The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant

Kit Carson House. Earl Painter, 1947

Kit Carson House. Earl Painter, 1947

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 toCalifornia, 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. Click for prints & products.

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.

Aztec Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico

Aztec Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico

In 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!”

1 thought on “The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant”

  1. 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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