later in life and died in poverty in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico.
Two Jaramillo brothers, who were very well-to-do sheep merchants selling sheep to the U.S. Army in Sacramento,CA, as Maxwell had done earlier in his life, married two of Maxwell’s daughters, Paulita and Sofia. Our family descends from Sofia Maxwell. Both of those brothers were very eccentric from what I understand, but I don’t know a whole lot about them, other than what our cousin, Pauline Jaramillo wrote about them when she researched our family history.”