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. 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 landowners 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 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.
In 1864 Maxwell hired an engineering 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 Jicarilla 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 workforce 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!”
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 townsite 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.
The 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 was ill-equipped to manage the complexities of banking, and 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 a 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.