East of the famous Enchanted Circle in northern New Mexico lies an area which for over a decade was probably the most lawless piece of country in the entire history of the state: Colfax County. Here’s how it started.
On September 14, 1875 a Methodist circuit-riding parson left Elizabethtown for Cimarron. The road took him through beautiful Cimarron Canyon with its palisades, fresh water, and tall timbers. Near the mouth of Clear Creek someone shot him in the back twice and left him in the bushes — dead. The Reverend had been a vocal advocate for “squatters” against the new British owners of the Maxwell Land Grant. Many locals thought they knew who did it. Reverend Tolby’s death would not go unavenged.
The assassination of Reverend Franklin J. Tolby marked the beginning of a shooting and raiding debacle that came to be known as the Colfax County War. It is said that over the course of its reign of lawlessness (1875–1888), it accounted for 200 deaths in this northeast corner of New Mexico. At the heart of it was the attempt to dislodge families living on the old land grant who maintained they had the permission of Lucien Maxwell himself to live there. There were no legal documents to prove it and the British owners wanted them evicted… forcibly evicted if necessary. The town of Cimarron became the center of this conflict, much of it happening in the bar of Lambert’s Inn, known today as the St. James Hotel. Twenty-four people are said to have died just in that bar. Clay Allison, a friend of the Reverend, shot at least three of them himself.
Reverend Franklin Tolby is buried in a hilltop cemetery west of town. It is a lonely place: windy, tall grasses, old stone markers, and fenced off graves. A large black granite headstone reads, “Rev. F.J. Tolby Assassinated Sept. 14, 1865 Age 33 Years.” It was put there in 1913 by the Cimarron Masonic Lodge. The original headstone is in the lobby of the St. James Hotel.
But the beautiful Cimarron Canyon State Park beckons visitors with a final remembrance of the parson who was the first to fall in this war over land. Tolby Campground, with its shaded, restful sites at a cool 7,800 feet, offers a peaceful contrast to the violence of almost 150 years ago.
Jon Knudsen is a freelance writer and retired educator. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.