Maxwell Ranch on the Santa Fe Trail

Moreno Valley, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Moreno Valley, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

I passed a delightful two weeks with Maxwell, late in the summer of 1867, at the time that the excitement over the discovery of gold on his ranch had just commenced, and adventurers were beginning to congregate in the hills and gulches from everywhere. The discovery of the precious metal on his estate was the first cause of his financial embarrassment. It was the ruin also of many other prominent men in New Mexico, who expended their entire fortune in the construction of an immense ditch, 40 miles in length — from the Little Canadian or Red River — to supply the placer diggings in the Moreno Valley with water, when the melted snow of Old Baldy range had exhausted itself in the late summer. The scheme was a stupendous failure; its ruins could still be seen for years in the deserted valleys, a monument to man’s engineering skill, but the wreck of his hopes.

For some years previous to the discovery of gold in the mountains and gulches of Maxwell’s Ranch, it was known that copper existed in the region; several shafts had been sunk and tunnels driven in various places, and gold had been found from time to time, but, was kept a secret for many months. Its presence was at last revealed to Maxwell by a party of his own miners, who were boring into the heart of Old Baldy for a copper lead that had cropped out and was then lost.

Of course, to keep the knowledge of the discovery of gold from the world is an impossibility; such was the case in this instance, and soon commenced that squatter immigration out of which, after the ranch was sold and  Maxwell died, grew that litigation which has resulted in favor of the company who purchased from or through the first owners after Maxwell’s death.

Maxwell, under contract with the Interior Department, furnished cattle to the Ute nation, the issue of which was made weekly from his own vast herds. The cattle, as wild as those from the Texas prairies, were driven by his herders into an immense enclosed field, and there, turned loose to be slaughtered by the Indians.

Maxwell I should like to have a horse to witness the novel sight. He immediately ordered a Mexican groom to procure one; but, I did not see the peculiar smile that lighted up his face, as he whispered something to the man which I did not catch. Presently the groom returned leading a magnificent gray, which I mounted, Maxwell suggesting that I should ride down to the large field and wait there until the herd arrived. I entered the great corral, patting my horse on the neck now and then, to make him familiar with my touch, and attempted to converse with some of the chiefs, who were dressed in their best, painted as if for the war-path, gaily bedecked with feathers and armed with rifles and gaudily appointed bows and arrows; but, I did not succeed very well in drawing them from their normal reticence. The Indian women, a hundred of them, were sitting on the ground, their knives in hand ready for the labor of cutting the meant.

Ute Indians

Ute Indians

Suddenly a great cloud of dust rose on the trail from the mountains, and on came the maddened animals, fairly shaking the earth with their mighty tread. As soon as the gate was closed behind them, and uttering a characteristic yell that was blood-curdling in its ferocity, the Indians charged upon the now doubly frightened herd, and commenced to discharge their rifles, regardless of the presence of anyone but themselves. My horse became paralyzed for an instant and stood poised on his hind legs, then taking the bit in his teeth, he rushed aimlessly into the midst of the flying herd, while the bullets from the guns of the excited Indians rained around my head. I had always boasted of my equestrian accomplishments — I was never thrown but once in my life, and that was years afterward — but, in this instance, it taxed all my powers to keep my seat. In less than 20  minutes the last beef had fallen; and the warriors, inflated with the pride of their achievement, rode silently out of the field, leaving the women to cut up and carry away the meat to their lodges, more than three miles distant, which they soon accomplished, to the last quivering morsel.

As I rode leisurely back to the house, I saw Maxwell and Kit standing on the broad porch, their sides actually shaking with laughter at my discomfiture, they having been watching me from the very moment the herd entered the corral. It appeared that the horse Maxwell ordered the groom to bring me was a recent importation from St. Louis, Missouri, had never before seen an Indian, and was as unused to the prairies and mountains as a street-car mule. Kit said that my mount reminded him of one that his antagonist in a duel rode a great many years ago when he was young. If the animal had not been such “a fourth-of-July” brute, his opponent would in all probability have finished him, as he was a splendid shot; but fortunately escaped, the bullet merely grazing him under the ear, leaving a scar which he then showed me.

One night Kit Carson, Lucien Maxwell, and I were up in the Raton Mountains above the Santa Fe Trail, and having lingered too long, were caught above the clouds against our will, darkness having overtaken us before we were ready to descend into the valley. It was dangerous to undertake the trip over such a precipitous and rocky trail, so we were compelled to make the best of our situation. It was awfully cold, and as we had brought no blankets, we dared not go to sleep for fear our fire might go out, and we should freeze. We, therefore, determined to make a night of it by telling yarns, smoking our pipes, and walking around at times. After sitting a while, Maxwell pointed toward the Spanish Peaks, whose snow-white tops cast a diffused light in the heavens above them, and remarked that in the deep canyon which separates them, he had had one of the “closest calls” of his life, willingly complying when I asked him to tell us the story.

Taos, New Mexico Street by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Taos, New Mexico Street by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

“It was in 1847. I came down from Taos with a party to go to the Cimarron Crossing of the Santa Fe Trail to pick up a large herd of horses for the United States Quartermaster’s Department. We succeeded in gathering about a hundred and started back with them, letting them graze slowly along, as we were in no hurry. When we arrived at the foot-hills north of Bent’s Fort, Colorado we came suddenly upon the trail of a large war-band of Ute, none of whom we saw, but, from subsequent developments, the Indians must have discovered us days before we reached the mountains. I knew we were not strong enough to cope with the whole Ute nation, and concluded the best thing for us to do under the ticklish circumstances was to make a detour and put them off our trail. So we turned abruptly down the Arkansas River, intending to try and get to Taos in that direction, more than 150 miles around. It appeared afterward that the Indians had been following us all the way. When we found this out, some of the men believed they were another party and not the same whose trail we came upon when we turned down the river, but, I always insisted they were. When we arrived within a few days’ drive of Taos, we were ambushed in one of the narrow passes of the range and had the bloodiest fight with the Ute on record. There were 13 of us, all told, and two little children whom we were escorted to their friends at Taos, having received them at the Cimarron crossing.

“While we were quietly taking our breakfast one morning, and getting ready to pull out for the day’s march, perfectly unsuspicious of the proximity of any, they dashed in upon us, and in less than a minute stampeded all our stock — loose animals as well as those we were riding. While part of the Indians were employed in running off the animals, 50 of their most noted warriors, splendidly mounted and horribly painted, rushed into the camp, around the fire of which the men and the little children were peacefully sitting, and, discharging their guns as they rode up, killed one man and wounded another.

“Terribly surprised as we were, it did not turn the heads of the old mountaineers, and I immediately told them to make a break for a clump of timber nearby, and that we would fight them as long as one of us could stand up. There, we fought and fought against fearful odds, until all were wounded except two. The little children were captured at the beginning of the trouble and carried off at once. After a while the Indians got tired of the hard work, and, as is frequently the case, went away of their own free will; but, they left us in a terrible plight. All were sore, stiff, and weak from their many wounds; on foot, and without any food or ammunition to procure game with, having exhausted our supply in the awfully unequal battle; besides, we were miles from home, with every prospect of starving to death.

“We could not remain where we were, so as soon as darkness came on, we started out to walk to some settlement. We dared not show ourselves by daylight, and all through the long hours when the sun was up, we were obliged to hide in the brush and ravines until night overtook us again, and we could start on our painful march.

“We had absolutely nothing to eat, and our wounds began to fester, so that we could hardly move at all. We should undoubtedly have perished, if, on the third day, a band of friendly Indians of another tribe had not gone to Taos and reported the fight to the commanding officer of the troops there. These Indians had heard of our trouble with the Ute, and knowing how strong they were, and our weakness, surmised our condition, and so hastened to convey the bad news.

“A company of dragoons was immediately sent to our rescue, under the guidance of Dick Wooton, who was and has ever been a warm personal friend of mine. They came upon us about 40 miles from Taos, and never were we more surprised; we had become so starved and emaciated that we had abandoned all hope of escaping what seemed to be our inevitable fate.

“When the troops found us, we had only a few rags, our clothes having been completely stripped from our bodies while struggling through the heavy underbrush on our trail, and we were so far exhausted that we could not stand on our feet. One more day, and we would have been laid out.

“The little children were, fortunately, saved from the horror of that terrible march after the fight, as the Indians carried them to their winter camp, where, if not absolutely happy, they were under shelter and fed; escaping the starvation which would certainly have been their fate if they had remained with us. They were eventually ransomed for a cash payment by the government, and altogether had not been very harshly treated.”


By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897. Compiled and Edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2019.

About the Author: Excerpted from the book, The Old Santa Fe Trail, by Colonel Henry Inman, 1897. Note: The text is not verbatim, as minor edits have been made throughout the tale. Henry Inman was well known both as an officer in the U.S. Army and an author dealing with subjects of the Western plains. During the Civil War, Inman was a Lieutenant Colonel and afterward, he won distinction as a magazine writer. He wrote several books including his Old Santa Fe Trail, Great Salt Lake Trail, The Ranch on the Ox-hide and other similar books dealing with the subjects he knew so well. Colonel Inman left a number of unfinished manuscripts at his death in Topeka, Kansas on November 13, 1899.

Also See:

Lucien Maxwell by a Santa Fe Trail Driver

The Largest Land Grant in US History – Maxwell Land Grant

Cimarron – Wild & Baudy Boomtown

Kit Carson – Legend of the Southwest

My Friend, Kit Carson by a Santa Fe Trail Driver

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Colfax & Mora County Photo Gallery


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