Jason Strykowski Returning from war, veterans searched the United States for opportunities. Some chose to go home, while others hoped to find profit in places they had never before considered.
Famously, some Civil War survivors packed what little they had and headed to the South. Even more intrepid profiteers looked west to make their fortunes. In Santa Fe, a number of these Western "carpetbaggers" discovered power and a nickname for their affiliation. The Santa Fe Ring came to dominate New Mexico politics for several decades after the Civil War.
The men loosely tied to this ring were paragons of what Mark Twain coined the "Gilded Age." Members of the Santa Fe Ring had power, money, few scruples and ample opportunity for growth. The Ring encircled lawyers, retailers, military officers, ranchers and politicians. And, if these men of such varied skills had a common interest, it was land speculation and subsequent revenue.
The land-grant legacy in New Mexico made the region attractive for the men who would create the Ring. The muddled heritage of these Spanish leftovers translated into thousands of acres of grazing and mining land. New Mexico held unadulterated opportunity.
One of the first to recognize the profitability in land grants, Stephen B. Elkins moved to Mesilla in 1864 to pursue a career as a lawyer. At the time, Elkins possessed only a college degree and an undistinguished record as a Union soldier. But, through a disarming personality and strict resolve, Elkins became a leader in Mesilla.
Elkins found success as a lawyer and, boosted by a quick tongue in English and Spanish, he soon found his way to the office of the territorial attorney general. His influence growing, Elkins decided to share the secret of his success with an old friend.
Like Elkins, Thomas Benton Catron lived through the war only to struggle through peace time. Elkins' invitation to New Mexico probably came as a minor revelation to Catron, and it didn't take long for Catron to join Elkins on the short list of prominent New Mexicans. The two federally appointed attorneys would need all their influence.
Seated as president of the Maxwell Land Co., Elkins hoped to use his position and connections to increase acreage of the Maxwell Land Grant more than tenfold and therefore boost the company's holdings. Perhaps the most famous of the Spanish land transfers, the Maxwell Land Grant encompassed a parcel that would ultimately cover ground from Southern New Mexico into southern Colorado. At first, though, the grant held less territory, and to get the surveyor to recognize that extra land, Elkins had to cash in on sympathetic links to the Ring. These connections ran throughout Santa Fe and to the Republican Party in Washington.
The Maxwell case opened the gates for investors to stampede into New Mexico. As they rushed in, these investors sought the counsel of Elkins and Catron, whose history of profiteering demanded respect. Elkins and Catron became fixtures in many land exchanges and purchases.
With control of land and government, the Santa Fe Ring became the undisputed power of the territory until some in Colfax County and others in Lincoln County chose to voice their objections with pistols. Fighting erupted in Colfax and, quite famously, later engulfed Lincoln. In both cases, disputes revolved around the Ring's unwillingness to share both resources and controls. And, in both fights, the Ring emerged victorious.
Until 1885, the Ring stayed in control. Only a reformer in territorial Gov. Edmund G. Ross and factionalism in the local Republican Party could finally bring an end to the Ring's reign.
Jason Strykowski is a doctoral candidate at The University of New Mexico.