Cimarron, New Mexico History

“Wild & Untamed, A Brief History of Cimarron, NM." by Steve Zimmer

Carlos Beaubien

Carlos Beaubien

lucien maxwell

lucien maxwell

lucien Maxwell ranch

lucien Maxwell ranch

 
Old Aztec mine

Old Aztec mine

 
reverend franklin james tolby

reverend franklin james tolby

 
CS Ranch

CS Ranch

Guadalupe Miranda

Guadalupe Miranda

 
old aztec mill

old aztec mill

 
Aztec mine today

Aztec mine today

 
Reverend oscar p. McMains (left)

Reverend oscar p. McMains (left)

In 1841, a large tract of land encompassing most of present day Colfax County was granted to two Mexican citizens, Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda. Although they agreed to colonize the grant, frontier conditions prevented its settlement until 1848, after the area became part of the United States as the result of the Mexican War.

In the spring of that year, Beaubien’s son-in-law, Lucien Maxwell, led settlers east across the mountains from Taos to the Rayado River. The colony he started was strategically located near where a trail branched off to Taos from the Santa Fe Trail. Despite frequent Indian attacks, Maxwell’s ranch prospered. He pastured large herds of cattle, sheep, horses, and mules and planted hay and other crops. Kit Carson joined Maxell as a partner in the enterprise and remained until he was appointed Indian agent at Taos in 1854. A company of United States dragoons was stationed at Rayado in 1850 and 1851, charged with not only protecting the fledgling colony, but Santa Fe traders as well.
Maxwell decided to establish a new ranch north on the Cimarron River in 1857. Headquartered there, he expanded operations by enlarging his cattle herds and farming extensive acreage along the river. Hundreds of men, mostly Mexicans, lived on his ranch, worked his fields and herded his cattle. Sometimes they were paid in money, and at other times, they received cattle or grain for their labor. Contemporary observers likened Maxwell’s ranch to a feudal kingdom.

To grind wheat from his fields into flour, Maxwell erected a three-story grist mill called the Aztec that still stands. When the United States government established an agency for the Jicarillas and Utes on the ranch in 1861, Maxwell obtained contracts to provide them with weekly rations of flour and meat.  

Maxwell entertained many visitors at his ranch on the Cimarron, most of whom were former trapping and trading associates. Foremost amount them was Kit Carson. With Carson, Maxwell had been a member of two of John C. Fremont’s 1840s exploring expeditions into the Far West and also his partner at the Rayado ranch. Other visitors, such as Dick Wootton, William Bent, Tom Boggs, Ceran St. Vrain, and Colonel Henry Inman, also spent the night reliving old glories at Maxwell’s expansive adobe home.

Maxwell acquired Miranda’s share of the grant in 1858. When his father-in-law Beaubien died in 1864, Maxell began buying the claims of the other heirs. Consequently, the property eventually became known as the Maxwell Land Grant.

Gold was discovered in the mountains on the western part of the grant in 1866. Miners rushed to the placers of the Moreno Valley and Baldy Mountain areas which increased Maxwell’s wealth as he received lease payments for their claims. With several partners, he opened the most productive gold mine on the grant, the Aztec, located inside the Aztec Ridge east of Baldy Mountain.


Having established a ranch kingdom of mythical proportions, Maxell entered into negotiations to sell the grant in 1870. A group of English investors acquired the grant for 1,350,000 and established the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company.

The Britishers immediately encountered resistance from miners and others who had settled on the grant but did not hold title to their claims. Whereas Maxwell had allowed many to live and work on his ranch, often with no compensation, the land grant company considered them squatters and insisted that they purchase the land they used or leave. On the other hand, the miners and settlers believed they were on public domain and outside the grant proper, which they believed to include no more than 100,000 acres.

The ensuing fifteen years, known as the Colfax County War, were a dark period in the history of the area. The region was the scene of numerous murders for nearly two decades after Lucien Maxwell sold the grant and conflict arose between the new owners and the miners and settlers.

Two Cimarron ministers, both of whom supported the settlers, figured prominently in the conflict-one by his death and the other by his persistence. In September of 1875 the Reverend F. J. Tolby, a Methodist minister and outspoken critic of the land grant company, was found murdered in the Cimarron Canyon. It was assumed by many that the killer had been hired by the company. Tolby’s murder set off violence that pervaded the region for the next fifteen years.  

In part because of the death of his friend, another minister, the Reverend Oscar P. McMains, began a personal crusade against the land grant company. McMain’s campaign lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the right of the company to nearly two million acres in its decision of April 18, 1887. McMain made one last appeal for the settlers to President Grover Cleveland, but his request was denied. Peace gradually came to the region after the Supreme Court’s decision. Settlers either bought their land from the company or sold their improvements and left. No one is certain how many deaths resulted from the war, and many remain unsolved to this day.

Much of the land was already owned or was soon purchased by stockmen who were running large herds of cattle and sheep. Jesus Abreu at Rayado, Manly Chase in Ponil Canyon, and John Dawson on the Vermejo River each bought ranch country from Lucien Maxwell before he sold the land grant. Frank Springer, attorney for the land grant company, purchased a large block of grazing land along the Cimarron River in 1873 from the company, and this eventually became the C S Ranch.

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