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Maxwell Land Grant
by William H. Wroth
In January 1841, Guadalupe Miranda of Santa Fe and Charles Beaubien of Taos petitioned Governor Manuel Armijo for possession of a large tract of land east of Taos along the Cimarron and Canadian Rivers, extending westward to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Beaubien, a French Canadian, had come to New Mexico in 1823 and by 1841 was a wealthy merchant in Taos. It is not surprising that he formed a partnership with Guadalupe Miranda. Miranda, born in Chihuahua, had held several important positions in New Mexico, but the one of interest to Beaubien was Miranda’s current position as Governor Armijo’s private secretary. Therefore, it was also not surprising that Armijo took only three days to award the land grant to Beaubien and Arimijo’s colleague and secretary, Guadalupe Miranda. In February 1843 Beaubien and Miranda took official possession of the grant and immediately deeded Governor Armijo one-fourth interest in the land, which insured the latter’s support against future conflicting claims. They also deeded one-fourth interest to Taos trader Charles Bent in exchange for his supervising colonization efforts on the grant.
Soon thereafter Father Antonio José Martínez of Taos protested against the granting of the vast lands to two foreigners, Beaubien and Bent. He stated, with the support of Taos Pueblo leaders, that the grant illegally included traditional communal grazing and hunting lands of the Pueblo. He also stated that the grant was detrimental to the Hispanic people of the Taos area and that the lands should be available to poor farmers for grazing. Here began the first of many conflicts in the history of the Maxwell land grant between the needs of small farmers and the aims of large entrepreneurs. By February 1844 Armijo was replaced as governor by Mariano Chavez who was no friend of foreign entrepreneurs. Chavez suspended the grant, but in April acting governor Felipe Sena re-considered the case. Beaubien falsely denied that Bent was a partner, and the Departmental Assembly re-instated the grant, again placing Beaubien and his associates in possession. The next month the new governor Mariano Martínez again denied the grant on the basis of an 1842 law which prohibited foreigners from owning land in departments bordering another country. A new governor in May 1845 ruled that foreigners could own and settle on the grant, and in November 1845 Manuel Armijo returned to the post of governor and renewed his previous support of Beaubien and Miranda.
Meanwhile in 1843 Beaubien, in the name of his thirteen-year-old son Narciso and his son-in-law Stephen L. Lee, a trapper from St. Louis, increased the size of his already large land holdings by successfully petitioning for the Sangre de Cristo grant in the San Luis valley. Beaubien later sold this grant to Governor William Gilpin of Colorado. The American occupation of 1846 tragically presented Charles Beaubien with a new situation. First, two of his partners in the Beaubien-Miranda land grant, Guadalupe Miranda and Governor Manuel Armijo, had with the coming of the Americans moved to Mexico. In January 1847 his son Narciso, son in-law Stephen L. Lee, and Governor Charles Bent were all killed by members of the Taos Rebellion, a response in opposition to the American occupation. Beaubien himself most likely would also have been murdered but he was away from Taos at the time.
Beaubien continued to want to develop the grant, and he turned to another son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell, to assist him. Maxwell, a former Taos trapper born in Illinois in 1818, helped establish Beaubien’s ranch on the grant and served as its manager for ten years. At the same time, he was instrumental in founding the community of Rayado, twelve miles south of present-day Cimarron. One of the first settlers of Rayado in 1849 was Maxwell’s friend and colleague on the Fremont expeditions, Christopher (Kit) Carson. Ute, Jicarilla Apache, and Cheyenne Indians frequently attacked Rayado, and during several periods in the early 1850s, U. S. Army troops were stationed there to protect the settlers. In 1857, Maxwell moved his headquarters to the present site of Cimarron where he established a store close to the Cimarron route from Bent’s Fort to Taos. The same year Beaubien and Miranda received conditional approval for their grant from New Mexico Surveyor General William Pelham, and the next year Miranda, now living in Mexico, sold his share to Lucien Maxwell.
With the death of Charles Beaubien in 1864, Maxwell purchased the shares owned by his sisters-in-law and other heirs. In 1866 he also purchased Charles Bent’s one-fourth share from his heirs, so that he became the sole owner of the Beaubien-Miranda grant. In addition to his store, Maxwell’s farms and ranches on the grant were very productive. He became an important supplier of goods to the United States Army and to the Cimarron Indian agency. In the late 1860s, he successfully developed gold and other mines on the land. Maxwell allowed the Utes and Jicarillas to hunt on his land and he was generous towards them, at times providing them rations regardless of bureaucratic delays in Washington, thus insuring their friendship. He also allowed settlers to live on the grant who paid their rent in produce, and with the mining boom in the late 1860s, he leased claims to the miners. A total of 1,280 mining claims were negotiated. By 1869 the Maxwell land grant under Lucien Maxwell’s sole ownership included nearly two million acres extending from south of Cimarron into southern Colorado, making him the single largest landowner in the United States.
In 1870 due to the difficulties in administering the huge grant, Maxwell decided to sell it, reserving only a small property surrounding his home and some of his mining interests. A group of investors in Colorado and New Mexico purchased the land and formed the Maxwell Land Grant and Railroad Company. In April 1870, they sold the grant to a group of English investors backed by Dutch financiers who attempted to get the grant approved by the U. S. government at over 1,700,000 acres. The government, however, ruled that the grant could only be 97,000 acres, basing the decision on Mexican land grant law, which allowed a single grant to be no more than 92,000 acres. This ruling and lack of appreciable income from the grant caused the British owners to default on their taxes and they sold the grant to New Mexico investors, including Thomas Catron and other members of the notorious Santa Fe Ring. The Dutch financiers then stepped in and raised enough money to regain control of the grant.
Meanwhile the many small farmers and miners who had had, for the most part, a peaceable relationship with Maxwell were now pressured by the new owners to give up their holdings or be evicted. The new owners of the Maxwell Land Grant Company continued to press their claim for a grant of two million acres, but with the government ruling that all but 97,000 acres were public domain, the smallholders felt justified in keeping their property. The resulting conflict known as the Colfax County War pitted these “squatters” against the company. The primary spokesman for the smallholders was the Reverend F. J. Tolby, a Methodist minister who spoke publicly against the company, its foreign owners, and the Santa Fe Ring. In September 1875, Tolby was attacked and murdered for his views by assailants presumably hired by members of the Santa Fe Ring. His murder set off a round of retaliatory killings by vigilante groups intent on avenging Tolby’s death and continuing the fight against the company.
Tolby’s colleague Reverend Oscar P. McMains became the leader of the anti-grant faction. Through speeches, writings and direct political action, McMains spent the next twenty years fighting the company. The situation became so intense that in 1876 Governor Samuel Axtell called soldiers from Fort Union into Cimarron to arrest rancher Clay Allison who was one of the leaders of a group opposed to the Maxwell Land Grant Company. Axtell, who was allied with the interests of the company, was accused of planning to have several leaders of the opposition killed by the troops, but this claim was never proven, and an incriminating letter said to be written by Axtell was denounced by him as a forgery.
In 1876, U. S. Land Commissioner J. A. Williamson ordered a new survey of the grant. After rejecting two surveyors whom he said might not be objective, he approved the hiring of John Elkins as the principal surveyor. Elkins was the brother of Stephen B. Elkins, a leading member of the Santa Fe Ring who had large financial interest in the grant. The survey results found the grant to contain more than 1,700,000 acres, and directly the government issued a patent to the owners, giving them full title to the Maxwell land grant. Ensuing lawsuits finally ended in the U. S. Supreme Court, which in 1887 ruled in favor of the company.
Meanwhile the company, now entirely owned by the Dutch financiers, had begun aggressive actions to remove the now “illegal” settlers from their homes on the grant. Reverend McCains continued to battle the company, even suggesting civil disobedience since legal means had not been successful. Some of the “squatters” fought their forcible removal and more violence and deaths took place, but when President Grover Cleveland refused to support the settlers, the fire went out of the opposition. Many settlers realized that with no further legal options they had to give up their homes to the company, who in some cases bought them out or at least bought their cattle and “improvements.”
The resistance to ejection and the concurrent violence continued sporadically through the 1890s. Many of the most poorly treated settlers were Hispanic farmers who resisted being evicted from lands they had farmed for many decades along the Ponil and Vermejo creeks and in the Cieneguilla valley. By the late 1890s, most of these settlers had either been evicted from their farms or had in some way settled with the company. McMains continued the fight until his death in 1899, trying to persuade local and national politicians to either allow the settlers to stay on their lands or be adequately reimbursed for leaving.
Although the long fight with the settlers was won by 1900, the Maxwell Land Grant Company still had serious financial problems. It had many sources of income: rents, cattle, agricultural products, irrigation projects, gold and coal mining, timber cutting, and cement manufacturing, but expenses were high and they were often met by periodic land sales. A large portion of the upper Vermejo River, more than 167,000 acres was sold to William H. Bartlett in 1902. After changing hands several times, the Bartlett Ranch was purchased by Pennzoil in 1973. In 1982 Pennzoil donated over 100,000 acres of this land, known as the Valle Vidal, to the Carson National Forest to be preserved for its invaluable natural and wildlife resources. Now the Valle Vidal is again under serious threat; the U. S. government wants to open it for large-scale gas and oil exploitation.
Mining for precious metals and oil and gas exploitation was continued by the Maxwell Land Grant Company through the first half of the twentieth century, but with only marginal success. More land was sold off, including a major piece to Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips who amassed a huge ranch of about 330,000 acres. In 1938, Phillips donated nearly 36,000 acres to the Boy Scouts of America to become the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. Later donations increased the size of Philmont to more than 137,000 acres. In the 1950s, the Maxwell Land Grant Company, still owned by Dutch investors, began to sell off more of its assets. By the early 1960s, the company had sold most of its assets and ceased its operations in New Mexico.
Billington, Monroe Lee. New Mexico’s Buffalo Soldiers, 1866 – 1900. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991.
Caffey, David L. and Frank Springer New Mexico: From the Colfax County War to the Emergence of Modern Santa Fe. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2006.
Murphy, Lawrence R. Philmont: A History of New Mexico’s Cimarron Country. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972.
Pearson, Jim B. The Maxwell Land Grant. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.
Weber, David J. The Mexican Frontier 1821-1846. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.