The Colfax County War, taking place in northeast New Mexico, was a vicious dispute over property ownership that occurred from 1873 to 1888. The disputed land was once part of the largest land grant ever made in the United States — The Maxwell Land Grant.
The land, which included large portions of what is now Colfax County, New Mexico and Las Animas County, Colorado was originally granted to Charles H. Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda in 1841 by the Spanish Government. After Lucien Maxwell married Beaubien’s daughter and became a part-owner and manager of the vast land grant, he bought out the other owners over time.
Two times larger than the State of Rhode Island, the area included the towns of Cimarron, Springer, Raton, and Elizabethtown in New Mexico, as well as Segundo and other towns in Colorado. The area is surrounding by breathtaking mountain views, beckoning valleys, streams teeming with fish and hillsides alive with game. During Maxwell’s ownership, the area was thriving with people coming and going along the Santa Fe Trail, developing settlements, and mining for gold.
After developing much of the property and operating several businesses on the land, Lucien Maxwell sold the property to Senator Chafee of Colorado and two others for $650,000 in 1870. He then sold all of his other assets on the property for an additional $100,000 and moved to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.
Senator Chaffee and the others who had purchased the land from Maxwell almost immediately sold it to an English syndicate for $1,350,000; and, just six months later, it was sold again to a Dutch Firm in 1872. The new grant owners immediately began to aggressively exploit the resources of the grant, opening a sales office at Maxwell’s old place in Cimarron. They waited for the customers to rush in, and they continued to wait. Faltering gold production and the shadow of Indian attacks spooked potential buyers. Meanwhile, folks who had already settled on the grant were riled at the brisk way the new owners tried to collect rents, despite the Dutch company’s legal right to the property.
One of the first items on the Grant owners’ agenda was the removal of the squatters who had moved on the grant during the past 30 years. The farmers and miners who had settled on the grant had held a grudging respect for Lucien Maxwell, but they felt no such loyalty to the absentee foreign firm. The settlers, having invested their lives and money into homes and businesses were not prepared to leave, especially in view of the contested title Maxwell had conveyed.
In an effort to remove the settlers from their property, grant officials, in league with a group of lawyers, politicians, and businessmen known as the Santa Fe Ring, began making false allegations against locals. Two Cimarron citizens were known to have been in support of the “Ring” — Melvin Mills, an attorney and Robert H. Longwell, Cimarron’s local doctor. In 1875 local elections were held with much controversy and Dr. Longwell was made probate judge, while attorney Mills was made a state Legislator.
The Santa Fe Ring’s two prime movers were attorney Thomas Benton Catron and his lawyer partner, Steven Benton Elkins, later a Senator. Fellow “Ring” members were chosen for whatever talent they could contribute, or political or financial influence they could provide.
Cimarron had already obtained a reputation for lawlessness and as the hired gunslingers of the Land Grant company tried to force off the squatters it quickly led to what became known as the Colfax County War. Unfortunately for the settlers, they were outnumbered and outgunned from the start.
Reverend Franklin J. Tolby, one of two Methodist ministers holding services in the area, quickly sided with the settlers in their opposition against the land grant men. The 33-year-old Tolby was a vociferous critic of the Santa Fe Ring and sent a series of letters to the New York Sun exposing the group’s corrupt methods, as well as making public statements at every opportunity that he would do whatever he could to break up the grant.
On September 14, 1875, the minister was found shot to death in Cimarron Canyon, midway between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, near Clear Creek. It was clear that robbery had not been the motive because the preacher’s horse, saddle and personal belongings were untouched. It was quickly assumed that someone from the Land Grant company had taken revenge against Tolby’s opinions and quieted him forever. Five days after his body was found, the Daily New Mexican of Santa Fe reported: “It is thought the murderer is a white man and paid for the job.”
However, if the murderer thought that killing Reverend Tolby would quiet the opposition to the land grant, they couldn’t have been more wrong. The settlers immediately blamed the Grant men and the politicians who were said to have been “in their pockets.” If anything, the murder further inflamed the citizens and led to more concerted efforts to challenge the approval of the grant. The Colfax County Ring, as the settlers called themselves, rode like avenging angels cutting down the just and unjust alike.
Tolby’s 34-year old minister friend, Reverend Oscar Patrick McMains, took up the holy war, urging in a public speech, “Defiance! And Contempt for that which is Contemptible.” Further, he wrote, “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…”
Despite a $3,000 reward for the murderer, no progress was being made on finding Tolby’s killer and McMains was becoming impatient. Rumors began to circulate that the new Cimarron Constable, Cruz Vega, was somehow involved in Tolby’s murder.
The pastor turned to Clay Allison, a local gunslinger for help. On the evening of October 30, 1875, a masked mob, who was said to have been led by Clay Allison and Minister McMains, confronted Vega. The constable denied having anything to do with the murder, blaming it on a man by the name Manuel Cardenas. Obviously, the mob did not believe him and he was pummeled and hanged by the neck from a telegraph pole. Unable to stomach the violence, the Reverend McMains had panicked and fled midway through the session.
Ten days later, Manuel Cardenas, the man who Vega had implicated prior to his death was arrested and questioned in Elizabethtown. He claimed that Vega had shot the minister, adding that Santa Fe Ringers Mills and Longwell were also behind the killing.
Mills barely escaped a furious lynch crowd in Cimarron as he alighted from a coach and was later arrested. Longwell fled in a buggy to Fort Union and safety just ahead of pursuers Clay and John Allison.
Mills was granted a trial, but during the trial, the state governor was informed of the events by telegraph and the cavalry was dispatched from Fort Union, arriving just in time to end the proceedings and release Mills.
Cardenas, during his protracted hearing, retracted his earlier accusations against Mills and Longwell, thus clearing the two men. Furthermore, he stated that in Ellizabethtown he had been coerced at gunpoint into implicating the two when he was “questioned” at gunpoint by Joseph Herberger. Evidently Herberger had been promised a political position by Ring men Mills and Longwell, during the earlier elections in 1875.