“Everything is quiet at Cimarron. Nobody has been killed in three days.”
– The Las Vegas Gazette in the late 1870’s
Established within an almost two million acre land grant, Cimarron was built upon what was originally the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant. In 1842 Charles Lucien B. Maxwell, a fur trapper from Illinois, came to the area, working as a guide. His work often brought him to the Beaubien-Miranda Ranch, where he met and married one of Beaubien’s six daughters – Luz in 1842.
Maxwell was a shrewd and lucky businessman and in 1857, he bought Miranda’s interest in the grant and continued to develop the area. In 1858, Maxwell built a mansion in Cimarron that was as large as a city block. The Maxwell House was not only his home, but a place of business which included a hotel, gambling rooms, a saloon, dance hall, billiard parlor, and a designated area for women of “special virtue.”
His mansion was said to have had high, molded ceilings, deeply piled carpets, velvet drapes, paintings in gold frames, and four pianos — two for each floor. Old registers included several prominent names including Kit Carson, Clay Allison, Davy Crockett (the desperado, and nephew of American frontiersman, Davy Crockett) and Buffalo Bill Cody.
There were some shooting escapades at the Maxwell House in the bar and gambling rooms, but the participants were quickly kicked out, as Maxwell would not tolerate these activities. Unfortunately, the mansion was destroyed by fire in 1922 and there are no remains
Cimarron was officially established in 1861 and was named for the Spanish word meaning “wild” and “unbroken.” The name was extremely fitting at the time, as Cimarron was quickly attracting mountain men, outlaws, trappers, gold seekers, traders and cowboys.
In 1864, after the death of his father-in-law, Maxwell bought out the five other heirs, becoming the largest land owner in the United States and renamed the property the Maxwell Land Grant. In the same year, Maxwell hired an engineer firm from Boston to design a three-story grist mill that he called the Aztec Mill. The mill, capable of grinding 15,000 pounds of wheat per day, supplied flour for Fort Union and distributed supplies to the area Indians, for which Maxwell was compensated by the federal government. Maxwell operated the Aztec Mill until 1870. In 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, gold was discovered on Baldy Peak, and the area filled with miners in search of their fortunes. Between the miners and the travelers along the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail, Cimarron quickly became a boom town, boasting 16 saloons, 4 hotels and numerous trading stores. The burgeoning city also gained a reputation for lawlessness with bullets flying freely.
At one point, the Cosgrove House was hosting a “shivaree” for a newly married couple when the celebration got out of hand. The owner, Charles Cosgrove, stepped outside to run off the party goers when the newly appointed deputy sheriff, Mason Chase, came along to see what all the fuss was about.
The angry Cosgrove assumed that Chase was the instigator and shot him in the chest. A thick notebook that Chase carried in his breast pocket received the bullet and saved his life. When Clay Allison, the notorious gunslinger, landed in the Cimarron area in 1870, he and his cowboy friends made Cimarron a regular Saturday night party place. While the bar keeps, gamblers and dance hall girls may have appreciated their business, the rest of the citizens of Cimarron hid in terror. The cowboys punctuated their rebel yells with pops from their six-shooters as they made their rounds to area saloons, gambling halls, and dance halls. Fortifying their courage with drinks at every stop, they shot at lamps, lanterns, mirrors, and glasses, and were said to have particularly enjoyed making newcomers “dance,” as shots were fired at their feet.
In 1870, Lucien B. Maxwell sold his interest in the grant and all his properties for $700,000 and moved to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The new owners of the grant aggressively exploited the resources from the gold mines, lumber, land sales and rents.
The expectant developers opened a sales office at Maxwell’s mansion in Cimarron and waited for the customers to rush in. But they continued to wait, as 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.
The Maxwell Land Grant Company was not at all impressed with the rowdyism of the town and sought to overcome it by the introduction of order and culture. John Collinson, president of the Maxwell Land Grant Company, sought out Alexander P. Sullivan, a newspaper man in Santa Fe, with whom he drew up a contract for the publication of the Cimarron News and Press. The first issue appeared on September 22, 1870.
When the Land Grant Company discovered that Frenchman, Henri Lambert, who was at one time, the personal chef to President Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant, was operating a hotel and restaurant in Elizabethtown, they induced him to come to Cimarron. The Lambert Inn, as it was called at the time, started business in 1872. Built during a time when law and order was non-existent, the saloon quickly gained a reputation as a place of violence, where it is said that 26 men were shot and killed within its adobe walls. The first question usually asked around Cimarron in the morning was: “Who was killed at Lambert’s last night?” Another favorite expression following a killing was: “It appears Lambert had himself another man for breakfast.” The Grant Company’s plan for cultivation had backfired.
Allison and his cowboys frequented Lambert’s Inn and their antics continued. Associated with Clay Allison during these escapades was young Davy Crockett (not the Davy Crockett of Alamo fame fame, but a nephew.) Both Allison and Crockett were natives of Tennessee and Crockett endeared himself to Allison because of his dislike against the black troopers stationed at Fort Union.
By 1875, Cimarron’s reputation for lawlessness was at an all time high and local war had broken out between the Land Grant Men and the area settlers. The new owners of the Maxwell Land Grant were busy with their attempts at evicting the squatters, settlers, and farmers. The settlers, having invested their lives and money into homes and businesses, were not prepared to leave. Sheriffs served eviction notices and retaliation began. Grant pastures were set on fire, cattle rustling increased, and officials were threatened at gun point. Grant gang members made nighttime raids of area homes and ranches, with threats of violence to encourage cooperation with the grant owners. The local war became known as the Colfax County War, where as many as 200 men lost their lives
“Cimarron is in the hands of a mob!”
— The Santa Fe New Mexican on November 9, 1875.
Parson Franklin J. Tolby came to Cimarron when it was in need of salvation. Enlisting with the Methodist Circuit Riders, he delivered sermons in Cimarron, Elizabethtown, Ute Park, and Ponil. Tolby loved Cimarron, planning on making it his home, and quickly sided with the settlers in their opposition against the land grant men. He was very open about his opposition, saying that he would do everything that he could to stop the land grant owners. But, on September 14, 1875, the 33 year-old minister was found shot to death in Cimarron Canyon, midway between Elizabethtown nd Cimarron. The settlers immediately suspected the Grant men, as robbery was obviously not the motive because the minister’s horse and belongings were not taken.