Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell

Old West Emperor

“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 expon- ent 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.”
After Lucien B. Maxwell sold the Land Grant, its ownership generated a great deal of controversy. There had been Indian claims on the land, supported by priests working with the tribes, at the time that Beaubien and Miranda first filed for the Land Grant. And in his years of controlling the land, Maxwell had not been overly precise in handling paperwork regarding titles. He was known to give land in exchange for services or to pay debts, making the deals on a handshake rather than with written documents. The legal mess resulted in court battles for the new owners of the Land Grant, but the Maxwell Land Grant Company ultimately emerged with a clear title, confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1887.
Within 10 years after it was chartered, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company collapsed; however, the Maxwell name continued to be attached to the land through various business arrangements for more than another century. In 1880, the Maxwell Land Grant Company was organized under the laws of Holland, with its headquarters in Amsterdam and offices in New Mexico and Colorado, with involvement in mining, timber, coal, farming, irrigation projects, plaster and cement manufacturing. By 1960, the company had sold off most of its land and left New Mexico, but the Maxwell Land Grant Company continued to exist in the Netherlands under the name of De Maxwell Petroleum Holding N.V., Amsterdam.
The name of Lucien B. Maxwell is etched into old West history alongside such other legendary figures he knew as friends, men such as Chisum, Fremont, and Kit Carson. There are still Maxwell landmarks scattered throughout the vast area he once controlled, and no other person has ever surpassed his record for individual land holdings in the United States of America.Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, 1818-1875

If you travel through the scenic mountains of northeast New Mexico and southwest Colorado, you may notice landmarks bearing the Maxwell name. They are remnants of the time when a Max- well held the largest amount of land ever owned by a single individual in the United States. He was Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, and his story reads like an Old West adventure — because it was.


The story began in 1841, when two Mexican citizens who lived in the mountain settlement of 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. The two men, Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda, said they wanted to raise sugar beets and "establish manufactories of cotton and wool, and raise stock of every description." Their request was approved within three days, and then they formally filed for title to the land. Although they did little to improve the land in the next two years, Governor Manual Armijo formally granted them the lands in 1843.


Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell ultimately attained ownership of the land, having married into Charles Beaubien’s family. Born in 1818, Maxwell was the son of a well-to-do merchant in Kaskaskia, Illinois, who traveled west to learn the fur trade after his father died in 1834. He crossed paths with the legendary Kit Carson when they worked together on the Arkansas River in the mid-1830s, and the two men became lifelong friends. Carson taught him about the ways of the wild West and, in particular, introduced him to the mountains of what is now New Mexico. In 1842, Maxwell and Carson both signed on for John C. Fremont's first western expedition, with Maxwell serving as chief hunter for the expedition. Fremont's account of that expedition made Kit Carson a household name and gave Maxwell experience which served him well as he later built his personal empire. Both men remained with John C. Fremont for expeditions to Oregon and California over the next four years, but Maxwell returned to Taos in 1844 long enough to marry Charles Beaubien's daughter, Luz.


In late January 1847, while visiting Bent's Fort, Maxwell got word of a massacre in Taos. Mexicans and Pueblo Indians had rebelled against American authority there, killing Governor Charles Bent and many others. Maxwell returned home to find that his wife had survived the ordeal but that her brother had been among the many who had been killed.


That was the catalyst for Maxwell becoming involved in the Land Grant. One of the founders, Guadalupe Miranda, was wounded in the fighting and fled to old Mexico. The other founder, Charles Beaubien, lost his only son in the uprising — the son who had been slated to take over the vast land holdings. So Charles Beaubien turned to his son-in-law for help, and Lucien Maxwell began helping to manage the Land Grant. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the Mexican War and also ended controversy over the land’s ownership, Maxwell moved to the banks of the Rayado River and, with the assistance of his old friend Kit Carson, set to work on developing the huge Land Grant’s potential. It was also about that time that Luz gave birth to their first child, Peter.


Interest in settling the Cimarron area had begun as early as 1844 when Beaubien and Miranda had built a cabin on the Ponil River, and it was while taking supplies there that Maxwell was ambushed and wounded in 1848. He was seriously injured and had to spend the rest of the year recuperating in Taos while continuing to work for his father-in-law. In April of 1849, Maxwell had recovered enough to launch out on another venture. He convinced Kit Carson to again join him at Rayado, where he proposed to build a fort for soldiers to safeguard travelers along the Santa Fe Trail.


To Lucien, Rayado was the perfect site to build a home. There was plenty of water for irrigation, a climate among the best in New Mexico, relatively free from Indians, with impressive views, and along the Santa Fe Trail for a steady supply of goods and visitors. Maxwell built a large house and several smaller out-buildings, with Kit Carson adding a much smaller adobe hut to the complex. By July, there were more than 40 inhabitants at Rayado.


By the following Spring, military officials agreed to create a Post at Rayado, and military quarters were constructed. Maxwell contracted to provide food, lodging and supplies to the troops. In just a year, however, the army decided the area would be better served by a small post ten miles north in Cimarron and a larger fort 30 miles south on the Mora River, so the Rayado troops moved south to build Fort Union.


Most of the money he had earned in the preceding years had gone to his father-in-law, so Maxwell decided to strike out on his own. Cimarron was prospering, and with a larger river than the Rayado, a fertile river valley, and surrounding mesas which afforded better protection from Indian attacks, it was an attractive location. So Maxwell sold his interest in Rayado and looked toward Cimarron.


About that time, Guadalupe Miranda sent word that he would not return from Mexico, and he offered his share of the Land Grant to Charles Beaubien. When Beaubien said he was not interested, Maxwell seized the opportunity and bought Miranda's share in 1858 for $2,745. He also set about buying some of the remaining shares of the Land Grant from his relatives. By the end of 1858, he felt secure enough to move his family to Cimarron, where he built a large ranch and was appointed both Postmaster and Indian Agent.


More of the Land Grant went to Maxwell when Charles Beaubien died in 1864, and Maxwell then spent two years purchasing additional deeds to the parts of the Grant he had not inherited. In 20 years, he had gone from being a frontier hunter to being the largest individual land owner in the history of the United States — owning 1,714,765 acres.


With the Civil War over, ex-soldiers began drifting west, and a toll road over Raton Pass made the high mountains easy enough to cross that the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail became the preferred route. But something even more dramatic began attracting people to those mountains — gold. With the discovery of the precious ore, a Gold Rush was on, and whole new communities like Baldy Town, Elizabethtown and Virginia City sprouted like mushrooms. Thousands of prospectors and merchants flowed into the area, and Maxwell became rich by leasing out land to the miners and selling them the supplies necessary for their prospecting exploits. He also became Probate Judge when Colfax County was established in 1869.


The mighty land baron was known to some as a tyrannical boss who ruled a whole region, but he was also known to be fair and, to some, even generous. Biographer Lawrence Murphy wrote that Maxwell expected his peons to obey his every word without question, but a 1999 biography by Harriet Freiberger dubbed him an honest trader whose "handshake connected three cultures" and an admirable risk taker who "sought greater rewards than chunks of gold."


However he is remembered, there can be no doubt but that Lucien Maxwell was incredibly powerful and wielded enormous financial clout. By the age of 50, he had succeeded in settling the Grant, cultivating land, building towns, subduing and moving Indians, and even presiding over a gold rush. But he did not want to carry the burdens of running such an empire for the rest of his life, so Maxwell had the land surveyed and began looking for a buyer.


In 1870, Maxwell sold almost all of his land for $1,350,000 to a British company which bought the property through a “front’ group of prominent New Mexicans. They incorporated the holdings as the Max- well Land Grant and Railway Company, so the Maxwell name remained connected to the land even after it left Maxwell hands.


Maxwell, by then a very wealthy man, bought and moved into the buildings of the former military post at Fort Sumner. Aside from organizing the First National Bank of Santa Fe, his later business ventures did not fare well. He soon slipped into semi-retirement and turned over most of his business affairs to his son, Peter. He died at the age of 56 on July 25, 1875, and his body was buried in the cemetery at Fort Sumner.


An editorial in the Las Vegas, NM, Gazette presented a fitting summary of Maxwell’s life, saying: “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.”


After Lucien B. Maxwell sold the Land Grant, its ownership generated a great deal of controversy. There had been Indian claims on the land, supported by priests working with the tribes, at the time that Beaubien and Miranda first filed for the Land Grant. And in his years of controlling the land, Maxwell had not been overly precise in handling paperwork regarding titles. He was known to give land in exchange for services or to pay debts, making the deals on a handshake rather than with written documents. The legal mess resulted in court battles for the new owners of the Land Grant, but the Maxwell Land Grant Company ultimately emerged with a clear title, confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1887.


Within 10 years after it was chartered, the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company collapsed; however, the Maxwell name continued to be attached to the land through various business arrangements for more than another century. In 1880, the Maxwell Land Grant Company was organized under the laws of Holland, with its headquarters in Amsterdam and offices in New Mexico and Colorado, with involvement in mining, timber, coal, farming, irrigation projects, plaster and cement manufacturing. By 1960, the company had sold off most of its land and left New Mexico, but the Maxwell Land Grant Company continued to exist in the Netherlands under the name of De Maxwell Petroleum Holding N.V., Amsterdam.


The name of Lucien B. Maxwell is etched into old West history alongside such other legendary figures he knew as friends, men such as Chisum, Fremont, and Kit Carson. There are still Maxwell landmarks scattered throughout the vast area he once controlled, and no other person has ever surpassed his record for individual land holdings in the United States of America.