When New Mexico became part of the United States, the territory contained 295 land grants, the largest of these being the Maxwell Land Grant. The size and boundaries of the grant were disputed, with some believing that much of the land was public domain. Settlers on this land were fought not only by the land grant owners but also by a group of corrupt politicians and lawyers— known as the Santa Fe Ring (most notably Thomas Catron and Stephen Elkins)—who tried to use the situation for personal profit and land acquisition.
The fight escalated in late 1875 with the assassination of Reverend F. J. Tolby, an outspoken critic of the Santa Fe Ring. In a confession one of the assassins stated that men connected to the ring had paid to have Tolby killed. Outrage, civil unrest, and more murders followed. The town of Cimarron alone was the scene of a lynching, a barroom gunfight in the St. James Hotel involving legendary gunman Clay Allison, and a nighttime murder of a prisoner. For a time the troubles in New Mexico were ignored by the federal government. But in 1878 the murder of John Tunstall set off a wave of violence known as the Lincoln County War. Following that, a letter came to light that appeared to show that the governor of the territory, Samuel B. Axtell, planned a mass execution of critics of the Santa Fe Ring, who he considered to be agitators in the Colfax County troubles.
Finally, officials in Washington took notice and sent Frank W. Angel with orders to investigate the violence, murders, and corruption that plagued the territory. Following his investigation, Angel concluded, “It is seldom that history states more corruption, fraud, mismanagement, plots and murders, than New Mexico, has been the theatre under the administration of Governor Axtell.” The actions taken as a result of Angel’s investigation wouldn’t end the violence in New Mexico, but they did lead to the end of the Colfax County War.
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Published by University of North Texas Press