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History of Colfax County

Colfax County has a diverse and multi-cultural history that reaches back at least 10,000 years with evidence of prehistoric settlement sites, through the Spanish conquest and later included the first incorporated town in New Mexico.

Folsom Man

folsom_man200x253The first pioneer to visit Colfax County was "Folsom Man". This discovery opened a unique view of North America's past, confirming that Colfax's first residents were among the first in the New World, occupying this area at least 10,000 years ago.

Located in eastern Colfax County, the Folsom Man Archeological Site is eight miles west of Folsom, off Hwy 72 across Johnson Mesa at Dead Horse Gulch. Anthropologists claim "Folsom Man" traveled from Asia to Alaska to America during the last Ice Age.

Following the era of "Folsom Man" a prolonged drought made occupation in those areas impossible for several thousand years.


AnazaziOne of the earliest native groups to cross the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were the "Anasazi" or Ancient Ones. These ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians first lived in primitive caves and slowly began to erect larger adobe and stone structures. Hunting and gathering was gradually replaced with irrigated fields that produced corn, beans, and squash. They produced well-crafted pottery, woven cloth material and created elaborate ceremonial rituals held in underground Kivas. Archaeological evidence marks the probable arrival as early as 1000 AD.

At the time the Anasazi were moving southward along the Rio Grande and east across the Sangre de Cristos, the Early Plains Indians were coming into Colfax County from the Great Plains.The Early Plains Indians were hunters and lacking horses had a more primitive culture than later Plains Indians.

Between 1100 and 1400 AD there lived groups of Pueblo-Plains Indians that occupied Colfax County along valleys going into the Park Plateau. Many studies have been conducted in the Ponil Creek watershed of Chase and Philmont ranches giving rise to the name of the "Ponil People". Their origins are unknown as is the reason for their disappearance. The Ponil People made their living from farming as well as hunting.

Spanish Influence in the Region

coronadoIn 1540 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition into New Mexico marking the starting point of its written history. Conquistadors visited the Cimarron area in search of the lost "City of Gold" but instead found Jicarilla Apaches and Moache Utes roaming the surrounding hills. Spanish civilization began to spread slowly along the Rio Grande.

By 1598 Juan de Onate secured the submission of all the pueblo communities. By the 18th century settlements were constantly besieged by Native American elements making immigration into the Colfax area dangerous. There were no garrisons north of Santa Fe. The Jicarilla Apaches arrived in the Colfax area around the early 1700's. They were part of the Athapascans, who came from central Canada. Their culture combined aspects of hunting and agriculture.

Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, the Moache Utes were already settled in Colfax County. Unlike the Jicarillas, the Utes preferred mountain living. Eventually both groups intermarried and conducted cultural exchanges. Evidence of Ute presence can be found at Ute Park at the entrance of Cimarron Canyon.

Plains Indians

Plains IndiansFar different than the Apaches and Utes who resided in the western part of the County were the Plains Indians, which included the Comanches and Kiowas. They were far less peaceful than the Apaches and Utes. By the 1600's the Plains Indians obtained horses from the Spanish and developed their hunting prowess. Warfare and raiding parties became central features within their societies.

The Plains Indians made frequent raids on the Apaches and Utes, driving them high into the Sangre de Cristos. From the 1700's until the 1870's European attempts to expel them from the area were extremely unsuccessful.

By the early 1700's the first Europeans entered Colfax County. The Spanish made concerted efforts to settle the area fearing French encroachment. The Spanish, reaching Rayado, first encountered the Jicarilla's at their settlement called La Jicarilla. Few non-Mexicans ventured into the area except a handful of French trappers.

Mexican Independence

santa fe trail mapIturbide declared Mexican Independence on February 24, 1821, ending the Spanish commercial monopoly. William Becknell, the "father of the Santa Fe trail and founder of Santa Fe trade", became aware of the Mexicans desire for trade in 1821. He advertised in Missouri papers for men to travel west for the purpose of trading horses and hunting wild animals. Many responded to these advertisements and came west for handsome profits and soon a blossoming trade between the U.S. and Mexico developed. Paralleling the onslaught of Missouri merchants moving westward along the Santa Fe Trail was an even greater movement of easterners exploring the southern Rockies and Sangre de Cristos in search of beaver pelts.

Early Mountain Men

Mountain Man RendezvousThe opening of the southwest can be attributed to these early mountain men. Many of their trails later became roads. Mountain men led many of the early expeditions into the southwest. Fur trapping was typically an individual pursuit rendering the founding of settlements unlikely. Colfax County was one of the sites for trapping beaver. Early trappers playing a significant role in the development of the area.

Charles Beaubien was a prosperous storekeeper actively engaged in the fur trade with a need to increase his commercial activities. He decided to buy property on the eastern slope of the Sangre de Cristos near the Santa Fe Trail and entered into a partnership with Don Guadalupe Miranda. Together they petitioned Governor Manuel Armijo on January 8, 1841 for a tract of land nearly two million acres in size. On January 11th, 1841 the grant was approved.

The Maxwell Land Grant

Lucian MaxwellLucien Bonaparte Maxwell ultimately attained ownership of the land grant, having married Charles Beaubien's daughter, Luz. In 1858, he felt secure enough to move his family to Cimarron, where he built a large ranch and was appointed Postmaster. More of the Land Grant went to Maxwell when Charles Beaubien died in 1864. In 20 years, he had gone from being a frontier hunter to being the largest individual landowner in the history of the United States - owning 1,714,765 acres.

In 1870, Maxwell sold almost all of his land for $1,350,000 to a British company, soon to become bankrupt, which sold in 1880 to the Dutch Maxwell Land Grant Company still in operation that bought the property through a group of prominent New Mexicans. They incorporated the holdings as the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, so the Maxwell name remained connected to the land even after it left Maxwell's hands.

In June 1861 government officials decided to move 1500 Indians away from Taos to the more remote area near Cimarron. The establishment of the U.S. Indian Agency at Cimarron in 1861 was significant in the long-range development of Colfax County.

In 1862, Maxwell leased 1,280 acres on the Ponil to the new Apache and Ute Cimarron Indian Agency, to be administered by Indian Agents including Amy, Keithly, Dennison, Keyes and Carson. This Agency allowed the local Indians to be fed by the government, lessening the threat of raiding the nearby ranches. In addition, providing food for the Indians generated large Federal revenues. This was the first time settlers had a financial incentive to grow beef, sheep, corn and wheat.

The Birth of Colfax County

Colfax County MapThe growth of the gold district was evidenced by the increasing demands for the creation of a separate governmental district. After two years of debating, the New Mexico territorial legislature gave in to the demands of gold camp's leading figures by establishing a new county on January 25, 1869, naming it after Republican Vice President elect Schuyler Colfax, who was traveling the west at the time. Elizabethtown was designated by legislation to be the first incorporated town in New Mexico and the Colfax County seat.

Colfax County was the 12th New Mexico County to be created. It was formed out of a section of Taos County. At the time the new county included most of the Maxwell Land Grant and stretched to the Texas and Oklahoma state lines. In 1893, part of Colfax County became part of Union County to the east.

Colfax County Courthouse History

County CourthouseThe original or "Old Colfax County Courthouse" finds its beginnings in the turbulent days of the Maxwell Land Grant, when the Utes and Apaches roamed the territory, and trappers, prospectors, buffalo hunters, cattlemen, and outlaws sought their fortunes all across the land.

The Courthouse was ideally located six miles west of the Santa Fe Trail Rock Crossing of the Canadian River, midway between the Point of Rocks and Wagon Mound which are still two well known landmarks today.

It was built in 1882 in what was Maxwell at the time. That town today has since been renamed to Springer, to honor Frank Springer.

The Old Colfax County Courthouse still stands today in Springer, New Mexico. It has been beautifully restored and converted into the Santa Fe Trail Museum. The Museum commemorates the thousands of men and women who bravely pioneered across the unknown plains of the western United States.

Courthouse Today

Colfax County TodayThe present day Colfax County Courthouse was built in 1936 in Raton, New Mexico where resides the seat of the county. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is listed as an historic building on the New Mexico Santa Fe National Scenic Byway.

The five-story blond brick building, typical of the 1936 Art Deco style architecture is one of the more elaborately decorated courthouses on the east side of New Mexico.

Similar New Deal architecture can also be found in West Texas. This historic building is decorated with glazed tile cornices, bas-reliefs depicting local farming, mining & cattle ranching, art deco light fixtures and local cattle brands are bronzed over exterior doors. Terrazzo floors, tile wainscoting, chipped-tile roof on the top story roof and flat roofs on lower areas make this building unique for this region.