By William H. Ryus
Lucien B. Maxwell was a thoroughbred Northerner, having first opened his eyes in Illinois. He came to New Mexico just prior to the acquisition of the territory by the United States prior to the granting of the ranch then known as the Beaubien Grant. He was in the employ as hunter and trapper for the American Fur Company.
The ranch, known as the Beaubien Grant, was one of the most interesting and picturesque ranches in all New Mexico and contained nearly two million acres of ground, traversed by the Old Trail.
Lucien Maxwell married a daughter of Carlos Beaubien. Interested in this large ranch with him was a Mr. Miranda. After the death of his father-in-law Maxwell bought all the interest of Miranda and became the largest land owner in the United States.
The arable acres of this large estate in the broad and fertile valleys were farmed by native Mexicans. The system existing in the territory at that time was the system of peonage. Lucien Maxwell was a good master, however, and employed about five or six hundred men.
Maxwell’s house was a veritable palace compared with the usual style and architecture of that time and country. It was built on the old Southern style, large and roomy. It was the hospitable mansion of the traveling public, and I have never known or heard of Maxwell ever charging a cent for a meal’s victuals or a night’s lodging under his roof. The grant ran from the line of Colorado on the Raton mountains sixty miles south and took in the little town of Maxwell on the Cimarron River. The place is now known as Springer, New Mexico.
In the yard at the Maxwell Palace, as we will call his house, was an old brass cannon, about which we may speak later on. He had a grist mill, a sutler’s store, wagon repair shop and a trading post for the Indians.
Besides his wife, a Mexican woman, Maxwell had a nice little girl eight years old, whom he sent to St. Louis with some friends to go to school and to learn how to become a “high-bred” lady. In the fall of 1864 on one of my trips to Santa Fe I met Miss Maxwell, then a young lady about sixteen years old, and took her to her father’s house in New Mexico . As we were crossing the Long Route, I asked her if she spoke the Mexican language. She told me that she had forgotten every word of it.
Everything at the Maxwell Ranch had on its holiday finery in anticipation of the arrival of this young lady and Mrs. Maxwell came to meet the coach that bore her beloved child. It was one of the most touching incidents that ever came up in my life, before or since. The mother reached the coach first and had the girl in her arms, crying and laughing over her, talking the Mexican language to her, but the girl never understood one word her mother was saying and the mother was at an equal loss to know what the daughter spoke to her. At last Maxwell greeted his daughter who had grown so much that he could hardly realize that she was his little girl he had sent to the states to receive the benefits of education and became at once interpreter between mother and daughter.
One year later at Fort Union I met Miss Maxwell and talked with her. She told me she had mastered the Mexican language and was a fine horsewoman.
In the year of 1853 Maxwell and Kit Carson, who was a favorite friend of Maxwell and not an unfrequent visitor at his place, went to California with a drove of sheep. They took the old Oregon Trail by way of Salt Lake, Utah, and arrived in California some four months later, where they sold their sheep to the miners at a very large price. As I remember the sum, I think it was in the neighborhood of $100,000. They met ill luck on their return. They thought they could return together without being approached by robbers. However, they had been closely watched and their intentions were pretty well known to a bold band of robbers then plying between the mines of California and New Mexico. After they had reached the Old Oregon Trail they were held up and robbed of all they carried. However, the robbers accommodated them by giving back their horses, saddles and bridles and enough money for them to make their return home.
During my travels across the plains I do not believe that for a distance of forty-five miles I was ever out of sight of the herds— cattle, horses, goats, sheep, etc.— belonging to Mr. Maxwell.
A few weeks after Maxwell and Kit Carson were robbed on the Old Oregon Traill they got together two other herds of sheep and went again to California, taking every precaution against the attack of robbers. This time Kit Carson went the northern route and Lucien Maxwell took the southern route, arriving in California about seven days apart.
They decided to be strangers during their sojourn in the California town. Putting up at different camps they disposed of their sheep and made an appointment to come together again something like a hundred miles distant, going west toward the Pacific ocean. By these means they hoped to elude the vigilant eye of robbers and did get home without trouble. Mr. Maxwell was one of the most generous men I ever knew. His table was daily set for at least thirty guests. Sometimes his guests were invited, but usually they were those whose presence was forced upon him by reason of his palatial residence, rightfully called the “Manor House,” which stood upon the plateau at the foot of the Rocky mountains. Our stage coaches were frequently water bound at Maxwell’s, and our passengers were treated like old and valued friends of the host, who, by the way, was fond of cards. Poker and seven-up were his favorite. However, he seldom ever played cards with other than personal friends. He often loaned money to his friends to “stake” with $500 or $1000 if needed. Some of the rooms in Maxwell’s house were furnished as lavishly as were the homes of English noblemen, while other rooms were devoid of everything except a table for card playing, chairs and pipe racks.
There was one room in Maxwell’s house which might be called his “den,” however not very applicable. This room had two fireplaces built diagonally across opposite corners and contained a couple of tables, chairs and an old bureau where Maxwell kept several thousand dollars in an unlocked drawer. The doors of this room were never locked and most every one who came to this house knew that Maxwell kept large sums of money in the “bureau drawer,” but no one ever thought of molesting it, or if they did, never did it. A man once asked Mr. Maxwell if he considered his unique depository very secure. His answer was, “God help the man who attempted to rob me and I knew him!”
In this room Maxwell received his friends, transacted business, allowed the Indian chiefs to sit by the fire or to sleep wrapped in blankets on the hard wood floor or to interchange ideas in their sign language with his visitors who would sit up all night through, fascinated by the Indian guests. If Kit Carson happened to be at the Maxwell ranch his bed was always on the floor of this very room and invariably had several Indian chiefs in the room with him. The Indians loved Kit Carson and liked to see him victor over the games at the card table.