So runs the tide away:
What was the Santa Fe Ring?
"What is the chief end of man? — to get rich. In what way? — dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must,” Mark Twain wrote in 1871. His words sum up the profiteering spirit of the Gilded Age, but the author’s cynicism applies just as easily to an enterprising pair of Twain’s fellow Missourians, Thomas Benton Catron and Stephen Benton Elkins, who relocated to the New Mexico Territory in 1866. By the time of statehood in 1912, lawyers Catron and Elkins had become New Mexico notorious, identified as the most powerful influencers in a loose consortium of political and economic leaders known as the Santa Fe Ring. Their activities forged a legacy of dirty deals and self-serving political favors — one that, many might argue, thrives in state government to this day.
Historian David L. Caffey places Catron and Elkins squarely at the center of this mostly Republican circle, though he emphasizes that the group lacked a documented structure and was much less organized than the term “Ring” — a moniker that was applied to many political machines of the Gilded Age, including those in Denver and Tucson — implies. “Unquestionably there was a group of associates, many of them involved in politics and business activities, who combined their powers and abilities to try to do things that were profit-making but in many
Clockwise from top, Catron, circa 1880, photo Edwin L. Brand, Neg. No. 56041; Elkins, Barnes Photographic Collection, Georgetown University Library Special Collections Research Center; Waldo, circa 1900, Neg. No. 013118; Frost, circa 1906, photo Rice, Neg. No. 009876; Breeden, circa 1880, Neg. No. 007019; center illustration, “Santa Fe Ring” cartoon in the Las Cruces newspaper Thirty-Four, Oct. 27, 1880, Archives and Special Collections, New Mexico State University Library; background photo, wagon trains, San Francisco St. at Plaza, circa 1869-1871, photo Nicholas Brown, Neg. No. 070437; all photos courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) unless otherwise noted.
cases were, ethically and legally, highly questionable,” said Caffey, who traces the Ring’s rise in the latter half of the 19th century in his book Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Power and Privilege in Territorial New Mexico (University of New Mexico Press, 2014). Caffey lectures on the subject Wednesday, Sept. 27, at the New Mexico History Museum.
“Circles of influence kind of radiated outward,” Caffey said, with associates who allegedly included surveyor general Henry Martyn Atkinson, Republican organizer William Breeden, party boss and legislator José Francisco Chaves, district attorney William Logan Rynerson, New Mexican editor Maximilian Eugene Frost, and Elkins’ childhood friend, Democratic attorney general Henry Ludlow Waldo. “It was largely non-Hispanic white Americans who had emigrated to the territory, but it included some local Hispanic members who shared their values and goals. So it was diversified in that way, and then geographically, there were allies in virtually every county in the territory.” According to Caffey, more than 75 men were named as comrades of the Ring on the basis of political and business connections during its most active phase, from 1872 to 1884. “They were attracted to land, government contracts, mining claims, timber, railroads, cattle and sheep, and indeed anything that might turn a profit, and New Mexico was their parish from one end to the other,” he writes…
The Ring’s most enduring legacy lies in its members’ acquisitions of numerous Spanish land grants — by the 1880s, Catron owned more land as an individual than anyone else in the country. But according to land-grant historian Malcolm Ebright, such opportunists are not solely to blame, not “Thomas Catron, nor Henry Atkinson, nor even the Santa Fe Ring. They all played a part in the chicanery of land-grant adjudication, but the drama was allowed to proceed by the United States government.” Of the relative ease with which Ring members were allowed to purchase grants, Caffey writes, “In the land-speculation business, it helped to have friends in high places — in the office of the surveyor general, for example, and in the offices of the governor, attorney general, and U.S. attorney, and in the territorial courts and legislative assembly.”
State historian Rick Hendricks said, “One of the things that characterizes the arrival of the Anglo population in New Mexico is this sort of clash of cultures that manifests itself in how land is held. So when the U.S. government came, most of the people here — whether they were Pueblo communities or Hispano communities — had common land, and that idea was sort of at odds with the way that land was held in the East. The same thing was true with water. Those who were involved with the Ring also necessarily had to be involved with potential water-delivery projects, and it all goes into this clash of different systems, because the way that the Spanish and the Mexicans distributed access to water was fundamentally different from the way water was distributed in the East.”
Throughout Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, Caffey takes care to emphasize the informal and frequently vague ties between most of those who were identified as members of the circle. The grandson of Catron, lawyer Thomas B. Catron III, who was honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 1984, maintains that, as Twain might have put it, reports of the Ring’s existence have been much exaggerated. “I think that the whole Santa Fe Ring thing is a figment of the imagination of the — well, I won’t say the news, but whatever it is,” he said. “There was a group of men, mostly Republicans, who were involved in politics, involved in business, and they sometimes had the same agenda and purposes. But there was never any kind of alliance or co-op in which they pursued a common objective. I’m quite sure that I have no knowledge from anybody, or anyone I’ve ever even read, that there was even one meeting. It’s a good story, but I don’t think there was anything substantial there.” Catron III, who was born after his grandfather’s death, said his own viewpoint echoed those of former state historian Myra Ellen Jenkins as well as Victor Westphall, who published a biography called Thomas Benton Catron and His Era in 1973. Catron and Elkins made their deals in the name of progress, lobbying hard for statehood and the economic and political gains it would bring, and Caffey points out that these men “were in the vanguard of positive developments, working to bring railroads into the territory, supporting schools and churches, organizing a historical society, and sustaining benevolent and fraternal organizations.”
Though Catron and Elkins continued their political careers well into the 20th century, their associates diminished in power and numbers by the mid-1890s, facing a turning political tide that included those who sought to reform corruption and a rising generation of ambitious younger men. The Ring’s influence persists, Hendricks said, with regard to the land-grant contentions. “The impact of those individuals still resonates today,” he said, “because they were so involved in land issues and those issues are still not resolved.”
But Hendricks attributes a continuing culture of cronyism in state government to a tradition that dates back further than the Ring. “We have a legacy in New Mexico of the Spanish Mexican patrón system, and that has really influenced politics,” he said. “It’s very much personal influence — who you know, what powerful politicians you know. That, to me, is more a legacy of the Spanish and Mexicans — although the people who were associated with the Ring certainly cottoned on to how that functioned pretty quickly.”