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The Colfax County War

by Nancy Christofferson

COLFAX — Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda were awarded a massive chunk of land from Provincial Governor Manuel Armijo of Mexico in 1844 after having petitioned for the grant the previous year. Armijo had approved some 200 land grants during his term in office in 1827-1829 and 1841 to 1846, but this was the largest, approximately two million acres.

Armijo fled from Santa Fe when American forces entered the city during the Mexican War. Guadalupe Miranda followed suit. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, formally ending the conflict. In this paperwork was a promise by the United States to honor the land grants made in the previous decades IF they had been duly approved by the Mexican government itself.

The grant had first been challenged in 1844 by the infamous Padre Martinez of Taos.

Congress considered the grant beginning in 1858, answering a petition filed by Beaubien. That august body had discovered that the land had never been properly surveyed, but approved it per Mexican law at 11 square leagues per grantee, or 22 square leagues. This equals about 96,000 leagues. But, somehow, it became 1,714,765 acres.

Before the grant was decided in 1858, one Lucien B. Maxwell had obtained Miranda’s one-half share through a quit claim deed, purchased for the consideration of somewhere between $1,000 and $3,000 (sources vary). In the early 1840s, Charles Bent had acquired a one-sixth share of the grant (as did ex-governor Armijo, though his claim was discounted after his abrupt departure). Since Bent had been killed in 1847 during the Taos uprising, Maxwell settled with his heirs to buy the Bent share as well. Maxwell, a former employee of Bent, St. Vrain and Company in Colorado and New Mexico, was also Beaubien’s son-in-law. When Beaubien died in 1864, his children inherited, so Maxwell bought them out to become sole owner.

Setting the stage

Maxwell had built himself a spacious adobe, three story home in 1848 in a place called Rayado. The settlement of Cimarron was started nearby and when the latter got a post office in 1861, Maxwell was postmaster.

Maxwell also was the owner of the Aztec Mill, which he had built in 1864 in Cimarron. It was here that the reservation for Kaniache’s Utes and their allies the Jicarilla Apaches was established and here that those tribes received their annuities. When they actually received them, that is.

Prospectors had begun trespassing on grant lands as early as 1860, but their attention waned during the Civil War. In 1865 they were back in number after discovering gold and copper, and establishing camps such as Elizabethtown. Meanwhile, Maxwell was selling other properties on his grant to loggers, stockmen, farmers and others.

By 1870 settlers were living all over the grant. Towns and small communities dotted its acreage. Maxwell was a very rich man, and enjoyed flaunting his wealth.

He also found himself investing in a number of failures such as a huge, 41-mile ditch, the Texas Pacific Railroad and mines that failed to produce, and other things.

The legality of his land grant was again questioned. This time the Secretary of the Interior himself took the controversy in hand and decreed it would be limited to the 22 square leagues, but that Maxwell could choose which properties he personally wanted. Only then, the secretary stated, could a legal survey be completed.

Maxwell ignored this entire idea, and instead sold the his interest in 1870 to several businessmen for $650,000 and retired to Fort Sumner.

The new owners, speculators, almost immediately sold the entire grant to an English syndicate which in turn sold to Dutch interests. The new enterprise was called the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, with the intention of developing the place and building a railroad for access. The company men had big ideas for profiting from this purchase and its natural resources. First, however, it had to remove all those “squatters.”

For 30 years people had been leasing and buying Maxwell’s land. They were well established and prospering. When the company began evicting the residents, feelings naturally ran to shock, resentment and revenge.

And so it begins

A mass meeting of the local settlers took place March 30, 1873. They agreed to arm themselves to defend their homes and properties. The sheriff took this seriously enough to call for federal troops to assist in law enforcement.

Threats and trouble makers abounded. The Colfax County War had begun. Violence entered the fray when three black soldiers of the 9th Cavalry from Fort Union were shot to death in the St. James Hotel in Cimarron. In September 1875, the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby, the local Methodist circuit preacher and an anti-grant advocate, was found shot to death in Cimarron Canyon.

Tolby was apparently a truly Christian man, in the truest sense of the word, concerned that his congregants were so involved, and so fanatically involved, with hatred and bloodshed over the land conflicts that he preached tolerance to the settlers in regard to the pro-granters. His main concern was the treatment of Kaniache and his people assigned to the reservation around Maxwell’s mill. He went so far as to personally purchase land for them in case their reservation was closed amidst all the land grabbing.

The anti-grant sympathizers assumed Tolby had been killed by an assassin hired by the company, and, further, that assassin was probably Cruz Vega. Vega was caught and killed by vigilantes. His family swore vengeance.

Tolby’s assistant, Oscar Patrick McMains, had just arrived in Colfax County, and was thought by some to have hired the local “bad boy” Clay Allison to do the deed.

Whether Allison had killed Vega or not (on his deathbed, Vega named Manuel Cardenas as his killer. Cardenas was later arrested but killed while under escort in Cimarron), Allison was responsible for the death of Vega’s kinsman Francisco “Pancho” Griego. Allison was arrested for the killing (also in the St. James) but the charges were dropped.

The next year McMains was charged with the murder of Cruz Vega. He was found guilty of murder in the fifth degree but another trial was set. In 1878 the case was dismissed.

Until Tolby was murdered, McMains was evidently noncommittal about the crimes by both the company and the settlers. As an employee of the Cimarron News and Press, he was working for newspaper co-owner William Raymond Morley, among others, who was an engineer and surveyor who became vice president and executive officer for the Maxwell Land Grant Company.

Let’s get political

A citizens anti-grant association was formed to oppose the company, and McMains was elected chairman. After that, he insisted on calling himself the “Agent for the Settlers.” He was quite active in the group and dared to take his opinions all the way to Washington, making in all 14 trips there between 1881 and 1896 which included a personal visit with President Cleveland.

The anti-granters not only despised being evicted and maligned, not to mention getting shot at, but firmly believed the settlers on and around the grant, and the state, were cheated when the company claimed much more land, and resources, than Maxwell ever had, some two million acres in New Mexico AND Colorado. In 1877 their own official survey was patented by the Department of the Interior.

In 1883 a hearing held in Trinidad before the land commissioner found the company had indeed moved its boundaries north and possibly east as well. By this time the voters of Colfax County had elected McMains to the state legislature.

The last gun battle of the Colfax County War was in 1885 on the courthouse grounds, when two people were killed. It’s been written that as many as 200 lives were lost during the conflict.

In 1887, the company sent its still-contested claim for the land to the Supreme Court. The court found the company was the legal owner of all the land it claimed.

Evictions continued until 1894. Some settlers were allowed to stay, others were ousted. (Couldn’t have been political, could it?) Even at this late date, there are small pockets of private ownership within the original land grant.

The Colfax County War lasted for some 12 or 15 years, and when the lawmakers finally handed down their final decision, few people were happy.

Lucien Maxwell. Photo courtesy the Museum of New Mexico, #50592

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