The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant

Special Note: This story about the Maxwell Land Grant, one of the first articles published on Legends of America in 2003, explores an area close to our heart and the inspiration of our website, the Moreno Valley of New Mexico. 

Lucien B. Maxwell

Lucien B. Maxwell

It 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 House at Reyado, by Samuel McWhorter

Maxwell House at Rayado, by Samuel McWhorter

Finally, 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.

2 thoughts on “The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant”

  1. I am writing to you from Spain. I have a document about some research finding the history of Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company.
    Creo que puede ser importante en esta historia firmado en 1871.
    Agradeceria ayuda, si desea verlo pongase en contacto a mi correo.

  2. Lucien Maxwell certainly never attacked the Ute and Apache reservation. He provided for the Indians and was their friend. When he left for Fort Sumner in 1870 it was because the government refused to continue to feed the Indians at the reservation. He couldn’t afford to feed 1500 Indians forever if the government would not pay for their supplies. The reservation was on the Maxwell Land Grant, not far from his ranch at Cimarron. In 1878 the Utes were sent to a reservation in Colorado and the Apaches elsewhere.

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