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.

monument-Fort Sumner, NM0002
Monument , Fort Sumner, New Mexico, 1949 ( Photo by Tom McShane, 1996)
Realms of the past come to us only through the eyes and ears and pens of those who were there.

Today, we place our twenty-first century standards on a man and in a place that existed a hundred and fifty years ago. Villain or visionary? Who is to say? What establishes something as a fact? What information can we count upon as truth?

Legalities have beleaguered what became known as the Maxwell Land Grant since the date of its beginning under Mexican law in 1841 and well into this twenty-first century under governing strictures of the United States, specifically in northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Conflicting details of Lucien Maxwell’s acquisition of the Beaubien and Miranda Grant appear in even the most carefully researched books and articles, Was he the “largest single landowner in the entire United States? Was Luz only a stepping stone to ownership of the “empire”? The story has been told and retold.

The Transcript of Title, the original and a few copies now in possession of well respected libraries, relates absolutes of the past.

On April 7, 1858, Pablo Miranda sold his share of the Beaubien and Miranda Grant to Lucien Maxwell for $2745. Later in that same year, Charles Beaubien and his wife formally conveyed title to their son-in-law for the Rayado Ranch where he and Kit Carson had begun a successful settlement eight years earlier. Maxwell’s payment of $500 gave him official sole ownership of land “stretching two and a half miles in every direction from what was termed Maxwell’s Plaza.”

Six years later, Carlos Beaubien died, leaving half of his remaining share of the Beaubien and Miranda Grant to Lucien Maxwell and the other half to be divided among his six children.

Following Beaubien’s death in January, 1864, LM began purchasing Luz’s siblings’ interests. In April of the next year, he paid Frederick and Teodora Beaubien Muller $500; Joseph and Juana Beaubien Clouthier, $3500. In July of the same year, he paid Vital and Eleanor Beaubien Trujillo, $3000.00. Three years passed before he paid Petra Beaubien and Jesus Abreu $3500 for their share, and another three years until, in 1870, the $3500 payment to Luz’s brother, Paul Beaubien completed transfer from all the descendants.

In the meantime, a lawsuit filed on the part of Charles Bent’s heirs for recognition of their interest in the Grant resulted in Maxwell’s payment of $18,000. In total, Lucien Maxwell paid $35,245 for the lands he and Luz subsequently sold and left behind. The dollar amount hardly reflects the amount of capital he invested during the course of two decades

According to the transfer of title to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, Lucien and Luz Maxwell, on April 30, 1870, conveyed title pending receipt of the agreed upon price. On July 5, 1870, in New York City, Lucien signed the final document that evidenced the sale of “about two million acres of land.” A little more than two weeks later, on July 23, when she was notified that full payment had been received, Luz Beaubien Maxwell appeared before the Clerk of Probate Court, Colfax County, New Mexico. He witnessed and acknowledged that”on examination separate and apart from her said husband that she had executed the same free from any compulsion or undue or illicit influence of her said husband, and that she is still satisfied therewith.”

The sale price was $1,350,000. Different sources claim different amounts actually received by the Maxwells, but $600,000 is the generally accepted figure. Specifically excluded from the contract of sale were the home ranch, several mining properties and specific acreage already deeded to others. Then, when under separate contract the last of their properties in Colfax County was sold for $125,000, the Maxwells departed for a new home one hundred fifty miles to the south.

Twelve years after Lucien Maxwell’s death, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the claim and extent of the Beaubien and Miranda Grant, 1,714,764.94 acres in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Nineteen years after Lucien Maxwell’s death, in 1894, the Supreme Court of New Mexico finally denied and dismissed a claim of fraud on the part of Lucien Maxwell.

How differently things might have worked out had the U.S. government followed the advice of New Mexico Superintendent of Indian Affairs A.B. Norton’s advice in October 1866 to purchase the Grant and keep the land for Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. ( 2600 square miles: think of driving in a rectangular path shaped from the Capitol in Denver, west to Georgetown and south to Colorado Springs ) How differently that might-have-been would have shaped the future if agricultural families then in residence had been protected. Lucien Maxwell had sustained a prosperity and an equilibrium that all enjoyed, but, without his supervision, it could not continue.

Twenty-six hundred square miles belonging to Lucien and Luz Maxwell have brought into focus the imposition of measurement upon the wide-open spaces of the American West.

When I first met Lucien . . .

At my first meeting with Lucien Maxwell, I remember hearing the teenagers’ laughter when they spoke of the 24-year-old-mountain man who married the 14-year-old senorita. “Of course he married Luz for her father’s money. Carlos Beaubien was one of the wealthiest men in Taos, and, even if his daughter was ugly, his land grant covered two million acres.” The words came from the boys as well as the leaders of their hiking adventure in northeastern New Mexico. ( and they had absolutely no way of knowing what Luz Beaubien looked like)

Such was my introduction in the summer of 1989 to the New Mexican man who has magnetized my travel backward in time through two centuries.

As soon as I asked, “ Who was Lucien Maxwell?” I joined the legions who have asked that question before me. Romanticized, criticized, and demonized- he was for some the worst; for others, the best.

That was back in the dark ages before Google, but I found the closest library. It happened to be the perfect place to find him – Philmont’s Seton Museum near Cimarron, New Mexico. The books almost fell off the shelves into my hands. Then, like all the others before me, I was mesmerized. It was one of those moments when something happens and nothing is ever again the same.

Slowly, during the next few years, the pieces of the puzzle came together, at least as well as could be determined without letters, personal papers, diaries, photographs or actual evidence from the man himself. The journey has magnified not only a map of rivers and mountains, but also of the relationships that unite and separate families through generations.

In the hard evidence of what happened between Lucien Maxwell and his father-in-law, I confirmed their respect and mutual support. The  proof lies in the Last Will and Testament of Carlos Beaubien, written and witnessed on January 16, 1864, only weeks before his death, January 16, 1864. He was sixty-four years old, only ten years older than Lucien’s father would have been had Hugh Maxwell not died during the Illinois cholera epidemic a few days before his son’s 15th birthday. Carlos Beaubien instructed  “. . .Said Rayado grant to be divided fairly between my heirs & L.B. Maxwell.” Thus Beaubien left half of his remaining interest in the two-million acre grant to his son-in-law, the remaining part to his six children, including Lucien’s wife, Luz. The two men had known and relied upon each other for more than two decades.

The stories of those twenty years belie the laughter of the teenagers who introduced me to the man and his wife who lived and built community in a new place that had been called “The Great American Desert.” New Mexico was a place where East and West coalesced into a proud heritage for today’s southwestern Americans. People today usually know the name Maxwell because Billy the Kid was shot dead in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the home of Lucien’s son, Pete. Billy was buried in the old cemetery where a small memorial stone mark’s Lucien’s grave. Visitors ask, “Who was Lucien Maxwell?”

If it’s a day when I happen to be there, I answer, “ He was a much bigger and better man than Billy.”

Next in this blog: I look forward to sharing with my readers exactly how much of the Beaubien and Miranda Grant did Lucien purchase and how much, if any, was a gift?