New Mexico October 09, 2017
This County In New Mexico Was One Of The Most Dangerous Places In The Nation In The 1870s
Back in the late 1870s, Colfax County was a dangerous place. It was home to bawdy mining camps, range wars, tribal conflicts, and deadly gunplay. Below, take a peek at what was going on in Colfax County in the 1870s.
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Cimarron, especially, would have made it on the "most dangerous towns" list.
An 1870s issue of the Las Vegas (NM) Gazette once reported, "Everything is quiet at Cimarron. Nobody has been killed in three days."
In Spanish, Cimarron means "wild and unruly."
Beyond the meaning, the origin of the town's name is up for debate. Some say the name referred to the local bighorn sheep. Others say the name came from the "wild" river nearby that frequently flooded the area.
Whatever the origin, this stop on the Santa Fe Trail (now a flourishing town) became the County Seat of Colfax County in 1872. Already known for its wild reputation, the 1870s were some of the rowdiest ever for the town.
Gunslinger Robert "Clay" Allison is known as the man who never killed anyone who didn't need killing.
Allison is one of the infamous names associated with Colfax County. Among his bad deeds, Allison shot a rival gunman (Chunk Colbert) after they had lunch together at the Clifton House. According to legend, when asked why he had lunch with the man in the first place, Allison replied, "Because I didn't want to send a man to hell on an empty stomach."
Chunk Colbert was another Colfax County baddie.
Originally from Texas, Colbert was a gunfighter, rumored to have killed seven men. However, his only confirmed kill was a Cimarron man who Colbert suspected was sleeping with his wife. Colbert was killed by Allison in 1875.
Francisco "Pancho" Griego made the mistake of tangling with Clay Allison too.
Griego was a bad dude with a bad temper. He once killed three cavalrymen over a card game. Later, when his buddy, Cruz Vega (suspected of killing a local priest and sparking the Colfax County War), was lynched by a mob headed by Clay Allison, he decided to get revenge by killing Allison. Griego, however, ended up being killed by Allison.
(Shown: Old County Courthouse)
Violence escalated with the Colfax County War
The area around and including Colfax County was part of a large land grant administered by Lucien Maxwell. Due to trouble administering the grant, Maxwell sold the land. As a result, local residents and native people were forced to give up their holdings or be evicted. When the spokesperson for the local "squatters," Reverend F. J. Tolby, was murdered, the Colfax County War began. (Shown: Lucien B. Maxwell House).
Tribal skirmishes were dangerous too.
Land near Cimarron was reserved for local Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. Like other local residents, the Native Americans received supplies at the Aztec Grist Mill, in Cimarron. Since gold had been discovered and the land had been sold, tensions with the natives had been brewing. In 1875 shots were fired in a skirmish between the Indian Agents and a band of native peoples. Several individuals, including a government agent, were wounded. One man was arrested but was killed in a fight at the jail. The Native Americans were relocated in 1876.
The Cimarron jail, built in 1872, was in use until the 1960s.
The jail was surrounded by a 10-foot-high wall that was four-feet thick. Continuing the rowdy reputation of the area, the wall was dynamited in the 1900s during a jailbreak. The jail was renovated in 1998. If you visit, you may still be able to see parts of the wall.
Today you can take a historic walking tour through Old Town Cimarron. The tour includes 14 historic sites that date back to the mid-1800s, like the old jail, stage office, and the St. James Hotel. Be sure to visit the Old Mill Museum too.
Special thanks to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum and the Cimarron Chamber of Commerce for their help with images and permissions.