The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant

Mexwell House in Cimarron, New Mexico

Maxwell House in Cimarron, New Mexico

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 playpoker 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 town site 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.

Big Ditch Flume

Big Ditch Flume

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 being ill-equipped to manage the complexities of banking 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 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.

Lucien B. Maxwell Grave

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 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.

Purchasing the buildings and other improvements, he remodeled the officer’s quarters into a luxurious home with twenty 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.

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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