Once the owner of an enormous land grant in northern New Mexico, the ‘Boss of Cimarron’ left it all behind to live at an abandoned Army post.
A telegram from Cimarron, New Mexico Territory, arrived in New York City on July 23, 1870, finalizing the sale of “the Maxwell Estate containing about two millions of acres of land.” The $600,000 Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell reportedly took home “in a handbag” would have had purchasing power today of $10.9 million.
Sometimes fame comes only after the passage of years, but in his lifetime Lucien Maxwell became a legend, a force to be met. He was known across the newly added territory of New Mexico when huge freight wagons rolled in caravans across the country between Missouri and Santa Fe. The 19th century was halfway along. Far removed from developing industrialism and separated from the burgeoning magnetism of California’s newly discovered gold, Maxwell became “El Hombre.”
Born near Kaskaskia, Ill., in 1818 to Irish immigrant Hugh Maxwell and Odile Menard of French Canadian descent, Lucien was perhaps destined for a promising future on the frontier. From the beginning he was surrounded by Western traders, town builders and readers of the recently published journals of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Zebulon Pike. Lucien’s grandfather Pierre Menard, who was named the first lieutenant governor of the new state of Illinois just weeks after Lucien was born, was a role model. Menard had firsthand information on the wilderness, having spent a year with Manuel Lisa in the upper reaches of the Missouri River as a partner in the Missouri Fur Co. Trading provisions to fur traders and bartering with Indians, Menard prospered in business and also served as an Indian agent. His extensive enterprises reached to Canada, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and trading centers farther west.
Family relationships and accomplishments guided the young Lucien. Cousin Michel Branamour Menard established a trading post that ultimately grew into Galveston, Texas, and early neighbor Stephen Austin was the namesake of the capital of Texas. At age 17, after two years at the Vincentian college in Missouri, Lucien struck out on his own, heading west.
By the time he was 30, Maxwell had traded with Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, trapped for the American Fur Co. and Bent, St. Vrain & Co., befriended Kit Carson, hunted for John Frémont’s expeditions across the Great American Desert to California and married María de la Luz Beaubien of Taos, New Mexico, which was part of Mexico at the time. By 1844, two years after the wedding, Luz’s father, Charles Beaubien, and fellow investor Guadalupe Miranda officially controlled a vast but ill-defined land grant in isolated northeastern New Mexico (Lucien would buy out Miranda in 1858 to become majority owner). Maxwell and his men set up temporary quarters near the Rayado River on the southern portion of that 1,714,765-acre grant in early 1848. But it wasn’t until the spring of 1849 that Maxwell and Carson built their permanent homes and started the town of Rayado. In late 1850 Doña Luz, 2-year-old Peter and baby Virginia joined Lucien in the 16-room house built in the Mexican style around a sprawling courtyard.
Following his family’s traditions, Lucien had chosen a new path into unsettled country. Rayado was a first step on that path. He and the families that joined him were putting their lives on the line, depending on his ability to get them through difficult times. In spite of the hardships of the frontier and Rayado’s distance from Washington and even from Santa Fe, families, herds and profits multiplied.
By 1858, when he was 40, Lucien had moved with Luz and their children— now including daughters Emilia, Sofia and Maria, in addition to Peter and Virginia—to their new home and ranching headquarters 10 miles north to start another new town, Cimarron. There wagons on the Santa Fe Trail forded the Cimarron River, and the yet undeveloped path from Taos intersected the trail. As the settlement grew, so, too, did the Maxwell family. Although two daughters died in infancy, the subsequent births of Paulita and Odilia before 1870 attest to the vitality of their parents’ relationship as Lucien became a successful rancher, farmer and merchant.
During the Civil War the Maxwell Grant supplied beef and produce to not only the soldiers at Fort Union but also the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches who came in for weekly allotments. When Charles Beaubien died in 1864, Lucien, Luz and her five siblings inherited his land, but within five years Lucien and Luz had bought out the others and owned the entire grant. “Mac,” as friends called him, centered the marketplace that supported the hundreds of men and women who made their homes along the waterways of the Maxwells’ 1.7 million acres. Thousands of cattle and sheep, fields of grain and a gristmill that could grind 15,000 pounds of wheat a day all bore witness to success. Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail partook of the Maxwells’ hospitality.
Their home, considered a mansion at that time, was built of adobe, but the front porch and peaked roof almost exactly duplicated grandfather Pierre Menard’s stately residence in Illinois. Frequent visitor Colonel Henry Inman, who was stationed at Fort Union, wrote that a “retinue of servants” tended men and women in two separate dining rooms, and William Ryus noted tables “thick with solid silver serving dishes” set daily for about 30 persons. Everyone who traveled the trail’s mountain route knew the name Lucien Maxwell.
In a place and time when lawlessness was the rule, Maxwell maintained order. “His power was just as if he owned the whole outfit,” recalled longtime employee Calvin Jones. “If a Mexican servant didn’t suit him or did anything against his orders, he took a board or plank or anything he could get hold of and whipped him with it.…He generally ran his own court. A couple of men broke into his storeroom one night and took almost two hundred dollars worth of goods…started south…when the horse gave out, one [going] to Rayado and one back to house.… [When they found] the man who had the goods there peddling, they brought him back to Cimarron. Maxwell took a big log chain weighing about forty pounds and a padlock and locked it around his neck…locked him to a block down in the cellar…forty-six hours.”
Stronger than his discipline for recreants was the good relationship he enjoyed with others. William Walker, a stonemason and soldier stationed at Fort Union during the war, noted Maxwell’s “disposition to do what was right by everybody and to treat everybody right.” Walker said Indians and whites alike respected Lucien, and Mexican and American families who worked as shareowners on his land depended on him for their livelihood. “If they paid for it, it was all well and good, and if they did not, it was all well and good anyhow,” Walker said. “The Mexican people…men, women and children, and even the Indians, called him father.”
Not everyone admired him, of course, and some feared him, but the man was never merely ignored. It was not simply that he had more land and money but rather his attitude toward the wealth that allowed him to live the way he wanted to. As Inman observed:
Maxwell was rarely…without a large amount of money in his possession. He had no safe, however, his only place of temporary deposit for the accumulated cash being the bottom drawer of the old bureau.…Drawers above it could be pulled out, exposing the treasure immediately beneath it to the cupidity of any one.
I have frequently seen as much as thirty thousand dollars—gold, silver, greenbacks and government checks— at one time in that novel depository. Occasionally these large sums remained there for several days, yet there was never any extra precaution taken to prevent its abstraction; doors were always open and the room free of access to every one, as usual.
I once suggested to Maxwell the propriety of purchasing a safe for the better security of his money, but he only smiled, while a strange, resolute look flashed from his dark eyes, as he said, ‘God help the man who attempted to rob me and I knew him!’
Maxwell stayed focused on his business—harvesting wheat and putting up hay, tending herds of sheep and cattle, supervising timber operations, and stocking and selling merchandise in his three stores. His innovative agricultural methods and introduction of new breeds to New Mexican livestock had lasting influence and benefited the entire territory. Wanting the most productive land possible, he invested thousands of dollars in equipment, bringing in machinery otherwise unaffordable to northern New Mexico Territory’s farmers.
From the upstairs window of their well-furnished home in Cimarron, Lucien, Luz and the children could see the Sangre de Cristo’s cloud-wreathed peaks, the flowing Cimarron River and the three-story Aztec Mill, a towering brick structure and symbol of all they had accomplished. Lucien Maxwell had come a long way—a young man from Illinois in search of Western adventure had become one of the wealthiest landowners in the West. Why then at age 51 did Maxwell sell almost everything he owned? By then, like most men who reached that age, he probably found it harder to mount his horse, harder to hold his hand steady when he lifted his cup high, harder to do a lot of things, personal things. Since not many of Maxwell’s thoughts and words are documented, it is hard to say exactly why he decided to sell his “Maxwell Estate” in 1870 and move his family south to Fort Sumner. The discovery of gold on the grant in the late 1860s had brought an influx of people—many of the wrong kind of people—and that no doubt informed his decision. Maxwell admitted to merchant John Dodd he was “tired of this place, from the Indians and the newcomers on the land” and would sell “the whole grant, everything I’ve got.” Dodd thought the price Mac asked— $200,000—was more than he had and more than the property was worth.
In late 1866 the inevitable happened. Tipped off by local Indians, soldiers from Fort Union discovered the gold Lucien Maxwell had always known existed on his land. Nuggets in his desk drawer had served as toys for the children. Years later rancher William Hoehne testified under oath that he heard Maxwell, in 1862, tell miners there was gold on his grant but “the time had not come yet when it could be worked.”
Word spread, fast, and the onslaught of miners overpowered those who had nurtured crops through winter storms and summer grasshoppers. Maxwell accepted the situation and joined the mining operations, but things were not the same. Mining boomtowns like Elizabethtown and Virginia City sprang up. New telegraph wires stretched into Cimarron, and mail arrived daily. Knowing that newcomers were pushing out the Indian people who called him “tata [father] Makey,” he offered the land to the government for $250,000, to be used as a permanent reservation for the tribes. Nothing came of the idea, and the hordes continued to pour in, respecting nothing and no one. Maxwell foresaw the legal battles that lay ahead.
Still, there was money to be made, more money than ever. As a five-twelfths owner of nearby Baldy Mountain’s Aztec Mine, Maxwell pocketed his share of the first 14 months of operation—8,741 ounces of gold, worth nearly $175,000. He sold claims and goods to miners and built smelters and sawmills as well as a 40-mile ditch that provided water for placer mining. Gold, silver, copper and coal, new towns and the railroad on its way—all that made the Maxwell Land Grant a desirable site. Four groups of speculators pursued Maxwell about purchasing his land in 1869. The territory now had a population of more than 90,000. Possibilities for development of yet another agricultural market place would have looked excellent. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving had opened a trail northward from the Pecos River to Colorado Territory. Cowboys were moving herds northward to meet the railroad that transported cattle to Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. The “Boss of Cimarron” must have figured it was time to go while the going was good.
Within a year the sale was completed. Maxwell now had $600,000 in cash added to his already significant assets. On July 23, 1870, the Colfax County clerk received the deed transferring ownership of Lucien and Luz’s land to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Co. Six weeks later the Maxwells sold for an additional $125,000 their Cimarron house and the remainder of his Colfax County property. On September 14, 1870, Lucien Maxwell celebrated his 52nd birthday. That same month he purchased $150,000 in government bonds to capitalize the First National Bank of Santa Fe. Seven months later he sold his stock. He also, according to undocumented sources, lost $250,000 he invested in the Texas Pacific Railroad.
In October he spent $5,000 to buy the buildings and property at abandoned Fort Sumner, some 200 miles south of Cimarron. The Maxwell family departed Cimarron—their youngest and last child, Odilia, a little over a year old—along with some 200 others who would also be relocating. Spacious, remodeled adobe officers’ quarters became the Maxwell home. With corrals, storehouses and stables already in place and good grass in the free open range to the south and east, Fort Sumner promised a vibrant ranching operation. Sloping flat land facilitated an irrigation system built five miles north of the post. It included a dam, a 12-foot-wide acequia more than six miles long and 15 miles of secondary ditches that augmented the water supply of the Pecos River. On November 21, 1870, the first grandchild was born, daughter of Virginia and Lieutenant Alexander Keyes. But Lucien and Luz would have only five years together in Fort Sumner. Lucien, 56, died on July 25, 1875, of what is generally believed to have been kidney failure. Most of what happened during that brief time remains subject to question.
Lucien Maxwell’s decision to relocate puzzled not only his descendants but also many historians and storytellers. By the 1940s popular publications featured “The Cowman They Called God,” “The Man Who Owned Too Much,” and “The Midas of New Mexico.” Cimarron was called “Satan’s Paradise.” Fact and fiction blended. Did Maxwell, as some say, give up on life and retreat into his self-made sanctuary? Was he sick and planning ahead for his death? Why, out of the $1,350,000 paid for his land, did he receive only $600,000? Was he outmaneuvered? Taken advantage of? Or could this man who had experienced unlimited success simply have been looking ahead to the next adventure? It’s uncertain. He shared what was in his mind with no one, except perhaps Luz.
By selling when he did, Maxwell was free of the controversy over the original Beaubien–Miranda Land Grant boundaries and the litigation that would weigh upon the new owners during the long years ahead. Following his departure from Cimarron, violence erupted in Colfax County. Gunmen (see “Clay Allison: ‘Good-Natured, Holy Terror,’” by Sharon Cunningham, in the October 2013 Wild West) took up arms. The Santa Fe Ring, a powerful group of politicians and land speculators, entered the fray as the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Co. evicted people who had worked the land for 30 years, and Indians were forced to depart their homeland. Not until 1887 did the U.S. Supreme Court recognize the official 1877 survey, and disputes have lingered into the present day.
Perhaps Maxwell had gone to Fort Sumner to spend the rest of his life, but he certainly hadn’t wanted his life to end so soon. He had not left a will. He had been meeting his cronies in Las Vegas, 100 miles to the north. It was, according to New Mexico Territory Governor Miguel Antonio Otero, a “popular meeting place for all the cattle barons from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and all such occasions were signalized by a big poker game…the ceiling alone being the limit.” Gambling amused the aging Maxwell, and he also bet on his widely known horses. In short, he was savoring life to the fullest, surrounded by his family and the friends he chose. The cattle industry was on an upswing, his success in raising superior beef was already recognized. His background in Illinois, where the industry had matured years earlier, stood him in good stead. Like Chicago, where critical access to transportation connected small farmers with large markets to become a primary receiving area for the nation’s livestock, the Maxwell settlement in Fort Sumner provided all the necessary ingredients for a major marketing center. With its riverside location along the main cattle trail and as the site of a licensed trading post for 20 years, Fort Sumner proved an ideal place to connect the cattle industry with increasing demand from Eastern markets through Midwestern packing companies. Many historical observers have suggested, without proof of any kind, Maxwell was near bankruptcy by the end of his life. Those detractors fail to take into account what it meant to have an impressive amount of cash during the 1870s. In addition to what he received from sale of the grant, his copper and gold mines had already yielded fortunes. Neither in assets nor in attitude could Maxwell’s last years be considered a failure.
A few years after her husband’s death, Luz Maxwell’s sheep holdings, under the management of son-in-law Manuel Abreu, numbered 17,000. In 1884, when the New England Cattle Co. bought out the ranching operation, Luz homesteaded new land and moved to a new wood-framed adobe house (that still stands) in what became the second Fort Sumner. Luz Beaubien Maxwell lived until July 13, 1900. The Abreu family owned the house until 1979.
Present-day travelers driving from Denver to Santa Fe via I-25 are oblivious that from Trinidad, Colo., 62 miles south to Springer, N.M., and west to the top of the “shining mountains” at the farthest point of their vision, almost all the land was part of a Mexican land grant originally awarded to Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda in 1841. Visitors to Cimarron, N.M., in the 21st century have little conception of the man responsible for the growth of a thriving trade center 150 years ago. Three-quarters of a century passed before anyone thought to commemorate his life with a monument at Fort Sumner, N.M. Today people who stop to visit Billy the Kid’s grave and see the monument are most likely to ask, “Who is Lucien Maxwell?”
Colorado author Harriet Freiberger is the author of Lucien Maxwell: Villain or Visionary, which is suggested for further reading, as are The Old Santa Fe Trail, by Colonel Harry Inman, and Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell: The Napoleon of the Southwest, by Lawrence R. Murphy.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.