Maxwell Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail

By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897

 

Lucien B. Maxwell

Lucien B. Maxwell

One of the most interesting and picturesque regions of all New Mexico was the immense tract of nearly two million acres known as Maxwell’s Ranch, through which the Santa Fe Trail ran. Maxwell belonged to a generation and a class almost completely extinct, and the like of which will, in all probability, never be seen again; for there is no more frontier to develop them.

Several years prior to the acquisition of the territory by the United States, the immense tract comprised in the geographical limits of the ranch was granted to Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda, both citizens of the province of New Mexico, and agents of the American Fur Company. Attached to the company as an employer, a trapper, and hunter, was Lucien B. Maxwell, an Illinoisan by birth, who married a daughter of Beaubien. After the death of Guadalupe Miranda, Maxwell purchased his interest, and that of the heirs of Beaubien, thus at once becoming the largest landowner in the United States.

At the zenith of his influence and wealth, during the Civil War, when New Mexico was isolated and almost independent of care or thought by the government at Washington, he lived in a sort of barbaric splendor, akin to that of the nobles of England. The thousands of arable acres comprised in the many fertile valleys of his immense estate were farmed in a primitive, feudal sort of way, by native Mexicans principally, under the system of peonage then existing in the Territory. He employed about 500 men, and though the men were virtually slaves, Maxwell was not a hard governor, and his people really loved him, as he was ever their friend and adviser.

Mexwell House in Cimarron, New Mexico

Mexwell House in Cimarron, New Mexico

His house was a palace when compared with the prevailing style of architecture in that country, and cost an immense sum of money. It was large and roomy, purely American in its construction, but, the manner of conducting it was strictly Mexican, varying between the customs of the higher and lower classes of those people.

Some of its apartments were elaborately furnished, others devoid of everything except a table for card-playing and a game’s complement of chairs. The principal room, an extended rectangular affair, which might properly have been termed the Baronial Hall, was almost bare except for a few chairs, a couple of tables, and an antiquated bureau. There, Maxwell received his friends, transacted business, and held high carnival at times.

I have slept on its hardwood floor, rolled up in my blanket, with the mighty men of the Ute nation lying heads and points all around me, as close as they could possibly crowd, after a day’s fatiguing hunt in the mountains. I have sat there in the long winter evenings, when the great room was lighted only by the cheerful blaze of the crackling logs roaring up the huge throats of its two fireplaces built diagonally across opposite corners, watching Lucien Maxwell, Kit Carson, and half a dozen chiefs silently interchange ideas in the wonderful sign language, until the glimmer of Aurora announced the advent of another day. But, not a sound had been uttered during the protracted hours, save an occasional grunt of satisfaction on the part of the Indians, or when we white men exchanged a sentence.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

Frequently Maxwell and Carson would play the game of seven-up for hours at a time, seated at one of the tables. Kit was usually the victor, for he was the greatest expert in that old and popular pastime I have ever met. Maxwell was an inveterate gambler, but, not by any means in a professional sense; he indulged in the hazard of the cards simply for the amusement it afforded him in his rough life of ease, and he could very well afford the losses which the pleasure sometimes entailed. His special penchant, however, was betting on a horse race, and his own stud comprised some of the fleetest animals in the Territory. Had he lived in England he might have ruled the turf, but many jobs were put up on him by unscrupulous jockeys, by which he was outrageously defrauded of immense sums.

He was fond of cards, as I have said, both of the purely American game of poker, and also of old sledge, but rarely played except with personal friends, and never without stakes. He always exacted the last cent he had won, though the next morning, perhaps, he would present or loan his unsuccessful opponent of the night before $500-$1000, if he needed it; an immensely greater sum, in all probability, than had been gained in the game.

The kitchen and dining-rooms of his princely establishment were detached from the main residence. There was one of the latter for the male portion of his retinue and guests of that sex, and another for the female, as, in accordance with the severe Mexican etiquette, men rarely saw a woman about the premises, though there were many. Only the quick rustle of a skirt, or a hurried view of a reboso, as its wearer flashed for an instant before some window or half-open door, told of their presence.

The greater portion of his table-service was solid silver, and at his hospitable board, there were rarely any vacant chairs. Covers were laid daily for about 30 persons; for he had always many guests, invited or forced upon him in consequence of his proverbial generosity, or by the peculiar location of his manor-house which stood upon a magnificently shaded plateau at the foot of mighty mountains, a short distance from a ford on the Santa Fe Trail. As there were no bridges over the uncertain streams of the great overland route in those days, the ponderous Concord coaches, with their ever-full burden of passengers, were frequently water-bound, and Maxwell’s the only asylum from the storm and flood; consequently he entertained many.

Aztec Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico

Aztec Mill, Cimarron, New Mexico

At all times, and in all seasons, the group of buildings, houses, stables, mill, store, and their surrounding grounds, were a constant resort and loafing-place of Indians. From the superannuated chiefs, who reveled lazily during the sunny hours in the shady peacefulness of the broad porches; the young men of the tribe, who gazed with covetous eyes upon the sleek-skinned, blooded colts sporting in the spacious corrals; the women, fascinated by the gaudy calicoes, bright ribbons, and glittering strings of beads on the counters or shelves of the large store, to the half-naked, chubby little papooses around the kitchen doors, waiting with expectant mouths for some delicious morsel of refuse to be thrown to them — all assumed, in bearing and manner, a vested right of proprietorship in their agreeable environment.

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