Maxwell Land Grant – Largest Land Grant in US History


Lucien B. Maxwell

Lucien B. Maxwell

The Maxwell Land Grant, also known as the Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant, was a 1,714,765-acre Spanish grant that was the largest ever made in what would become the United States.

The Moreno Valley, New Mexico was part of the large Maxwell Land Grant, by Dave Alexander.

The Moreno Valley, New Mexico was part of the large Maxwell Land Grant, by Dave Alexander.

The large land grant included the entire western portion of Colfax County, New Mexico and the southern part of Las Animas County, ColoradoTwo 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, Mexico who had come to New Mexico on business and stayed; later he was appointed to several government positions including Governor Armijo’s departmental secretary.

Maxwell Land Grant Map

Maxwell Land Grant Map

The governor supported the grant thinking that Mexican settlers would fend off the encroaching foreigners from the United States, as well as 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.

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

The Army of the West Travels into New Mexico

In the same year, General Stephen Kearny 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.

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.

Maxwell House at Reyado, by Samuel McWhorter

Maxwell House at Rayado, New Mexico.

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. His manager would 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 brought Kit Carson from Taos, 35 miles west, as a protective presence.

Kit Carson House, Rayado, New Mexico in the 1940s.

Kit Carson House, Rayado, New Mexico in the 1940s.

Kit 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.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson.

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 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.

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.

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

  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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