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The Largest Land Grant in US History - Maxwell Land Grant

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Lucien B. MaxwellIt is simply not possible to write about the history of the Moreno Valley, Colfax County, New Mexico, or any of its towns or villages, without remembering Lucien B. Maxwell, the Maxwell Land Grant, and the Colfax County War.

The grant was the largest ever made in the State of New Mexico and created more than its share of complaints and controversy over the years. The almost two million acre land grant included the entire western portion of Colfax County and the southern part of Las Animas County, Colorado.


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.


In the beginning the land was the undisputed territory of the Apache and Ute Indians, and later the Comanche. In 1841, just five years before the US Army arrived, Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda of Taos, New Mexico applied to Governor Manuel Armijo for the grant, promising to encourage new settlers to come to the area and utilize its resources. Beaubien was a French-Canadian trapper who came to New Mexico in 1832, became a Mexican citizen, married a 16-year-old native girl, and opened a store in Taos. Miranda was a gentleman from Chihuahua who had come to New Mexico on business and stayed; later he was appointed to several government positions including Governor Armijo's departmental secretary.


The governor supported the grant thinking that Mexican settlers would fend off the encroaching foreigners from the United States, as well as the hostile Indians. Two years later, another consideration was possibly revealed when Miranda and Beaubien conveyed a quarter interest in the grant to Governor Armijo. Another quarter was deeded to Taos merchant Charles Bent, in return for his promise to work on developing the grant. Whatever the reasons might have been, it took Armijo only three days after having received the grant application to approve it. In 1843, after Armijo received his quarter interest, he approved an additional adjacent grant to Beaubien's son, Narciso, and son-in-law, Stephen Louis Lee.


Then along came Charles Lucien B. Maxwell, a fur trapper from Illinois, who was working as a guide in the area. His work often brought him to the Beaubien-Miranda ranch, where he met and married one of Beaubien's six daughters - Luz who was only 15 at the time. After his marriage, Maxwell continued to lead a nomadic existence as a guide and, along with Kit Carson, led Colonel John C. Fremont across the desert to California in 1846.


John Fremont reported in his journal that Maxwell saved the expedition when he bravely confronted a band of some 300 Arapaho warriors just as the shooting was about to start. "You're a fool, God damn you!" Maxwell yelled at one of the attackers. "Don't you know me?" It turned out the Indians were from a village where Maxwell had lived and traded a couple of years before. Instead of fighting the two sides shook hands. Maxwell knew the land and its fierce people and the tasks of courage and self-confidence.

In the same year, General Stephen Kearney led the US Army into the Mexican territory. Governor Armijo put in a brief appearance at the head of a ragtag militia defending Santa Fe, but then fled in fear with Guadalupe Miranda to Chihuahua. After the invasion, New Mexico was incorporated as a territory but because of its isolation and the hostility of the Apache Indians, the area attracted few settlers. Unaffected by the US Army, Charles Beaubien stayed put, but his plans for developing the grant were ruined by the Taos revolt in 1847 against the US invaders. He turned the management of the grant over to his son, Narciso. However, both Narciso and Beaubien's son-in-law, Stephen Lee were killed in the Taos Revolt by a loose coalition of Indians and Mexican patriots. Also killed in the revolt was Charles Bent, who had been appointed by the US Army to be New Mexico's civilian governor. Beaubien inherited his son's interest in the other grant.




Maxwell's house at Rayado, New MexicoFinally, Lucien Maxwell settled down on the ranch and he and his wife eventually had four daughters and a son. Maxwell was said to have thought his son Peter was "worthless" because the boy did not share his interests and "wasted his time with worthless friends". He favored his daughter Virginia, who he eventually named a small settlement after, but when she grew up and married someone that Maxwell didn't approve of, he refused to even attend the wedding.

Meanwhile, in 1848 Beaubien purchased Stephen Lee's interest from the administrator of his estate for $100. Having lost interest in developing the new area, he turned the project over to his son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell. Maxwell's success would be astonishing. He lost no time in getting a herd of cattle established and increased the herds by setting up individual ranchers with their own cattle, who would then make payments on a share basis.


He kept his best animals, continually upgrading the remaining stock, including cattle, horses, sheep and even a large goat ranch, its manager to be well known in later years as Buffalo Bill Cody.


Before Cimarron even existed, Maxwell founded the settlement of Rayado about 11 miles south of where Cimarron sits today. Rayado -- which means "streaked" in Spanish, was perhaps named so for the beautiful cliffs close to the settlement. Maxwell and his wife built themselves a rambling one-story hacienda at Rayado, which is now a museum on the Philmont Scout Ranch.


There were only Ute and Apache Indians in the area, and they weren't happy with Maxwell, attacking the settlement frequently. Life was risky and settlers were reluctant to come until Maxwell broughtKit Carson from Taos, 35 miles west, as a protective presence.


Kit Carson's home in Rayado, New MexicoKit Carson built a place only a few miles away. 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 Kit Carson put together a couple of herds of sheep, drove them over more than a thousand miles of mountains and desert to California, netting them $20,000-$50,000 each for their efforts.


On one such drive they reportedly made a combined $100,000, but lost it to highwaymen on the Oregon Trail. Undaunted, they assembled another herd and did it all over again.


In 1850, the United States Army established a post at Rayado, and Maxwell let the soldiers rent his first home. Partially funded by the $200 a month rent he received from the US Army, Maxwell started a second home in the area that eventually grew to 16 or more rooms.


In 1857, Maxwell bought Guadalupe Miranda's interest in the grant for a sum of $2,745. In 1858 Maxwell's father-in-law, Charles Beaubien, paid a Santa Fe law firm to petition the Congress to confirm the grant under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The lawyers mentioned in their application that the grant had never been surveyed and "no certain estimate of its contents" could be made. The petition also stated that only a small portion of the grant was "fit for cultivation." The size of the grant was in question because when Beaubien and Miranda originally applied for the grant, there was a Mexican law, which limited each grantor to no more than 11 square leagues. A league was a variable unit of measure, usually about three or four miles. It can therefore be assumed that Beaubien and Miranda intended to acquire about 22 square leagues - or about 96,000acres. The description of the grant was typically vague, which contributed to the controversy over the years and the documentation was susceptible to later "interpretation" - so much so that what came to be known as the Maxwell Grant ended up being over two million acres.


Kit Carson

Kit Carson. This image available for photographic prints HERE!


In a hearing, Kit Carson testified that Maxwell had in just ten years turned 200 acres of wilderness into farmland, put up buildings worth $15,000 and was running 15,000 head of cattle, which he provisioned both the Indians and the US troops. Congress confirmed the grant in 1858. That same year, Maxwell moved 12 miles north, from Rayado to the banks of the Cimarron River, where he built a third home.

In 1860 prospectors and miners began to explore the area, but during the Confederate invasion in 1861-62, all mining was suspended in the territory. The area continued to become more populated and as the number of people increased, wildlife dramatically decreased, especially the buffalo, leaving the native Indians with little to maintain their livelihood. Both the Apache and Comanche Indians retaliated against the newcomers by stealing livestock including cattle, goats and sheep and sometimes resorting to killing the settlers. The Indian attacks and the bitter winters made life difficult for the first settlers. The U.S. Government stationed troops in the area after appeals from residents.


In 1864, after the death of his father-in-law, Maxwell and his wife bought out the five other heirs for amounts ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 dollars. Eventually, the Maxwell's owned the entire grant, paying a sum total of $35,245 (a little over two cents per acre) for the 1,714,765 acres and became the largest land owners in the world. He renamed the property the Maxwell Land Grant and made Cimarron his headquarters.


In the same year, he built the Maxwell House in Cimarron which was as large as a city block. This was not only his home, but a place of business which included a hotel, gambling rooms, a saloon, dance hall, billiard parlor, and a an area for women of "special virtue."  Maxwell's extravagant lifestyle was a marvel of the region where simple log and adobe houses were the norm. His mansion was said to have had high, molded ceilings, deeply piled carpets, velvet drapes, paintings in gold frames, and four pianos. A frequent visitor in Maxwell's home, Colonel Henry Inman, who was stationed at Fort Union, 55 miles south, was awestruck by the opulence. Maxwell, Inman wrote, "lived in a sort of barbaric splendor, akin to that of the nobles of England at the time of the Norman conquest." Old registers included several prominent names including Kit Carson, Clay Allison, Davy Crockett (the desperado, a nephew of the American frontiersman), and Buffalo Bill Cody, who organized his first Wild West Show in Cimarron.


Astec Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico, 1936In 1864 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 Ute and Jicarillo Apache, for which Maxwell was compensated by the federal government. By this time, Maxwell had already become a rich man from his lucrative agriculture, cattle ranching businesses, and real estate activities.


It has been estimated that Maxwell's work force was between 500 and 1,000. One of Maxwell's men once said "If a Mexican servant didn't suit him or did anything against his orders, he took a board or plank or anything he could get hold of, and whipped him with it. I knew him to tie up one man, a Mexican, and shave off the side of his head close to the skin with a butcher knife, then he struck him 15 or 20 lashes with a cowhide, and told him if he ever caught him on the place again, he would kill him. Some 12 or 15 years later, he came back with a bunch of stolen horses, and Maxwell did kill him."


Maxwell gained a reputation for brutality and openly flaunted his wealth. He was said to leave the solid-silver table service out in plain sight and keep as much as $30,000 in cash in an unlocked dresser drawer. Colonel Henry Inman, his frequent visitor, suggested Maxwell invest in a safe, to which he "only smiled, while a strange, resolute look flashed from his dark eyes, as he said, 'God help the man who attempted to rob me and I knew him!'"

Once, it was said that two thieves took hundreds of dollars' worth of goods from Maxwell's Cimarron store, along with a valuable horse. Maxwell's posse went after them and brought one of them back, at which time Maxwell clamped a 40-pound chain around his neck, imprisoned him in a cellar for two days without food and water, and then had him stripped and tied to a post and ordered one of his servants to lash him 25 times. When the servant completed the lashing, Maxwell freed the prisoner, then ordered the servant stripped and tied. After Maxwell's 15th lash, the servant passed out at the pain and when he revived Maxwell said "Now, when I put you to whip a man, I want you to do it as I whipped you!"


The Lucien Maxwell House in 1864

The Maxwell House in Cimarron, 1864. Unfortunately, there are no remains of this once beautiful home.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!


Though he was often harsh, he was also renowned for his generosity as a host, laying out food daily for about 30 people, some guests, and others who were just traveling through the area. His grand house was a place of entertainment, where he built a track, engaged a trainer and ran races for big purses at least every week. In his gaming rooms, cards flashed in a nightly whirl and balls clicked on his billiard tables. Maxwell and Kit Carson would play poker for hours--Carson usually winning.  Maxwell was said to have always extracted the last cent he won, though the next morning he would often make a gift or a loan to his unsuccessful opponent of the night before. Once, it is said, after a wealthy traveler from the East insisted on knowing how much he owed for a night's lodging, Maxwell at last roared, "Well, then it is twenty dollars, God damn it!" and when the flabbergasted guest handed over the huge sum, Maxwell used the bill to light his cigar.


In 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, copper was discovered on Baldy Peak, just west of Maxwell's ranch. The value of the Maxwell Land Grant dramatically increased and Maxwell seriously thought about selling it for $75,000. However, he postponed.


Maxwell got involved with the mining activities and joined Captain William Moore, the founder of Elizabethtown, and others in 1867, to form the Copper Mining Company. The company began to extract ore from Baldy Peak and soon found the first lode of gold. The "gold fever" had taken root and Maxwell began to collect rents and royalties from the placer miners, further adding to his vast wealth. Captain Moore's Elizabethtown was growing by leaps and bounds with the great number of people storming the area in search of their fortunes.


Not to be outdone, Maxwell and some of his business associates, including Territorial Governor R.B. Mitchell, laid out another town site just six miles from Elizabethtown. But Virginia City, named after Maxwell's eldest daughter, was too far from the "action" and never really got off the ground.


One of the greatest problems that the miners faced was the territory's chronic lack of water. Late in the summer the creeks and streams would dry up and many of the placer miners would pack up, not to return until the snows melted the next spring. In 1867, Maxwell, Moore and other entrepreneurs tried to provide a solution to this problem by making plans for the building of "The Big Ditch."  The project was a 41-mile aqueduct system that would bring water from the Red River into the Moreno Valley. The "Ditch" was constructed at a cost of over $280,000, with Maxwell putting up the bulk of the funds.


Big Ditch Flume, Elizabethtown, New MexicoThe New Mexican Miner reported at the time: "It was a colossal undertaking .... a marvelous piece of engineering. The ditch forms three-fourths of a circle in its length of skirting along the edge of the mountains, bridging ravines and gullies."


Though it was a grand idea, only about a one-tenth of the water that went into the system came out the other end. The lucky entrepreneur, Maxwell had made his first poor investment. As the water traveled over the 41 miles, it was lost due to the extensive leaks and seepage in the ditches and flumes. Though many repairs and maintenance were made, it was never really a success, even though considerable gold was extracted with its aid. Later the New Mexico Miner amended its initial opinion by stating: "The Lynch Ditch which carries water from Red River to the Moreno placer mines at Elizabethtown is to be sold next month at a sheriff's sale to satisfy a judgment and cost aggregating $7,000."


From this disastrous investment, Maxwell started the First National Bank of Santa Fe, but being ill-equipped to manage the complexities of banking he sold out at a heavy loss. He also invested $250,000 to help with the financing of the Texas Pacific Railroad, but the project failed. It seemed as if the luck of the successful entrepreneur was coming to an end.


In 1869 Colfax County was created and named for the then vice-president of the United States. Maxwell again began to look at the possibility of selling the grant and realized that in order to do so, he would need to establish clear title. He requested a survey of the grant from New Mexico's surveyor general, T. Rush Spencer. After Maxwell made the required deposit Spencer sent a survey crew led by Santa Fe engineer William W. Griffin to Cimarron to begin the work.


Lucien B. Maxwell's Grave, Fort Sumner, New MexicoSpencer reported his action to the Commissioner of the General Land Office in Washington, Joseph H. Wilson. When Wilson reviewed the documentation he noticed that part of the grant extended into Colorado, and questioned whether Spencer had jurisdiction over the entire grant. Questions regarding the size of the grant and the jurisdiction nagged at him and he ordered Spencer to cancel the survey until more information could be obtained. He then referred the entire issue to his boss, Secretary of the Interior Jacob D. Cox.


Cox ruled that the New Mexico Congress had not intended to approve more than 22 square leagues to the two original grantees. Further, he stated that if Maxwell agreed to this limit, he could choose the location for that amount of land, and the survey could be completed. Otherwise, Maxwell's money would be returned and his claim would be ignored.


Maxwell ignored the ruling and was ready to move on, proceeding to sell his interest in the grant and in 1870 he bonded the property to Senator Chafee of Colorado and two others for $650,000. He sold all of his other assets on the property for an additional $100,000 and moved to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which had been de-militarized.


Purchasing the buildings and other improvements, he remodeled the officer's quarters into a luxurious home with twenty rooms. Eventually, he slipped into semi-retirement and turned over most of his business affairs to his son, Peter. Just five years after he sold the land grant, Maxwell had spent the money and died in poverty from what was diagnosed as uremic poisoning.



Continued Next Page (Colfax County War)

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