July 4, 1867
The Maxwell Ranch
Cimarron, New Mexico

On the 4th of July, 1867, they gathered in celebration of the nation’s 91st birthday: soldiers from the company of U.S. Cavalry, members of the Ute Nation, ranchers and their families, and the man who governed the vast acreage in northeastern New Mexico territory. Lucien Maxwell had the “antiquated and rusty six-pound howitzer dragged from its place under a clump of elms, where it had been hidden in the grass and weeds ever since the Mexican War probably, and brought near the house. The captain and Maxwell acted the role of gunners, the former at the muzzle, the latter at the breech; the discharge was premature, blowing out the captain’s eye and taking off his arm, while Maxwell escaped with a shattered thumb.”

The soldier’s injury necessitated the surgeon’s emergency travel from Fort Union to the ranch, where he provided life-saving treatment to the captain and bandaged Lucien’s seemingly insignificant wound. When, after a few days, the landowner’s thumb did not heal and amputation was required, Henry Inman and Kit Carson rode with their friend in his coach to the doctor’s Fort Union quarters. Colonel Henry Inman,in The Old Santa Fe Trail, published thirty years later, wrote

“Maxwell declined the anaesthetic [sic] prepared for him, and sitting in a common office chair put out his hand, while Carson and myself stood on opposite sides, each holding an ordinary kerosene lamp. In a few seconds the operation was concluded, and after the silver-wire ligatures were twisted in their places, I offered Maxwell, who had not as yet permitted a single sigh to escape his lips, half a tumblerful of whisky; but before I had fairly put it to his mouth, he fell over, having fainted dead away, while great beads of perspiration stood on his forehead, indicative of the pain he had suffered, as the amputation of the thumb, the surgeon told them, was as bad as that of a leg.”

The Indians might have perceived the unusual incident as an omen. However, Maxwell, even forewarned, could hardly have avoided the turmoil and disruption that lay ahead.

Lucien Maxwell’s 49th birthday neared and he was acquiring great wealth. To outside observers all was going well in the landowner’s life. But, following shortly after the decade’s midyear, something changed. In October 1866, Indian Superintendent A.B.Norton wrote his superiors recommending purchase of the Maxwell Grant’s “one million six hundred thousand acres” to be used as a reservation for the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches who had long occupied the land, noting its availability at a price of two hundred fifty thousand dollars. The U.S. government never pursued that option. Three years later Maxwell pocketed $750,000 for the land that carried his name into legal disputes that continued decades. What went on in Lucien Maxwell’s mind will never be known, but the change in direction can not be disregarded, and close in time was the discovery of gold.

As the story goes, soldiers from Fort Union recognized copper among some rocks traded with Indians from Maxwell’s. When they went to investigate on Baldy Mountain’s western slope, the men found gold in Willow Creek. The following spring Lucien and the discoverers formed the Copper Mining Company, immediately filing a claim. By summer the word had spread, and what had been could be no more.

Cimarron’s boss was, by year’s end, fully involved in mining. Just as he had collected rents from farmers in the form of produce, Lucien charged for placer mining, a process that required water to separate gold from gravel that lay in stream bottoms. For underground mines, he demanded half ownership and, in exchange, handled any dispute with claim jumpers Any wealth he had acquired earlier dwindled in proportion to what his new assets were about to produce. Miners and merchants moved in quickly, more than four hundred people living in Cimarron and nearby communities, mainly Elizabethtown. At first, supplies and food were hauled fifteen miles up the road from Lucien’s ranch along the Cimarron Canyon, mule-driven wagons crossing the river thirty-three times. Within a year, a toll road constructed by the grant’s owner permitted Concord coaches to travel the twenty-six miles to Elizabethtown in six hours; by then, over two thousand people resided in the new town.

The gold that Maxwell, along with his friend Kit Carson, had determined to pass up in California two decades earlier in favor of ranching now changed his life in New Mexico. By the end of the decade, he and his family had left Cimarron behind. And within only a few years the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches also departed, though not at their wishes. A new West had opened. America’s modern age had begun.

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