Legends and Lore of Northeast New Mexico
From Indian myths and Spanish sagas to pioneer epics and cowboy ballads, Northeast New Mexico is rich in historic lores and legends. Some are stranger than fiction. Some tell of love and passion. Some are morality plays. Some tell of fortunes won and lost. Almost all are about the people who dared to dream. It's high drama in wide open spaces. Here are some of the tales of the trails of Northeast New Mexico.
Maxwell Land Grant and the Land Grand Wars
On January 8, 1841, Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda, two Mexican citizens living in Taos, petitioned the Mexican government for a large grant of land along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains neighboring the Santa Fe Trail. They wanted to raise sugar beets and "establish manufactories of cotton and wool, and raising stock of every description." Three days later Governor Manual Armijo approved the request. In February 1843 having done little more than "pull up weeds" Beaubien and Miranda applied for title to the grant and were promised that it was forthcoming. However, their claim was contested by the curate of Taos, Father Antonio Jose Martinez, who charged that some of the lands had been given to the Pueblo Indians prior to the 1842 petition. Believing that land should be given to the poor and not the rich, Father Martinez would argue against awarding the grant until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 and the government of the United States formally recognized all legitimate Mexican land grants. For the next 50 years these same concerns would be echoed by another man of the cloth. Beaubien intended to pass control of the Grant down to his son, Narcisco, but after renegades killed his son during the Taos Revolt of 1847, management and ultimately ownership of the Grant passed to his son-in-law, former trapper and explorer Lucien Maxwell.
Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell was born in Kaskaskia, Illinois, on September 14, 1818, the son of a well-to-do merchant. When Maxwell's father died in 1834, Lucien traveled west through Nebraska and Kansas to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico learning the fur trade. In May of 1842 he hired on as chief hunter for an expedition led by explorer John C. Fremont. This was the first of five major scientific expeditions Fremont would make to map and explore lands west of the Mississippi River. Accompanying Fremont as guide was Kit Carson (1809-1868), a close friend of Maxwell. For Carson and Fremont, the expedition would bring fame; for Maxwell, respect, admiration and the skills needed to build an empire. But Maxwell was not yet ready to settle down. He and Carson joined Fremont for at least part of the second and third expeditions to Oregon and California in 1843-44 and 1845-46, with Maxwell returning to Taos in 1844 long enough to marry Beaubien's daughter, Luz, and do a little farming near Cimarron. In late January of 1847, while waiting at Bent's Fort for a ride home, Maxwell got word of a terrible massacre in Taos a few days earlier. He hurried back to find that Beaubien's son had been killed along with the governor and other officials. Maxwell was called for jury duty during the trial of those charged with starting the uprising. Later that fall Luz became pregnant with their first child, Peter, who was born the following April. With adventure behind him and thoughts of raising a family before him, Maxwell accepted his father-in-law's offer to manage the Land Grant.
The Maxwell Land Grant: 1848-1870
Interest in settling the Cimarron area had begun as early as the spring of 1844 when Beaubien and Miranda built a cabin on the Ponil River near the present day Chase Ranch. In March of 1848 Maxwell and a small group of men started over the mountains to Rayado from Taos. Snows had initially delayed the trip but the men finally arrived and set up temporary quarters. More supplies were needed so Maxwell and some others left for Kansas to purchase them. On the return trip Indians ambushed the party in Raton Pass and Maxwell was seriously wounded. He spent the rest of the year recuperating in Taos while working for his father-in-law. In April of 1849, Maxwell convinced Carson to join him at Rayado. Maxwell knew that the time would come when soldiers would be needed to safeguard travelers along the Santa Fe Trail and if a fort were to be built what better site than at Rayado, the junction between a trail to Taos and the main road to Santa Fe. Thus Maxwell and Carson crossed the mountains to Rayado to begin life anew. To Lucien, Rayado was the perfect site to build a home. There was plenty of water for irrigation, the climate was one of the best in New Mexico, being neither too cold in winter nor too hot in summer, the area was relatively free from Indians and the views were impressive. The Santa Fe Trail would guarantee a steady supply of goods and visitors. Maxwell built a large house and several smaller outbuildings with Carson adding a much smaller adobe hut to the complex. By July the inhabitants of Rayado numbered over 40.
photo courtesy Cimarron Chamber of Commerce
By the late Spring of 1850, military officials had agreed to create a "Post at Rayado." Quarters were soon built and Maxwell entered into an agreement with the Army whereby he would be paid for providing food, lodging and supplies to the troops. However, by the following year the army decided that a small post ten miles north of Rayado in Cimarron as well as a larger fort 30 miles south on the Mora River would better serve the area. Some of the Rayado troops then moved south to begin construction of Fort Union at the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron Cutoff branches of the Trail. By 1857 relatively few Indians remained in the area. Most of the money Maxwell had earned in the preceding years had gone to his father-in-law so Maxwell decided to strike out on his own. Eleven miles to the north on the banks of the Cimarron River a settlement was prospering. The river was larger than the Rayado and the broad river valley more fertile and the surrounding mesas afforded better protection from Indian attacks. After selling his interest in Rayado, Lucien bought some of the remaining shares of the Land Grant from his relatives. At the end of 1858, feeling in complete control for the first time, Maxwell moved his family to Cimarron where he was appointed Postmaster and Indian Agent.
Charles Beaubien died on February 10, 1864, and Beaubien's partner, Guadalupe Miranda, had fled south after the Taos Revolt. Within two years of his father-in-law's death, Maxwell had managed to purchase additional deeds to that part of the Grant he had not inherited. It was starting to get crowded in Cimarron. With the Civil War over, ex-soldiers with nothing to do drifted west. In 1865, former guide and trapper "Uncle Dick" Wootton constructed a toll road over Raton Pass, which made the mountains so much easier to cross that the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail became the preferred route of travel. But something even more important happened. In October of 1866, three men traveled to Moreno Valley and began to investigate a promising stream flowing down from Baldy Mountain. Gold! By Spring the rush was on. Settlements like Baldy Town, Elizabethtown and Virginia City sprouted like mushrooms. Some prospectors made over $1,000 a day. Maxwell became rich by leasing out land to the miners. When Colfax became a county in 1869, Elizabethtown was made the County Seat and Maxwell was elected probate judge.
But all this excitement and activity was not for Lucien. He had succeeded in settling the Grant: land had been cultivated, towns had been built, Indians had been subdued and moved. Now that gold had been found and he was in firm control of the land, perhaps the Grant could be sold. Maxwell had the land surveyed and soon found buyers. On January 28, 1870, Maxwell sold almost 2,000,000 acres of land to a group of Colorado investors fronting for an English company for $1,350,000. In October Maxwell bought and moved into the buildings of the former military post at Fort Sumner. Aside from organizing the First National Bank of Santa Fe, Maxwell's business ventures did not fare well. He soon slipped into semi-retirement and turned over most of his business affairs to his son Peter. On July 25, 1875, Lucien B. Maxwell died at the age of 56, his body buried in the cemetery at Fort Sumner. An editorial in the Las Vegas, NM Gazette presented a fitting summary of his life. "Against Lucien B. Maxwell, no man can say aught, and he died after an active and eventful life, probably without an enemy in the world. Of few words, unassuming and unpretentious, his deeds were the best exponent of the man. He was hospitable, generous and upright, and dispensed large wealth acquired by industry and genius with an open hand to the stranger and the needy."
Much of this information came from a wonderful pamphlet produced under the auspices of the Cimarron Historical Society, which can be ordered by contacting the Cimarron Chamber of Commerce.
The Colfax County War: 1875
courtesy of Cimarron Chamber of Commerce
The word "Cimarron" in Spanish means "wild" or "unruly." In 1875, as would so many other towns throughout the west, Cimarron gained a reputation for lawlessness. The Grant had been sold to a group of speculators five years earlier. Suggestions to get rich ranged from exploiting the gold mines, to lumber cutting, to land sales, to obtaining a railroad line. First on the agenda, however, was the removal of all the Indians and squatters who had moved on to private Grant land during the past 30 years. In an effort to remove the settlers from their property, Grant officials, in league with a group of lawyers, politicians and businessmen known as the Santa Fe Ring, began making false allegations against locals. A Grant-supported law had been passed attaching Colfax to Taos County for judicial purposes, thus forcing the accused to attend court in Taos 50 miles away. Though they were quickly acquitted, the trip was a hardship and cost them time and money. Reverend F. J. Tolby, one of two Methodist ministers holding services in Elizabethtown and Cimarron, was particularly outspoken about the situation and announced in public that he would do what he could to break up the Grant. Soon thereafter, on September 14, 1875, his body was discovered in Cimarron Canyon near Clear Creek. Robbery was clearly not a motive as the preacher's horse, saddle and personal belongings were untouched. Local citizens immediately blamed Grant men and politicians "in their pockets." After several interviews, Tolby's close friend, Minister O.P. McMains, felt that the new Cimarron Constable, Cruz Vega, was involved. During the night of September 30, a masked mob confronted Vega at a nearby farm. While denying his own guilt, the frightened sheriff hinted that Manuel Cardenas might know something. The next morning, Cruz Vega was found hanging from a telegraph pole one mile north of town.
On November 1, local bad guy Francisco "Pancho" Griego started threatening certain townspeople because of Vega's death. Griego was related to Vega and wandered into the St. James Hotel looking for trouble. He found it. Confronting gunslinger Clay Allison, who happened to be in the saloon at the time, Griego accused him of complicity in the crime against Vega. Distracting Allison by fanning himself with his hat, Griego drew his gun, but Allison was not fooled. Two bullets fired in self-defense laid Griego to rest. According to local accounts, the most unfortunate aspect of the whole incident was the closing of the bar until an inquiry was held the following morning.
Ten days later Cardenas was apprehended and during a hearing confessed to Vega's murder and implicated several Grant men, among them R.H. Longwill and M.W. Mills, who immediately left town on fast horses. While being transferred from the hearing room to the jail, Cardenas was attacked by several armed men and and killed. Ignoring the advice of his friends, Mills later returned to Cimarron and was confronted by a lynch mob. Fortunately for Mills, the mob was calmed down and a trial was begun. In the meantime, Governor Samuel B. Axtell was informed by telegraph and the cavalry dispatched from Fort Union. The troops arrived just in time to put an end to the proceedings and release Mills.
McMains continued his efforts to have the Grant Land declared open and available to settlers as was done with the Oklahoma Territory. In 1878 the law judicially attaching Colfax to Taos County was repealed and Governor Axtell's tenure of "corruption, fraud and murder" was replaced with the honest one of Governor Lew Wallace. Peace had come at last to Colfax County. The Grant was surveyed once more in 1879 and declared to embrace a total of 1,714,764.93 acres (2,679 square miles). Seven years later the United States Circuit Court upheld the validity of the Grant and the Supreme Court confirmed this ruling the following year. Nonetheless McMains persisted in his fight of the poor against the rich until he died. To this day, the murders of Tolby, Vega and Cardenas are officially unsolved.
Much of this information came from a wonderful pamphlet produced under the auspices of the Cimarron Historical Society, which can be ordered by contacting the Cimarron Chamber of Commerce.
Black Jack Lost His Head
About four miles from Folsom, near Twin Mountain, Black Jack Ketchum held up a train. He was wounded and the next day he was captured. He was taken into Folsom and kept overnight at the Folsom Hotel, then taken to Santa Fe. His arm had been shattered and had to be amputated. Black Jack's trial was held in Clayton about a year later. He was found guilty and hanged with such force he was decapitated. He was buried in the Clayton Cemetery.
The hanging of Black Jack Ketchum was Union County's only judicial hanging (for the capital crime of "felonious assault upon a railway train") and was conducted on April 26, 1901, against the north wall of what is now the sheriff's office on the courthouse grounds. Black Jack's grave is located at the Clayton Memorial Cemetery. Enter at the main gate by the flag pole. At the mid-point into the cemetery, the grave is located between the two roadways. It is probably decorated with a few flowers. Who sees to this has never been made public.
For more information, contact the Clayton/Union County Chamber of Commerce.
An astounding legend borne from a Native American myth has planted itself deep in the soil of the Tucumcari Mountain. Visitors would be remiss if they explored the region without being privy to the tragic and heartfelt story which gave this mesa its name.
Apache Chief, Wautonomah was nearing the end of his time on earth and was troubled by the question of who would succeed him as ruler of the tribe. In a classic portrait of love and competition, his two finest braves, Tonopah and Tocom, were not only rivals and sworn enemies of one another, but were both vying for the hand of Kari, Chief Wantonomah's daughter. Kari knew her heart belonged to Tocom. Chief Wautonomah beckened Tonopah and Tocom to his side and announced, "Soon I must die and one of you must succeed me as chief. Tonight you must take your long knives and meet in combat to settle the matter between you. He who survives shall be the Chief and have for his squaw, Kari, my daughter."
As ordered, the two braves met, with knives outstretched, in mortal combat. Unknown to either brave was the fact that Kari was hiding nearby. When Tonopah's knife found the heart of Tocom, the young squaw rushed from her hiding place and used a knife to take Tonopah's life, as well as her own.
When Chief Wautonomah was shown this tragic scene, heartbreak enveloped him and he buried his daughter's knife deep into his own heart, crying out in agony, "Tocom-Kari"!
A slight variation of the Chief's dying words live on today as "Tucumcari," and the mountain which bares this name stands as a stark reminder of unfulfilled love.
Some credit this folktake to Geronimo. More sceptical and less romantic historians believe the word "Tucumcari" is a derivation from the Comanche word "tukanukaru," which means to lie in wait for something. There's historical veracity to this explanation, since the mountain was known to be a Comanche lookout many years ago.
Thank you, Joe Kurmaskie of Zia Publishing Corp., for writing much of this text.
Fore more information contact the Tucumcari/Quay County Chamber of Commerce
Legends and Lore of San Miguel County
La Llorona is the boogie woman for many youngsters across New Mexico. She hides under bridges and cries, frightening children in the night. There are multiple versions on how she came to be; however, belief in her hauntings abound.
Rattlesnake Sam, Big Nosed Katie and Hoodoo Brown were among the group of disreputable gang of outlaws, gamblers, desperados and ne'er-do-wells who arrived with the Railroad. Some have said that Las Vegas eclipsed Dodge City and Tombstone for its unsavory characters prior to the turn of the century.
Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett
Billy the Kid reportedly complained that the jail in Las Vegas was a terrible place. Whether that was before or after Pat Garrett successfully repulsed a lynch mob from taking the Kid at the depot is unknown. Even Doc Holliday found Las Vegas as a profitable site for a gambling hall.
Las Vegas desperados were not confined to new arrivals alone. Vicente Silva, a local tavern owner, organized local Hispanics into the Silva Gang, who were responsible for murders, thefts, and livestock rustling before they were stopped.
The Hanging Windmill
The citizens of Las Vegas, tired of the mayhem and crime, used the windmill in the Old Town Plaza for hanging "criminals" they dragged from jail. Although the windmill is long gone, numerous photos exist of it in use.
In the 1870s a wandering Italian nobleman arrived in Las Vegas and took up residence on the massive peak at the head of the Gallinas Canyon. He soon became known as the Hermit and the mountain on which he resided known as Hermit's Peak. Locals performed pilgrimages to visit the hermit, and after a few years he moved to a more remote area of New Mexico to the south.
During the mid-1800s many Jewish merchants settled in the Las Vegas area. They eventually built the first Synagogue in New Mexico Territory and the first official cemetary. The cemetary is open to the public; however, the synagogue serves as the Newman Center for NMHU today.
For more information contact the Las Vegas/San Miguel County Chamber of Commerce
Interesting Springer History
A Brief History of Springer, New Mexico
by Lorrena E. Keenan
edited by Michael E. Taylor
The town of Springer is located in the southern part of Colfax County. The land on which Springer is now situated was part of the Maxwell Land Grant. Maxwell sold in 1870 to an English company, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway company, which went broke and was sold in 1880 to the Dutch holding company, named the Maxwell Land Grant Company. For his services, Maxwell was given a 320-acre tract of land within the Maxwell grant. This became the present site of Springer.
Springer was the county seat of Colfax County from 1882-1898. From 1869-1871 the county seat was Elizabethtown and from there it was moved to Cimarron because the Maxwell Land and Cattle Company had established its offices there, thinking the AT&SF Railroad would go through Cimarron. During the years Springer was the county seat, the citizens put up a gallant fight to hold it, but with only one commissioner in the Springer district against two in the northern district, Raton was successful in gaining the right to be the county seat.
The Old County Courthouse building, which houses the Santa Fe Trail Museum today, has been used for many purposes. It housed the New Mexico Reform School for Boys from 1909 to 1917. After 1917, the building housed the Springer Public Library, nursery school, municipal offices and marshals quarters, jail, Work Projects Administration supply rooms, Red Cross sewing rooms and the Woman's Progress Club rooms. The Santa Fe Trail Museum received a National Scenic Byway grant in 1999 to build an extensive Santa Fe Trail Interpretive Center.
With the coming of the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1879, Springer became an extremely important trading and shipping point. Cattle and sheep were driven in for miles around and shipped from the Springer railhead.
People shopped in quite a different manner in the early days. They came from all around once or twice a year in large wagons or wagon trains bringing hides of wool to ship out, and buying supplies to last for six months to a year.
The first merchants were C.A. Clouthier and H.M. Porter. Their store was located on Colbert Street where the Zia Theater building now stands. In time it grew to be the largest wholesale business in Northeast New Mexico. Henry M. Porter bought out Clouthier's interests in their store, but from that date until 1939, the time of Mr. Clouthier's death, he was in business in Springer almost continuously. In 1896 Sol Floersheim came to Springer and bought Mr. Porter's store and from that time until the present, the Floersheim family has been in business in Springer and other parts of Northeast New Mexico.
Another early store was the general merchandise of P.P. Talle. This building still stands with its sign; it is the Verbeck shop. Still another general store was that of Manuel Salazar and Son. It was next to the Zia Theater.
Saddle making and boot making were important occupations at that time, there being one of each in Springer in the early days. Last, but not least, Springer supported seven saloons, two hotels and a livery and feed stable owned by R. H. Cowan. The Livery was constructed in 1880 of quarried stone and was later occupied by the Bowers Garage. Today, the old Livery Stable houses an antique business. An amusing advertisement Mr. Cowan had in an old paper was as follows:
"Good rigs and saddle horses at reasonable rates. Tourists taken to any part of the country with good teams and experienced drivers."
Springer's first school house was an adobe building on the lot adjoining the Guthman residence. In 1893 a two story building was built on the hill; in 1904 an addition was added which served as a grade and high school. With the addition of a new gymnasium, agriculture building, library and class rooms, part of this building is still being used. In 1936 a new grade school was built on the Old Courthouse grounds and the old grade school building was torn down.
The Catholic Church has played an important part in the history of Springer. Previous to 1882, Springer was a mission and under the jurisdiction of Onate. In 1882, it was made a parish with a very large mission territory under it. Some of the missions which the parish priest had to visit and which gives one an idea of the size of the parish were Raton, Ponil, Blossburg, Vermejo, Dillon, Colmor, Agua Dulce, Folsom, Albert, Martinez and Arroyo Yutes. These places were visited every two months by the mission parish priest from Springer. Considering the roads and means of travel it is not surprising that it took a priest so long to cover his territory and pay visits. Beginning in 1882, Father Accrosini became the first priest in Springer's St. Joseph Parish.
The early citizens of the community did not have the modern entertainment which we have today. The Springer Opera House operated on Colbert Street, later to become the Zia Movie Theater which operated from 1937 to 1995. The Zia Theater building now serves as a church meeting house.
Skating parties on the river in winter, home talent plays, dances, church and lodge suppers and socials, church and school entertainment were all popular forms of amusement. And one must not forget that Springer had its own "Springer Cornet Band" as early as 1903.
In 1903 a catastrophic fire occurred in Springer. It wiped out the entire business section of town where the Floersheim and Salazar stores were located. Cause of the fire was never learned, but as the Springer Cornet Band had practiced the night before in the upstairs of the Olona Building on the corner where the fire was first sighted, it was thought that a carelessly dropped cigarette might have started the blaze. The business district was rebuilt on what is now Third Street.
Disasters for Springer did not end with the fire of 1903, for the following year came the flood which caused a great amount of damage and some loss of life in the growing community.
People thought with the coming of the railroad that law and order would be better enforced and that the day of the desperados was past, but each man was more or less his own law. Even as late of 1907 an article in a local newspaper tells a story of an accidental shooting, which killed a young man of Springer.
Two outstanding events were given annually, the Cowboy Ball and the Colfax County Fair. People came from far and near to both. The Cowboy Ball was held in the Opera House on Colbert Street during the summer, with the boys dressed in white silk shirts, red silk ties and sashes. It was the only affair at which it was permissible for gentlemen to dance without their coats.
The Colfax County Fair was a three-day affair held in the fall of the year. There were baseball games, contests, a fine array of exhibits and horse racing. For three nights in succession, everyone danced until morning. The Colfax County Fair continues to be held in Springer each August.
How different from our modern conveniences of today were the ways in which the early citizens of Springer managed. Mrs. Alldredge baked bread every day and carried it in a clothes basket over to the Floersheim store for sale. Milk was sold in buckets by the people who kept cows. No cream or butter was to be had; one bought country butter from the friends who lived in the country. Almost every family had chickens and their own egg supply.
Springer and its people have come a long ways since "the good old days." We now boast a modern hospital, a small airport, a modern bank, a new State Boys' School and the Santa Fe Trail Museum.
This essay is based on an undated manuscript by Lorrena E. Keenan, titled "Early Days of Springer, New Mexico", which apparently was written in the mid-1960s for the formal beginning of the Santa Fe Trail Museum and Historical Society, July 11, 1966. Miss Keenan, a Springer school teacher, museum patron and charter member of the Historical Society, died in 1981 at the age of 90.
Copyright © by the Board of Directors, Santa Fe Trail Museum of Springer, P.O. Box 488, Springer, NM 87747
Fore more information conact the Springer Chamber of Commerce