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The Maxwell Land Grant - Page 2

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The Colfax County War

Tolby Creek, Colfax County, New MexicoSenator Chaffee and the others who had purchased the land from Maxwell, almost immediately sold the land to an English syndicate for $1,350,000; and, just six months later, it was sold again to a Dutch Firm in 1872. The new grant owners immediately began to aggressively exploit the resources of the grant, opening a sales office at Maxwell's old place in Cimarron. They waited for the customers to rush in, and they continued to wait. Faltering gold production and the shadow of Indian attacks spooked potential buyers. Meanwhile, folks who had already settled on the grant were riled at the brisk way the new owners tried to collect rents, despite the Dutch companies legal right to the property.


One of the first items on the Grant owners' agenda was the removal of the squatters who had moved on the grant during the past 30 years. The farmers and miners who had settled on the grant had held a grudging respect for Lucien Maxwell, but they felt no such loyalty to the absentee foreign firm. The settlers, having invested their lives and money into homes and businesses were not prepared to leave, especially in view of the contested title Maxwell had conveyed.


In an effort to remove the settlers from their property, grant officials, in league with a group of lawyers, politicians and businessmen known as the Santa Fe Ring, began making false allegations against locals. Two Cimarron locals were known to have been in support of the "Ring" -- Melvin Mills, an attorney and Robert H. Longwell, Cimarron's local doctor. In 1875 local elections were held with much controversy and Dr. Longwell was made probate judge, while attorney Mills was made a state Legislator.


The Santa Fe Ring's two prime movers were attorney Thomas Benton Catron and his lawyer partner, Steven Benton Elkins, later a Senator. Fellow "Ring" members were chosen for whatever talent they could contribute, or political or financial influence they could provide.

Cimarron had already obtained a reputation for lawlessness and as the hired gunslingers of the Land Grant company tried to force off the squatters it quickly led to what became known as the Colfax County War. Unfortunately for the settlers, they were outnumbered and outgunned from the start.


Reverend Franklin J. Tolby, one of two Methodist ministers holding services in the area, quickly sided with the settlers in their opposition against the land grant men. The 33 year-old Tolby was a vociferous critic of the Santa Fe Ring and sent a series of letters to the New York Sun exposing the group's corrupt methods, as well as making public statements at every opportunity that he would do whatever he could to break up the grant.


On September 14, 1875 the minister was found shot to death in Cimarron Canyon, midway between Elizabethtown and Cimarron, near Clear Creek. It was clear that robbery had not been the motive because the preacher's horse, saddle and personal belongings were untouched. It was quickly assumed that someone from the Land Grant company had taken revenge against Tolby's opinions and quieted him forever. Five days after his body was found, the Daily New Mexican of Santa Fe reported: "It is thought the murderer is a white man and paid for the job."


However, if the murderer thought that killing Reverend Tolby would quiet the opposition to the land grant, they couldn't have been more wrong. The settlers immediately blamed the Grant men and the politicians who were said to have been "in their pockets." If anything, the murder further inflamed the citizens and led to more concerted efforts to challenge the approval of the grant. The Colfax County Ring, as the settlers called themselves, rode like avenging angels cutting down the just and unjust alike.


Tolby's 34-year old minister friend, Reverend Oscar Patrick McMains, took up the holy war, urging in a public speech,  "Defiance! And Contempt for that which is Contemptible."  Further, he wrote, "The war is on; the precious blood of settlers has been shed; and we must fight it out on this line. No quarter now for the foreign land thieves and their hired assassins..."




Reverend Tolby Grave, Cimarron, New MexicoDespite a $3,000 reward for the murderer, no progress was being made on finding Tolby's killer and McMains was becoming impatient. Rumors began to circulate that the new Cimarron Constable, Cruz Vega, was somehow involved in Tolby's murder.


The pastor turned to Clay Allison, a local gunslinger for help. On the evening of October 30, 1875 a masked mob, who was said to have been lead by Clay Allison and the Minister McMains, confronted Vega. The constable denied having anything to do with the murder, blaming it on a man by the name Manuel Cardenas. Obviously, the mob did not believe him and he was pummeled and hanged by the neck from a telegraph pole. Unable to stomach the violence, the Reverend McMains had panicked and fled midway through the session.


Ten days later, Manuel Cardenas, the man who Vega had implicated prior to his death was arrested and questioned in Elizabethtown. He claimed that Vega had shot the minister, adding that Santa Fe Ringers Mills and Longwell were also behind the killing.


Mills barely escaped a furious lynch crowd in Cimarron as he alighted from a coach and was later arrested. Longwell fled in a buggy to Fort Union and safety just ahead of pursuers Clay and John Allison.


Mills was granted a trial, but during the trial, the state governor was informed of the events by telegraph and the cavalry was dispatched from Fort Union, arriving just in time to end the proceedings and release Mills.


Cardenas, during his protracted hearing, retracted his earlier accusations against Mills and Longwell, thus clearing the two men. Furthermore, he stated that in Ellizabethtown he had been coerced at gunpoint into implicating the two when he was "questioned" at gunpoint by Joseph Herberger.  Evidently Herberger had been promised a political position by Ring men Mills and Longwell, during the earlier elections in 1875.


Clay Allison, gunfighterWhen the two had failed to follow through, Herberger reportedly forced Cardenas to implicate them. While Cardenas was escorted back to the jail when court adjourned one evening he was shot to death.  It was never known who killed Cardenas, though many thought that it was the vigilantes fighting against the Santa Fe Ring, lead by Clay Allison.


The truth about Tolby's murder later suggested that the parson unfortunately witnessed a man by the name of Francisco Griego shooting a man in an argument. When the man later died, Tolby planned to seek an indictment against Greigo, who set up Tolby's murder to silence him. Cardenas later retracted his statement about the Ring men. To this day, the murders of Tolby, Vega and Cardenas are officially unsolved.


The reign of terror had begun in Cimarron and the town was out of control. Violence, lawlessness and apprehension fed the residents and many packed their belongings and left the area.


At one time, guards were posted at all entrances to Cimarron and no one was allowed to leave town without the Colfax County Ring's permission. By November 9, 1875 the Santa Fe New Mexican informed the public that Cimarron was in the hands of a mob. The Reverend McMains was the self-appointed commander of the vigilantes, though most felt like the leader was Clay Allison.


The Grant Owners petitioned the courts to allow them to demand purchase or rent monies from the settlers and on January 14, 1876 Governor Samuel Beech Axtell, a member of the Santa Fe Ring, granted the petition. The court's decision allowed the owners to kick the settlers off the land if they didn't pay the required rents or purchase the property from the Land Grant owners. Heaping more fuel on the fire, the decision attached Colfax to Taos County for judicial purposes, which forced the settlers to attend court in Taos 50 miles away, a trip which caused the settlers much hardship in time and money. Governor Axtell claimed the change would mean improved law and order. The citizens reacted in a fury over the bill, correctly surmising the interference of the Santa Fe Ring.


Sheriffs served eviction notices and further retaliation began. Grant pastures were set on fire, cattle rustling increased and officials were threatened at gun point. Grant gang members made nighttime raids of area homes and ranches with threats of violence to encourage their cooperation with the grant owners. It is estimated that as many as 200 people were killed in the Colfax County War.


In August, 1877 the Minister McMains was tried in Mora county for his participation in the Vega murder. Up until the very date of the trial he stormed up and down the valley speaking out against the Maxwell Land Grant Company. The minister was found guilty in the 5th degree and fined five hundred dollars. The Minister McMains dedicated the rest of his life in keeping alive the war against the grant company, hoping to have the grant land declared open to settlers as was done with the Oklahoma Territory. Barns, homes, crops, and fences came under the torch of McMains and his vigilantes as he sought to bring the Grant Company to its knees.


In 1878 the law judicially attaching Colfax to Taos County was repealed and an honest governor, Lew Wallace, replaced the corrupted tenure of Governor Axtell. In 1879, the Grant was surveyed once again and was declared to include the total 1,714,764.93 acres (2,679 square miles), though the matter was in the courts for years.

So powerful were the Grant Owners that in 1884 they persuaded the territorial governor to field a force of 35 "militiamen," which were led by Jim Masterson (Bat Masterson's brother) from Trinidad, Colorado. However, George Curry, a resident of nearby Raton, rounded up a posse of ranchers, bought up all the guns and ammo for sale and when the "militia" arrived, they marched them at gunpoint back to the Colorado line.

The guns roared for another several years until, in the spring of 1887, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the survey and reaffirmed the decision of 1879, thus legitimizing the Maxwell Land Grant Company in its efforts to drive out the settlers. Abandoned by their government, many of the homesteaders bought or leased their places, some just gave up and left, and a few continued the struggle, in the forlorn hope that the government might once again reverse itself. The Dutch Firm continued its exploitation of the many resources of the grant and it thrived for several decades.


During the 1900's 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 depression was evident, the club closed and the property reverted to ranching.


The Vermejo Park property and other lands, which totaled almost one million acres, were eventually sold to W.J. Gourley, a Texas oil man 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 $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."

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 Reyado 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.


ClearCreek3.Weiser.07-03.jpg (288x319 -- 17760 bytes)Clear Creek, the site where they found the Reverend Tolby's body, 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!"


The only monument to Maxwell on the grant is a concrete folk-art sculpture, where Maxwell sits looking restless, facing the west with a rifle in hand.



Kathy Weiser, 2003 - Updated July, 2017.



Continued Next Page to Maxwell Grant Timeline



Lucien B. Maxwell Statue in Cimarron, New Mexico

Cimarron Maxwell Statue Today, July, 2003, Kathy Weiser. 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. Photo Kathy Weiser.

Image available for photo prints & editorial downloads HERE.

Also See:

Cimarron -Wild & Baudy Boomtown

Kit Carson - Legend of the Southwest

Kit Carson - The Nestor of the Rocky Mountains

My Friend, Kit Carson by a Santa Fe Trail Driver

Lucien Maxwell by a Santa Fe Trail Driver

Maxwell Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail - Highway to the Southwest 


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