Cimarron, New Mexico – Wild & Baudy Boomtown

“Cimarron is in the hands of a mob!”

— The Santa Fe New Mexican on November 9, 1875.

Reverend Franklin J. Tolby

Reverend Franklin J. Tolby

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.

Rumors began to circulate that the new Cimarron Constable, Cruz Vega, was involved in the murder, and on the evening of October 30, 1875 a masked mob, lead by Clay Allison, confronted Vega. Though the constable denied having anything to do with the murder, the mob pummeled and hanged him by the neck from a telegraph pole.

On November 1st, Francisco “Pancho” Griego, Vega’s uncle, along with Cruz’s eighteen year old son, began making threats to the townspeople in response to Vega’s death. Looking for trouble, they wandered into Lambert’s Inn. Allison was in the saloon and Griego accused him of being involved in the hanging of Vega.

Griego began fanning himself with his hat, in an attempt to distract Allison while he drew his gun, but Allison was not fooled and quickly fired two bullets killing Griego. The saloon was closed until an inquiry could be held the next morning, where Allison was found to have shot in self-defense. According to local accounts of the day, the saloon closing was the most unfortunate aspect of the whole incident.   The reign of terror in Cimarron continued and the town was out of control. Violence, lawlessness and apprehension fed the residents and many packed their belongings and left. At one time, guards were posed at all entrances to Cimarron and no one was allowed to leave town without the anti-grant vigilante’s permission. By November 9, 1875 the Santa Fe New Mexican informed the public that Cimarron was in the hands of a mob.

Supposedly, Cimarron was under the control of Davy Crocket [nephew of the more famous Texan]. Crockett, along with his ranch foreman, a mean customer named Gus Heffron, were regulars at the bars and gambling halls. Though the 23 year-old Crockett was a little arrogant, he was well liked until the night of March 24, 1876, when he got drunk and turned deadly. According to the story, Crockett, Heffron and a man named Henry Goodman had been making the rounds in Cimarron that evening. Ready to call it a night, they stopped at Lambert’s to pick up a bottle of whiskey for the road.

As Crockett started out of the saloon, he had trouble opening the door because someone was trying to open it from the outside, which made the drunken Crockett angry. When he finally got the door open he faced a soldier from the U.S. 9th Cavalry, the black cavalry unit known as Buffalo Soldiers.

Crockett was said to have pulled his gun and killed the man, then turned his gun on three more black troopers at a card table in the bar, killing two of them. Crockett and Heffron ran out of town on foot because their horses were stabled in a barn where the Buffalo Soldiers were camped. Crockett insisted that putting uniforms on former slaves was adding insult to injury. Appearing before the justice of the peace, Crockett was acquitted of the murders because he was drunk, the court fining him just $50 and court costs on a reduced charge of carrying arms.

After having gotten away with the murders, Crockett became even more arrogant and his antics intolerable. Over the next several months, he and Heffron ran roughshod over Cimarron riding their horses into stores and saloons, firing their guns into the air and ceilings, and forcing people at gunpoint to buy them drinks.

In a saloon one day, the two forced Cimarron’s Sheriff Rinehart to drink liquor until the lawman finally passed out. Tired of the two bullies antics, Sheriff Rinehart deputized Joseph Holbrook, a Cimarron-area rancher, and John McCullough, the town’s postmaster, to go after them.

Schwenk's Hall Today

Schwenk’s Hall Today

On the night of September 30, 1876, the three men, armed with double-barreled shotguns, hid themselves near Schwenk’s barn. About 9 p.m., Crockett and Heffron approached the barn on horseback, at which time Holbrook revealed himself and told the two to raise their hands. Crockett just laughed and told Holbrook to go ahead and shoot, and much to Crockett’s surprise, Holbrook did just exactly that.

Sheriff Rinehart and McCullough also fired blasts at the two men, startling their horses, who bolted and galloped a quarter mile or so north across the Cimarron River. Heffron, who was not hurt badly, kept on riding but Crockett’s horse stopped on the other side of the river. Crockett’s hands were locked in a death grip on the saddle horn and had to be pried open.

A short time later, Heffron was arrested but escaped on October 31, 1876 into the Colorado mountains, never to be seen again.

While this story is the one most often told, another version is held by the Crockett family descendants. In response to an article that appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune in 1976, a Crockett descendant responded with a different version that has been passed down through the generations.  According to Andrew Jackson Crockett, a nephew of Davy Crockett, Rinehart wanted Crockett’s horses for his own use and accused Davy of being a horse thief. Afraid to arrest Crockett on his own, Rinehart asked the cavalry to arrest him. When four Buffalo Soldiers confronted Crockett, one of them drew a gun and Davy killed three of them.

Later, Andrew Crockett said that Sheriff Rinehart, along with another man lay in ambush for Davy and one day as he was leaving town, shot him in the back. Crockett was buried in the Cimarron cemetery, but, for years, no marker existed and the grave has long been lost. Today, another marker has been erected; however, it is unknown if it was placed on his actual burial location.

St. James Hotel, Cimarron, New Mexico vintage

St. James Hotel, Cimarron, New Mexico vintage

The St. James Hotel (formally Lambert’s Inn, was host to such notables as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Jesse James, Black Jack Tom Ketchum, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Fredrick Remington, Governor Lew Wallace, and writer Zane Grey.

In 1880, a hotel was attached to Lambert’s Inn and many well-known people stayed there over the years. These included such names as Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody, who was a goat ranch manager for Lucien Maxwell for a short time. Reportedly, Buffalo Bill met Annie Oakley at the hotel, where they planned his Wild West Show.  Other notables included Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Jesse James, train robber, Black Jack Tom Ketchum, General Sheridan, artist Fredrick Remington, Governor Lew Wallace, and writer Zane Grey. The Hotel and Inn were later renamed the St. James, which is still in operation today.

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