Maxwell Land Grant – Largest Land Grant in US History

Peter Maxwell's house at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Maxwell’s house at Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

Spencer 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 then 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.

Lucien B. Maxwell Grave

Purchasing the buildings and other improvements, he remodeled the officer’s quarters into a luxurious home with 20 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 on July 25, 1875.

In the meantime, the property he had sold, had become the site of a major dispute called the Colfax County War. The feud began in 1873 when the new owners of the Maxwell Land Grant tried to removed local settlers from land that they said they owned. The vicious range war would last until 1887 before it was finally resolved.

During the 1900s the land was gradually subdivided, and ranchers, loggers, and private organizations bought the property. Five Hundred thousand acres became the hideaway home of Chicago grain baron, William Bartlett who built three mansions and a railroad for his guests’ convenience. Later 200,000 acres of the private retreat were purchased and became the Vermejo Park Club, whose members included celebrities and the wealthy, such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Herbert Hoover, and Harvey Firestone. However, when the Great Depression was evident, the club closed and the property reverted to ranching.

Casa Grande on the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico courtesy g2g collection

Casa Grande on the Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico courtesy g2g collection

The Vermejo Park property and other lands, which totaled almost one million acres, were eventually sold to W.J. Gourley, a Texas oilman from Fort Worth. Mr. Gourley wanted to expand the existing elk herd and purchased several hundred elk from Yellowstone National Park for $5 per head. He also bred and raised wild turkeys to increase the wild bird population. When Mr. Gourley died in 1970, the land was sold to the Pennzoil Company for a bargain of $26 million. Penzoil donated 100,000 acres to the Forest Service in 1982. Now, part of the original land is owned by media magnate Ted Turner.

In 1922, much of the land, which is now known as the Philmont Scout Ranch was purchased by Oklahoma oil millionaire Waite Phillips. Mr. Phillips spent six months of each year on the ranch and eventually amassed over 300,000 acres and renamed it Philmont, which is based on the Spanish word for mountain “Monte.”

Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico courtesy Philmont Facebook Page.

Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico courtesy Philmont Facebook Page.

The Philmont Ranch became a showplace, where cattle and sheep grazed in the pasture. Phillips built a large Spanish Mediterranean home for his family and named it Villa Monte. He also developed horse trails, hiking trails and hunting cabins for his friends and family.

In 1938, Waite Phillips gave 35,857 acres of the ranch to the Boy Scouts of America, along with $61,000 to be used to develop it. In 1941, another gift of 91,000 acres was added. Phillips realized that the cost for maintenance and development of the property could not be derived entirely from camper fees and included in the endowment the gift his 23-story Philtower Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Later, in 1963, through the generosity of Norton Clapp, vice-president of the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, another piece of the Maxwell Land Grand was purchased and added to Philmont. This was the Baldy Mountain mining area consisting of 10,098 acres. Other large ranches and small tracts were carved from the grant, and today there are many owners of the land that Lucien B. Maxwell once held.

The Old Mill Museum, which Maxwell operated as the Aztec Mill until 1870, is in the Cimarron Historic District. But, Maxwell’s Cimarron home didn’t fare so well, as it quickly fell to ruins when Maxwell left.

The reddish adobe buildings of Rayado are now maintained by the Philmont Scout Ranch. Scout leaders dressed in period costumes lead visitors through Maxwell’s adobe hacienda. It has been restored from the two original rooms that had survived. In neighboring buildings are the 1860 stagecoach stop, store, and accommodations for stage passengers.

Clear Creek Log near the former site of Weather’s Store in Cimarron Canyon by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Clear Creek, the site where they found the Reverend Tolby’s body after he was killed in the Colfax County War, was once a popular stop along the scenic highway when Weather’s Store resided in Cimarron Canyon, selling refreshments and novelty items to the travelers stopping by for a drink of Clear Creek’s cool waters flowing through a huge log. The store was moved to Eagle Nest and is still in operation as an Antique Shop, run by the daughter of the original owner.

Maxwell’s last home in Fort Sumner is long gone but has been recreated again and again in movie sets. After Maxwell’s death, it became the property of his son Pete and it was in this building that a houseguest of Pete Maxwell (and more particularly of his daughter Paulita) by the name of William “Billy the Kid” Bonney was shot by Pat Garrett in 1881.

In eastern New Mexico, 200 miles from the snow-capped peaks and cool valleys of Moreno Valley, the land baron lies buried in an almost forgotten corner of the dusty plains of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In the same small cemetery are the graves of the outlaw Billy the Kid and two of his companions which are buried under a headstone inscribed “Pals.”

Lucien B. Maxwell still has family in the area, including Moe Finley, his great-great-grandson. Moe runs a boat-and-tackle shop on Eagle Nest Lake, where Maxwell once had a store. Moe keeps a framed copy of a Maxwell Land Grant Company map on the wall of his dining room. Unfortunately, he didn’t inherit it, but rather, had to buy it. Moe laughingly says of Lucien: “I wish he’d left us the Vermejo, or 100,000 acres–or something!”

Maxwell Statue

Maxwell Statue in Cimarron, New Mexico by  Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The only monument to Maxwell on the grant is a concrete folk-art sculpture in Cimarron, New Mexico, where Maxwell sits looking restless, facing the west with a rifle in hand. Interestingly, the curator of the Aztec Museum says that the statue wasn’t really built for Maxwell, but rather for a man named Henry Springer. But Mr. Springer didn’t like it and said: “Statues are for dead people.” So, the artist dedicated it to Maxwell instead.


©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated March 2020.

Also See:

Kit Carson – Legend of the Southwest

New Mexico Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Tales & Trails of the American Frontier

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. 

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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