Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Maxwell Land Grant, located on New Mexico's northeastern border with Colorado, possesses one of the most interesting legal histories of any piece of land in the United States. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, a Dutch bond-holding company doing business in the United States, used violent, political, and legal means to extinguish the property rights of hundreds of the grant's residents–Native Americans, former Mexican citizens, and American homesteaders.

Conflicting claims to the land originated in the grant's conveyance in 1841 from the Mexican government to two Mexican citizens, Carlos Beaubien, a prominent Taos merchant, and Guadalupe Miranda, the collector of customs for New Mexico. That conveyance did not specify the exact location of the grant's boundaries or its exact acreage. After the Mexican American War (1846–48), the departure of Miranda, and the death of Beaubien in 1864, Lucien and Luz Maxwell, Beaubien's son-in-law and daughter, took control of the land. Maxwell managed the grant by settling people, raising livestock, planting crops, and engaging in the developing trade with the United States. As sole owners of the land grant, the Maxwells became prominent citizens in the eastern Plains of New Mexico and were famous among Santa Fe Trail traders for their lavish home and lifestyle.

When gold was discovered in 1867 and prospectors swarmed onto their property, the Maxwells became aware of the land's worth and their inability to control its boundaries. Not knowing the extent of their property holdings, they, with the help of Jerome Chalke, who was attempting to broker a lucrative sale, conducted the most accurate survey to date, determining that the grant was 1.7 million acres. In 1869 the Maxwells sold the land to English investors for $1.35 million, or less than $1 per acre. The buyers, well aware of the ill-defined extent of the grant's title, sought to have Congress confirm the grant at 1.7 million acres, thus giving the investors a clear title to the property. Though Congress confirmed the validity of the land title, it did not specify how many acres the grant contained. In 1871, however, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano ruled that the grant contained only 97,000 acres, because under the Mexican Colonization Law of 1824 a grant to two individuals had specific acreage limits. Secretary Delano then instructed the Maxwell Land Grant Company to choose 97,000 acres, and he declared the remainder public domain and open to settlement. Faced with this unfavorable legal decision and financial ruin, the company's directors turned to its powerful allies in the Santa Fe Ring (an influential group of politicians and business leaders) to help them preserve their investment. For the next ten years, the Maxwell Land Grant Company waged a political and legal battle to maintain its claim to 1.7 million acres, while at the same time homesteaders were settling across the land grant on what they believed to be public domain.

The legal troubles continued during the 1880s, when the state of Colorado sued the Maxwell Company, arguing that its property claims infringed on the Colorado public domain. The lawsuit, United States v. Maxwell, made its way through the court system, eventually landing in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1887 the Court decided that the boundaries of the land grant were not restricted to a mere 97,000 acres but extended to enclose 1.7 million acres. The effect was that hundreds of settlers, many with final homestead rights, were evicted from their homes. The conflict between the Maxwell Land Grant Company and the settlers came to a violent standoff in the Stonewall Valley War of 1888, in which two men died, many were injured, and the company sustained substantial property damage.

Despite these last violent skirmishes, the Maxwell Company maintained control over the vast estate well into the twentieth century until they sold portions to the Rockefeller-owned Colorado, Fuel, and Iron Company, the Phelps-Dodge Corporation, and other private interests. Today, the largest intact parcels of the land grant are in the Kit Carson National Forest and the adjacent Boy Scouts of America Philmont Scout Ranch.

María E. Montoya University of Michigan

Maxwell Land Grant Papers, Archive 147, Center for Southwest Research, Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico.

Montoya, María E. Translating Property: The Maxwell Land Grant and the Conflict Over Land in the American West, 1840–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Pearson, Jim B. The Maxwell Land Grant. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

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