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Lucien Maxwell

For many years the name Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell was an emotional lightning rod in New Mexico. In recent years, it has been less so. Maxwell himself has been dead for over 130 years, and the land grant that bore his name has been sold off in small parcels and in huge estates over the intervening decades.

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

For many years the name Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell was an emotional lightning rod in New Mexico. In recent years, it has been less so. Maxwell himself has been dead for over 130 years, and the land grant that bore his name has been sold off in small parcels and in huge estates over the intervening decades. For many people, however, the grant and the man remain symbols of a clash of divergent cultural concepts of property and community. This essay sketches the role of Maxwell and his grant during a tumultuous period of the State’s history.

Lucien B. Maxwell was the son of an Irish immigrant, Hugh Maxwell, and a French Canadian who grew up in Spanish Louisiana, Odile Menard. He was born into a family of Indian traders in southwestern Illinois in 1818; just three weeks after Illinois achieved statehood. The families of his parents were prominent in the neighboring towns of Kaskaskia, Illinois, and Sainte Genevieve, Missouri, then separated by the Mississippi River.

Lucien’s great uncle was James Maxwell, Vicar General of Upper Louisiana. The reverend Maxwell had received a large Spanish land grant on which he was to settle Irish Catholic immigrants, among whom was his nephew, Lucien’s father Hugh. Meanwhile, Lucien's maternal grandfather, Pierre Menard, had been a partner with William Morrison and Manuel Lisa in a company that conducted trade with Native Americans living along the upper Missouri River, and afterwards with Pierre Chouteau in the Saint Louis Fur Company. Pierre was a famed negotiator with Indian tribes and was tapped by President John Quincy Adams to convene a major peace conference in Wisconsin in 1828. He also served as the first lieutenant governor of Illinois.1

Growing up as he did around his father and grandfather’s trading businesses, it was only natural that Lucien was instilled with the skills and lore of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, which was then in its heyday. He learned trapping as a boy and became an expert shot. When his father died at age 43 in 1833, Lucien entered St. Mary’s of the Barrens School, which he attended for two years. But upon reaching the age of 17, he left school and embarked on a career in the West. Evidently, he took employment with the American Fur Company, the western division of which had recently been purchased by a relative, Auguste Chouteau. Interestingly, Maxwell’s life and the boom period in the fur trade were almost coextensive.2

It was while trapping for the American Fur Company in the Rockies that Lucien made the acquaintance of Kit Carson, with whom he was fast friends for the rest of his life. Much about his days as a fur trapper is unknown. He trapped on the Columbia, Platte, and Arkansas rivers. And during this period he visited Taos, likely in connection with the annual fur trade fair and probably more than once. In the course of his visits he came to know a French Canadian merchant of Taos, who had married into a Hispanic family there, Charles (or Carlos, as he was commonly known in Taos) Hipolite Trotier Beaubien. Lucien took an occasional job at Beaubien’s Taos store and while working there met his employer’s young daughter, María de la Luz. When Luz reached the age of 13 in 1842, she and Lucien were married before Padre José Antonio Martínez.3

Little more than a year before their marriage, Luz’s father Carlos Beaubien and a close friend of his, Guadalupe Miranda, secretary of the Mexican government of the Department of New Mexico, had submitted a petition for a grant of land to their mutual friend Governor Manuel Armijo. Three days after the petition was presented, the governor granted Beaubien and Miranda’s request, setting the wheels in motion for the transfer to them of a very large, but ill-defined, tract of land in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of what is now extreme northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, mostly in today's Colfax County. Beaubien and Miranda justified their petition on the grounds that the area was woefully underdeveloped, and they insisted that they would “attract others” to their grant, especially to the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos. Following the erection of a handful of widely separated boundary markers in early 1843, the transfer of title was completed. At the time, no estimate of the acreage of the grant was attempted.4

No sooner were Lucien and Luz married than he was hired as a hunter by John C. Frémont on the recommendation of Kit Carson. As a result, he was one of the 28 men on Frémont’s first expedition, to Oregon, in 1842. Although he skipped Frémont’s second expedition, Maxwell was with him again in 1845-46, on the controversial trip to California, during which that territory was wrested from the fledgling state of Mexico. When participation in these two expeditions of topographical exploration ended, Maxwell returned to New Mexico, just as the Taos Rebellion against U.S. rule was being suppressed. In the course of the violence at Taos many people lost their lives, including Lucien’s young brother-in-law, Narcisse Beaubien. His death seemed to strengthen ties between Maxwell and Carlos Beaubien. 5

Once calm had been reestablished, Lucien and Kit Carson founded the town of Rayado in the spring of 1847 on the southern portion of his father-in-law’s grant. The other grantee, Guadalupe Miranda, had sought refuge near El Paso after the American invasion and did not return to New Mexico, eventually selling his portion of the grant to Maxwell. Already by the fall of 1847, crops were being gathered at Rayado, and Lucien and Luz moved their residence there the following year. In 1848 Maxwell was described: “at his father-in-law’s doing a very prosperous business as a merchant and contractor for the troops.”  A small army post existed at Rayado from 1847 to 1850. The couple’s first child, Peter, was born in 1848, to be followed by siblings Virginia, Emilia, Sofia, Paulita, Odile, and three others who died in infancy. By 1851, about 20 families had settled at Rayado and were paying rent to or working on shares for Beaubien and Maxwell, taking advantage of the fertile soil and plentiful water supply.6

A decade after the founding of Rayado, the Maxwells' moved to a new town, Cimarron, situated at the spot where the Santa Fe Trail forded the Cimarron River, on a 22-square-mile tract they purchased from Luz’s parents. As they had done at Rayado, the Maxwells invited other families to settle on their land, but only rarely did they transfer ownership. Eventually, up to 500, mostly Hispanic, families lived and worked on the grant.7

When Carlos Beaubien died in 1864, his six children inherited his share of the grant. Over the next five years Lucien and Luz bought out the other five heirs. Having already purchased Guadalupe Miranda’s share of the grant, the Maxwells now owned it in its entirety. They ran some 20,000 sheep, 1,500 cattle, and 400 horses and mules; a gristmill was completed in 1864; they ran a store in Cimarron and had bought the Kitchen Brothers’ Hotel in Las Vegas. They owned a spacious home, with one room reserved for Lucien’s favorite diversion, poker. The Maxwell “home ranch” at Cimarron was a meeting place for all sorts of people, from shepherds to Ute warriors, from wagon drivers to well-to-do lawyers. In short, the Maxwells were very prosperous. Their many enterprises prospered, especially during the Civil War, in large part because Maxwell furnished supplies to U.S. Army forces and grain and beef to the Fort Sumner Reservation while Navajos and Mescalero Apaches were interred there. Lucien also served as Indian agent at Cimarron for the Jicarilla Apaches and Utes who lived on and around the grant.8

Life on the Maxwell Grant, as it now became known, might have continued placidly with only moderate changes as the years passed, but it did not. Indians had for years brought nuggets of gold to the Maxwell store as payment for goods, but in 1866 placer gold showed in the sands of Willow Creek on the western slope of Baldy Peak on the grant. By the following year more gold had been found along Ute Creek and in the Moreno Valley. (See a map of the grant in Figure 1.) In 1868 the signs of gold were traced back to a lode on Baldy Peak, and a rush was on. The Maxwell-owned Aztec Mine opened, as well as a 15-stamp mill for crushing ore. The Aztec produced about a million dollars in gold during its first year of operation. The Maxwells’ income in 1868 was about $50,000, a veritable fortune at the time.9

In addition to a surge in income, though, discovery of gold on the grant meant an unprecedented influx of people. Elizabethtown and Red River sprang from nothing to a total population of about 10,000 people almost overnight. Maxwell leased claims to miners, sold them goods at a handsome profit, put up smelters, opened new ditches, built roads and sawmills. But life on the ranch was forever changed. That was apparently much to the chagrin of the Maxwells. Lucien is quoted as saying he was, “tired of this place, from the Indians and the new-comers on the land.”  But he and Luz clearly realized how valuable the grant now had become, and they decided to sell and move. In April 1869, they were approached by a group headed by Senator Jerome Chaffee of Colorado seeking an option to buy the grant themselves or to find purchasers for it. As lawyer and historian William Keleher wrote, “Almost before Lucien B. Maxwell was aware of what had happened to him, he was no longer master of the immense Grant…Receiving $650,000 for his share of the sale of the property,” which was now estimated at about 1.75 million acres.10

The buyers, lined up by Senator Chaffee, were a joint stock company headed by British investor John Collinson. The company, doing business under the name Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, included Wilson Waddington, W.A. Bell, W.J. Palmer, R.H. Longwill, Miguel A. Otero, and Stephen B. Elkins. During the purchase no disposition was made for the hundreds of people living on the grant at the time as renters and sharecroppers, miners and teamsters. Nor was any provision made for the Utes and Apaches who had called the grant home for hundreds of years. The result of the sale was violence and decades of litigation, which can be read about in an essay about Frank W. Springer (, longtime president of the company. The Maxwells were largely spared all that upheaval. With the proceeds of the sale they founded the First National Bank of Santa Fe, with which they were associated for only two years, and bought the buildings and property of abandoned Fort Sumner, to which they moved and where they established a cattle ranch. Accompanying the Maxwells to Fort Sumner were 25 to 30 families from Cimarron.11

Lucien survived the move to Fort Sumner for just five years, dying in July 1875 of a summer cold that turned to pneumonia. Luz outlived her husband by 25 years. She was a partner in the Maxwell and Brazil Cattle Company that ran 2,000 cattle on the Fort Union Reservation. Both she and Lucien were buried at Fort Sumner.12

1. Lawrence R. Murphy, Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell: Napoleon of the Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 3-17. Harriet Freiberger, Lucien Maxwell : Villain or Visionary (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 1999), 22-23.

2. Freiberger, Villain or Visionary, 33 and 24. F[ather] Stanley [Crocchiola], The Grant That Maxwell Bought, Facsimile of Number 225 of the Original 1952 Edition (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2008), 20.

3. María E. Montoya, Translating Property : the Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict over Land in the American West, 1840-1900 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2002), 30. Stanley, The Grant That Maxwell Bought, 21. William A. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant: A New Mexico Item, Facsimile of the 1942 Edition,  with a New introduction by Marc Simmons (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2008), 27.

4. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 30. Montoya, Translating Property, 30-35.

5. Freiberger, Villain or Visionary, 42 and 50. Stanley, The Grant That Maxwell Bought, 21 and 22. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 27.

6. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 28, 29, 30, and 40. Montoya, Translating Property, 50.

7. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 29. Montoya, Translating Property, 52.

8. Stanley, The Grant That Maxwell Bought, 32. William J. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company: A Study of the Rise and Decline of Mercantile Capitalism in New Mexico (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 12. Murphy, Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, 190.

9. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 34, 71, and 73.

10. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 35 and 67-68. Montoya, Translating Property, 73, 74, and 88.

11. Montoya, Translating Property, 91. Keleher, Maxwell Land Grant, 35-36. Stanley, The Grant That Maxwell Bought, 32. Freiberger, Villain or Visionary, 105.

12. Stanley, The Grant That Maxwell Bought, 32. Montoya, Translating Property, 55.