Melvin Whitson Mills Colfax County, New Mexico

The subject of this biographical sketch, Melvin Whitson Mills, could be said to be one of the pioneer American citizens, though there were another still older lot that came to New Mexico between 1840 and 1850. The landing of M. W. Mills was not until 1868, at a time when quite a number of Americans began to immigrate to the then quite remote Territory. The father of Mr. Mills, Daniel W. Mills, was already residing in New Mexico; the mother, Hannah Mills, accompanying her son and only child to join her husband. These parents were of New England stock and of Quaker faith. The father, D. W. Mills, set out after his failure during the financial crisis of 1856, to regain his fortune in the West. He served as a soldier in the Colorado Home Guards during the Civil war. The boy, M. W. Mills, received only an academic education, attending school at Adrian and Ann Arbor. Michigan, then graduating from the Law department of Michigan University in 1868.

The place of his landing in New Mexico was at Elizabethtown, a mining town that had started up for the most part that same year, upon the wild report that gold abounded in fabulous quantities from the grass roots down to bed rock. Such gold glittering reports going out over the country did not take long to gather together not only the adventuresome gold hunters, but as well the gambler and saloon keeper, the fugitive from justice, the dance hall speculator, and all sorts of people from all over the country, until a motley crowd as had ever cast their fortunes together, was on the ground mingling and commingling together, the subject of this sketch, a young lawyer among them. The place was high up in a mountain valley, with great mountains viewing each other with their snowcapped peaks from all sides of the valley. There were only two outlets from this valley; one to the west of the valley leading through the Fernandez Canyon to the very old settlement of Taos, and the other to the east, passing through the Cimarron Canyon out to the east connecting with the old road known as the Santa Fe trail.

The valley was called at one end the Moreno valley, at the other the Cieneguella valley; this valley being a remote place in the mountains, and not settled until gold was discovered. The whole Territory was remote, and this valley considerably more so; hence the law and its enforcement a precarious happening. The predominating law at the place, for the few years it lasted in its better days, seemed rather more a sort of six shooter law than anything else, though there were several lawyers old and young, such as they were, pretending to be practicing law, but actually living by mining, gambling, or some other way. There were several halls of a hundred or two feet deep, generally having a liquor bar in front for the saloon part, then came the gambling tables with the dance hall, so that liquor bars, gambling tables, and dance halls all run together. These halls usually ran all clay, or at least all night. The male dancer compensated for his privilege of dancing by going up to the bar after each dance, where he and partner partook of the luxuries kept there for the occasion. Such frequent visits to this flowing table soon induced a lot of conviviality, stirring quite promiscuously, until a commotion or stampede resulted, when the crowds would tumble over one another in the dark, amid the screams of the more refined sex, until all should be quiet again, except for the groans of the wounded who lay dying after the commotion; and little was said next morning except that the shooter "got his man" last night.

It was at this valley that the notorious character, Charles Kennedy lived, who "had got" his fourteen victims. Charles Kennedy lived at the head of the Fernandez Canyon, where he kept a few log rooms where travelers sometimes stopped overnight, some of whom turned up missing. Finally suspicion was aroused and the people sent a delegation to investigate. This investigation unearthed a few bags of human bones. These prospectors returned with Kennedy, who sought young Mills as his counsel. A mob jury was summoned to try Kennedy. The bag of human bones found buried in his yard and under his floor seemed quite convincing. Still young Mills got two jurors to desert the rest of the mob jury and hang up a verdict; but it was for a little while only, as Kennedy was found hanging to a pine limb a few mornings later; his body was cut down and turned over to Dr. Bradford, who wired his skeleton together and sent it to the Smithsonian Institute, where, with its most peculiar skull, it can be seen. Also in this valley lived that notorious character, Wall W. Henderson, who had on his pistol eight notches filed for victims wounded, and on the other side seven notches to represent the victims he had sent to their happy hunting grounds, regarding all of whom he boasted of having sent the ball straight to their eyes. One of his victims fell at the feet of young Mills one evening while he was addressing the bystanders, and a little later he had the honor to look down the same gun, under the command that he should go to the Justice of the Peace and make a speech that should legally discharge the prisoner for the same and other killings. A little later Wall fell a victim and his gun sent to the Smithsonian Institute where it is now. It was there also that Tom Taylor was first brought after killing his victim, and lodged in a little log jail. He also employed young Mills as his legal defender, who little later on concluded to part company with the log jail and his lawyer also. Tom Taylor then took into his confidence a young man called "Coal-oil Jimmie" and the two took to the mountains, hiding in the canyons, going now and then out to trails and public roads, and robbing everybody they met, thus spreading terror over the whole country They were afterward joined by Joe McCurdy and John Stewart, who called young Mills into their confidence at a midnight meeting to advise with him about some money that had been taken from a coach of one of their friends. At this meeting Joe McCurdy and John Stewart also came to discuss about assisting the two robbers, and it was there determined that they would join them in robbing the people over the country. In a week or so after this meeting McCurdy and Stewart returned to the town of Cimarron with the dead bodies of Tom Taylor and Jimmie on a farm wagon, sending at once for attorney M. W. Mills, and proposing to retain him to collect the $3,000 reward offered for the two dead robbers.

The lawless desperado element kept on increasing until respectable families were threatened with all sorts of violence and all kinds of crime seemed to be on the rampage. Then a lot of the more respectable people organized themselves for protection, afterward called "Vigilantes." This band of resolute and determined men would meet in a dark room, sending up the wilder men, who most always had hung to their belts this six shooter law, and very often declared the law unto themselves, playing at such amusements as shooting out the lights in the halls; then shooting for young Mills to come to their place of meeting and pass a cigar box containing black and white gamblers' chips around, and by this means decide the fate of some desperado and also decide who should put him away; and in the next day or so, the fate of the condemned was known to everybody. It was not long after a few of the bad men had met this kind of fate that this class of men who boasted of having "got their man" began to disappear.

Then came the winter of 1872 with a light snow fall in the mountains so that there was a scarcity of water for mining, and it became known that gold did not abound in such quantities from the grass roots down as was first reported. This town began to decline, and the town of Cimarron started up thirty miles away out on the prairie at the foot of the mountains. It became apparent that the county seat would have to be moved toward the new settlements, and M. W. Mills was chosen to go to Santa Fe and present the subject to the legislature then in session, which was done and the county seat moved to Cimarron. It is said that the new neighboring city never equaled in extreme wickedness the town of Elizabethtown, though there were eleven human creatures shot down in one bar room within a few months. There were other conditions surrounding Cimarron, the previous home of Lucien B. Maxwell. There were two tribes of Indians who would get whisky in spite of all precautions, and with their wild demonstrations would frighten and terrorize the people, more particularly the families. On one of these occasions the people arrested and put in jail two of these wild Indian bucks one evening, the jailer being a young fellow called Bob Grisby. In the morning several hundred Indians of that tribe came into town and demanded that these bucks should be given up. A little previous to this time Grisby had sent a messenger to call M. W. Mills to come to the jail, who went thither and saw both Indian "bucks cold in the grasp of death itself. The jailer claimed that the Indians assaulted him with a butcher knife while giving them something to eat. It was not long before the whole tribe became fully advised of the situation and they began to get ready for war, threatening to annihilate the town, which they could have done before the arrival of soldiers from the nearest fort. A few of the citizens with most influence with the Indians were selected to treat with the Indians, Mr. Mills being one of them, and after paying a few hundred dollars as a ransom, peace was restored. No one could describe the relief of joy that went through that little town when those Indians got on their ponies and went to their camp.

The town of Cimarron, lying on one side of the cattle range of country was frequented by the festive cowboy, who would visit the place, take on board all the bad whisky he could buy, and then amuse himself by dancing on the billiard tables, poking his six shooter down through the glass show cases in the stores to get what his eye fancied, then riding up and down the streets as if to imitate the wild drunken Indian by whooping and yelling and shooting sometimes into the doors and windows of the houses. The people, becoming a little tired of these antics, nominated Jack Turner for sheriff, and elected him upon the theory that he would arrest these cowboys when they came to town and got on these furious rampages. Soon after Jack got elected a little party of these cowboy braves came to town and took on the usual cargo of bad whisky. The sheriff summoned a lot of citizens and armed them ready for battle. Without much warning, the posse opened fire and the boys fled to their horses, mounted and were off, shooting back as they went; but the bullets of the posse flew after them and all but one fell from their horses, one of them (Wallace) surviving in a most miraculous form, as he was shot many times. He is still living, a most distorted looking creature. The escaping comrade, riding a white horse, after getting a half mile out of town on a high hill, waved to come back to help his party in distress, and some of the posse, to demonstrate their marksmanship, shot the poor fellow in a merciless way. The settlers out along ' the creek who were mostly stock raisers, were sympathizers with these cowboys, taking sides with them. Reports and warnings began to come into town thick and fast from these settlements that the town would be fired from all sides and burned up in the night time. About the only man in the place who had not supported Turner, who had not given countenance to this manner of arrest, and who had any friends and influence with these settlers and stock-raisers out along the creek was M. W. Mills. The town people began to entreat him to intercede for them, and to save the place from ashes. After a treaty, an armistice was effected. A little later two more cowboys, by name Davie Crocket and Gus Hefferon, took the town in somewhat the usual form, visiting it many times, and shooting it up at all hours of the night. A new sheriff had been elected by name of Rinehart, a business partner of Mills; but the people did not seem to want to volunteer to help arrest these and other desperadoes. One day these boys went into the post office, pointing a double barreled shot gun at a man by name of Joe Holbrook, and another at the postmaster, John B. McCullough, inviting these men to look down their shot gun barrels while they played with the gun hammers, and taunting them with all sorts of names, with charges of cowardice, etc. These men, Holbrook and McCullough, with Sheriff Rinehart, met at the office of Mr. Mills, and there offered to aid the sheriff in annihilating these midnight marauders, all of which was then and there agreed to. Accordingly, these men in the darkness called upon Crockett and Hefferon to halt. Instead of halting they began shooting, the sheriff and posse doing likewise, and the two dead outlaws were added to the long list. The sheriff and his two assistants were tried and defended by Mills and another attorney and their acquittal easily secured in another county.

At the fall election of 1875 a bitter campaign was fought that had few equals if any in this western country, many people having lost their lives directly and indirectly over feuds growing out of this election. On the one side for the Legislature, Attorney Mills headed the ticket; the battle for the Mills side prevailed, but a snakey trail followed in the wake. A month or so after this election, a minister, name Rev. Thos. Tolby, who was coming down from Elizabethtown through the Cimarron Canyon on horseback was murdered, dragged off into the bushes, and his horse tied to a tree. A bad man by the name of Harberger, on the defeated election side, got hold of a Mexican named Cardinas and with a pistol pointed at him compelled him to subscribe to an affidavit charging a half dozen men with the crime of murdering Rev. Tolby. This affidavit charged M. W. Mills as being the adviser of the murderers and knowing all about it. At this time Mr. Mills was up in Colorado attending court. A printer preacher by name of McMains took this affidavit, traveled all over the immediate country, through the settlements, and aroused the people so that they gathered at Cimarron to avenge the death of Rev. Tolby. The people turned out with their arms and in mob form, gathering from all sides so that the saloons and hotels looked like arsenals with arms stacked and piled up on billiard tables and other places. Some of the principals so charged in this forced affidavit, the mob arrested, but Dr. Longwell who had been elected on the Mills ticket fled in advance of the mob and reached Santa Fe, a hundred and fifty miles away, a few miles ahead of the mob. The whole country was wrought up into a tension of intense excitement, and M. W. Mills was advised, by floods of telegrams from his friends, not to come home; but disregarding these warnings he fled to the scene of the mob assemblage, going in on the coach one afternoon. No sooner had he landed in the town than the mob took possession of him, proceeding to have a lynching party right away. But an opposition party arose of several hundred men who, with threats of vengeance and demonstrations of war, demanded that Mills should not then suffer death. For a little time it looked as if human blood would run like water in the Cimarron River. But the councils of a few men on both sides prevailed and it was agreed that the justice of the peace and men chosen from the mob should proceed with a trial, and all abide their verdict, and during the time of the trial, twelve men from each side of the two differing mobs, were to be selected to take Mills and hold him. The wires leading out of the town were all cut, until Indian Agent Irwin notified the leaders of the mob that they were fighting Uncle Sam and that he needed the wires about his Indian business. The mob then connected the wires, upon the assurance of Irwin and the operator that no business should go over the wire except the United States Indian business. Indian Agent Irwin and the operator, however, to save human life wired the situation to the governor of New Mexico. Samuel B. Axtel; and U. S. Cavalry came suddenly upon the scene, confronting the mob in the streets of the town, and leveling their guns upon them demanded the surrender of Mills. At this time the men guarding Mills were standing near by the cavalry, and Mills ran before he could be shot, and got in between the horses of the officers, the cavalry then marching to a camp established nearby. It is said that at this time, the mob of men began to murmur vengeance, while many of them, including their leaders, began to change front and say that they had not believed all the time that Mills was guilty. Anyway the mob court soon found that way, liberating Mills but implicating many others. The .Mexican, Cardinas, was ordered back to jail, but was shot on his way, never reaching there, as also were others, both shot and hung by the men composing this mob.

The legislature to which Mills had been elected moved the courts from Cimarron and Colfax County to the adjoining county of Taos, where the next term was held early in the following spring. Because of the threats said to have come from these mob people in Colfax County, it was thought best by Federal officials to send U. S. Troops, and accordingly the court was held by Chief Justice Waldo under the shadow of United States Infantry. A full investigation was had by the grand jury, witnesses were subpoenaed from Colfax County and all over the country; but no indictments were found against Mills or any of the men named in the Cardinas affidavit. The Methodist church, becoming much interested because of the murder of the Rev. Tolby, and the part that McMains had taken, and because of the charges against him, sent Bishop Bowman to make a full investigation also, and much has been done to ferret out the motive of the murderers of the Rev. Thos. Tolby. Although nearly thirty years have intervened, no further evidence has ever been discovered and no motive ever located that should have induced anyone to have taken the life of the preacher. The innocent men who lost their lives and were sent into the unknown country by being shot and hung are as innocent now, so far as any discovery of any evidence against them, as they were the nights they were murdered. The leader, Harberger, who extorted the Cardinas affidavit and who was said to have shot Cardinas afterward, and who murdered another man, was afterward prosecuted by Mills as district attorney, convicted and sent to the penitentiary, within the walls of which he afterwards died.

It was here at Cimarron that many desperado bad men grew into prominence, many of whom have been referred to in other pages of New Mexico history; but none of them outranked that wild, dark eyed Tennessean, Clay Allison, the slayer of "Chunk," "Cooper," "Griego," and others. This man sought with a mob at one time to capture and make M. W. Mills his victim of death, and strange to say a few hours later acknowledged that he was wrong and took another mob of men to wrest Mills from the hands of another mob, who, with a hangman's rope, were after him and within a few rods of his house, so that Clay Allison boasted many times afterwards of having saved the life of M. W. Mills. This man Allison had such power and personal following making him immune from sheriff's arrest for many years, but the Federal authorities finally sent to the aid of Sheriff Rinehart a few companies of soldiers that surrounded, in the early morning, the house where Allison was located and finally succeeded in arresting him. He afterwards made his escape, however, and after all, like most all men who take human life, died an unnatural death.

It soon became apparent that this wild town of Cimarron, so properly named, the former rendezvous of Maxwell. Abreu, Shout, Dold, Moore, St. Vrain, Wheaton, Kroenig, Beaubien, Wootton, Carson, and many other old time characters, was about to subside. The great Santa Fe Railroad had already crossed the Raton Mountains and was over the northern boundary of New Mexico, and would so centralize business centers, calling for another removal of the county seat of Colfax County. As before, it fell upon M. W. Mills to head the proposition, who went to the legislature, securing the removal to the town of Springer. At this time Mills was county attorney, and a little later district attorney for Northern New Mexico. The better class of people began to say among themselves, and to congratulate themselves that the days of mob law and terrors of desperadoes were things of the past, but their congratulations came quite too previous as it turned out. A party of outlaws got together under the leadership of a young cowboy fellow, by the name of Dick Rogers, a party of thirty or forty, who appropriated to themselves about what they wanted. They began to board the trains, walking back and forth through the cars with their big hats, spurs, chaparral, pistols, etc., alarming the passengers, intimidating the people again, in the old fashioned way. A new sheriff had been elected, largely by efforts of M. W. Mills, by name of John Hixenbaugh, and a militia company organized under the leadership of a man by the name of Matherson. But the Dick Rogers gang took possession of them and all their munitions of war early one morning when first starting out, marching- some of them over the Raton mountains into Colorado. The new sheriff attempting to arrest some outlaws had got shot, and his principal under-sheriff, Jesse Lee, after the militia had been captured, took charge of the court house and jail at Springer, who along with a fellow called Dirty Dick made a stand against the Dick Rogers gang of outlaws to keep them from liberating some prisoners they wanted in jail. At that time Rogers with a party of thirty or forty went to the office of the district attorney and demanded of him that the prisoners be liberated. Upon being refused they gave notice, all being heavily armed and equipped for warfare, that unless the prisoners should be turned loose, the district attorney and other officers would be transformed into cold corpses before morning. The next morning, very early, an attack was made on the jail by Rogers' party, who were repulsed by Jesse Lee and his comrade, Dick Rogers, and two others shot and killed, while others were wounded and their horses shot from under them. These outlaws had many friends who began to gather at Springer until a thousand or so of demonstrative, threatening, frenzied people were on the ground. The telegraph office was surrounded, so that District Attorney Mills could not wire the governor at Santa Fe, and then Mills took his private conveyance, ran the horses twenty-five miles to Wagon Mound, telegraphing to Governor Sheldon at Santa Fe, and General Pope at Leavenworth, Kansas, and succeeded, with the aid of Chas. Dyer, Santa Fe Superintendent, in getting United States soldiers on the ground before the mob reached the court house with wagons of baled hay saturated with coal oil to fire and tumble into that structure. The soldiers took the undersheriff and his deputy before Chief Justice Axtel. A grand jury was organized, many indictments and convictions followed, prosecuted by the district attorney, with Jesse Lee and his companion tried and turned loose.

Shortly after this time, Mr. Mills becoming tired of this strenuous life, gave up for the most part his practice and his official life, devoting himself to the looking after a lot of investments in ranches and other enterprises; principally horse, cattle, and fruit ranches. After having these properties very successfully developed into a paying investment, resort, and retirement places, the flood of 1904 came, sweeping away orchards, ditches, fences, buildings, and extensive improvements valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, the work of a whole life time swept away, and now, for the most part, he is still engaged in rebuilding and restoring these properties. Mr. Mills was married in 1877; not having any children, he adopted four as his own children. His mother and wife (Ella E. Mills) are still living, his father having died in 1903.

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Source: History of New Mexico, Its Resources and People, Volume II, Pacific States Publishing Co., 1907.

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