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Deep Trails in the Old West: A Frontier Memoir

Deep Trails in the Old West: A Frontier Memoir

by Frank Clifford

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Cowboy and drifter Frank Clifford lived a lot of lives—and raised a lot of hell—in the first quarter of his life. The number of times he changed his name—Clifford being just one of them—suggests that he often traveled just steps ahead of the law. During the 1870s and 1880s his restless spirit led him all over the Southwest, crossing the


Cowboy and drifter Frank Clifford lived a lot of lives—and raised a lot of hell—in the first quarter of his life. The number of times he changed his name—Clifford being just one of them—suggests that he often traveled just steps ahead of the law. During the 1870s and 1880s his restless spirit led him all over the Southwest, crossing the paths of many of the era’s most notorious characters, most notably Clay Allison and Billy the Kid.

More than just an entertaining and informative narrative of his Wild West adventures, Clifford’s memoir also paints a picture of how ranchers and ordinary folk lived, worked, and stayed alive during those tumultuous years. Written in 1940 and edited and annotated by Frederick Nolan, Deep Trails in the Old West is likely one of the last eyewitness histories of the old West ever to be discovered.

As Frank Clifford, the author rode with outlaw Clay Allison’s Colfax County vigilantes, traveled with Charlie Siringo, cowboyed on the Bell Ranch, contended with Apaches, and mined for gold in Hillsboro. In 1880 he was one of the Panhandle cowboys sent into New Mexico to recover cattle stolen by Billy the Kid and his compañeros—and in the process he got to know the Kid dangerously well.

In unveiling this work, Nolan faithfully preserves Clifford’s own words, providing helpful annotation without censoring either the author’s strong opinions or his racial biases. For all its roughness, Deep Trails in the Old West is a rich resource of frontier lore, customs, and manners, told by a man who saw the Old West at its wildest—and lived to tell the tale.

Editorial Reviews

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One hundred and thirty years after the death of Billy the Kid, it is rare for an account to appear that is fresh and authentic. Yet this book is even more than that. Salvaged from a lost manuscript, Deep Trails in the Old West is a genuine tale told by a down-to-earth wandering cowboy of the Old West. A great read!"— Robert G. McCubbin, coauthor of Wild West 365 and Publisher Emeritus of True West magazine

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Deep Trails in the Old West

A Frontier Memoir

By Frank Clifford, Frederick Nolan


Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8750-1


Early Days in Cimarron


When New Mexico became part of the United States in 1848, something like 150 private land grants lay within its borders; by 1865, the largest of them all—indeed, the largest ever—was the Maxwell Land Grant, owned by Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell. He lived like a feudal baron in a twenty-room mansion beside the Cimarron River, where often thirty and more guests dined at his lavish table. He raced fine horses and gambled heavily; thousands of dollars could change hands in his gaming rooms in a single evening. He owned a thousand horses, ten thousand cattle, and thirty thousand sheep, and he employed five hundred men.

In 1867, when gold was discovered on the slopes of Mount Baldy in the heart of his domain, Maxwell profited from the gold rush both as entrepreneur and investor. By 1870, his rough-hewn empire was making so much money—his majority stake in the Aztec quartz mine was contributing nearly $50,000 a year, his sawmill at Ute Creek another $20,000, not to mention further substantial sums from the sale of farms, mining claims, and land—that the huge potential of the Maxwell Land Grant attracted the attention of capitalists both at home and abroad.

That same year, Maxwell entered into a series of complex negotiations that, in spite of uncertainties about the actual size of his holdings and the validity of his title, resulted a year later in the sale of the grant to an English company for $1,350,000. Shortly thereafter, the Maxwell Land Grant & Railway Company was organized under American trusteeship, the stocks and bonds being held by American, English, and Dutch investors.

The new owners, understandably eager to secure clear title to, and profit from, the grant's land, water, and mineral rights, proceeded as though there was no uncertainty about their claim to the vast acreage involved. They soon discovered that many of the settlers living on the grant refused to recognize the company's title or to surrender the mining claims, farms, or ranches the company had established.

Disinclined to negotiate, the company, backed by the notorious Santa Fe Ring, embarked upon a vigorous campaign of legal expulsions to get rid of the settlers, but when eviction notices were served rebellion flared. On October 27, 1870, rioting Elizabethtown miners set fire to the homes of their foes; troops had to be sent in to restore peace. The following April, an armed mob took possession of the Maxwell Company's property; this time, the governor of New Mexico hurried to the scene to restore order. The miners agreed to stand down but made it clear that they would not quit their claims until the company proved its title was valid. More violence lay ahead.

It was at this juncture that former coal colliery owner and mining engineer James Temple Wightman arrived in New Mexico with his daughter Marianne Isabella, sixteen, and two young sons, Sinclair, fifteen, and John, eleven. Given the company's energetic mining activities, it is not too difficult to guess what duties his "high position" might have involved.

Wightman would have doubtless soon become aware of the difficulties that his employers were facing as they zealously pursued their policy of forced evictions. The incident described below, in which two men came to kill Wightman, must have happened quite soon after his arrival; the men involved would almost certainly have been anti-grant, so could it perhaps have been an attempt to scare him off? It is important to keep in mind also that at the time it happened, the narrator would have been only eleven years old.

* * *

"Some time," said Mr. Wallace, settling himself more comfortably in the old wing chair, "l should like to see a hand-carved ivory fan, such as my mother used to carry. I hadn't thought of it for years, but lately, sitting and thinking about this and that, it came to my mind—the memory of mother's hand-carved ivory fan."

"Did she carry it on the plains with her?" I [Mrs. Frickel] asked, wondering at the connection of a former cow-hand with a hand-carved ivory fan. I was at that time completely ignorant of his story, and, I must confess, of that part of the country which [had been] the setting of his life in New Mexico and Texas.

"Oh, no," he answered, "she was never in America. She died when I was about six years old [on October 25, 1866]."

We lived then in England, on a handsome country estate. I remember [a] butler, maids, footmen, gardeners, and grooms. I remember a fine large house, beautifully furnished. I remember my grandfather, a white-haired old man, holding me on his knee when I was a little chap of three or four, telling me with great pride that we were descended from Sir William Wallace, the famous Scottish hero. He always seemed to be proud of our lineage. He had a genealogy of our family tree, and used to read to me from it.

Our home in England was called "The Wern," and it was located in Monmouthshire [in Wales, not England]. I remember this because I had to address my letters that way when I was off at school. The house was large and very beautiful, and there was a terraced garden beside the driveway. The garden was really lovely. The first terrace was devoted to flowers and shrubs and lawn, the second was a vegetable garden.

The driveway curved into the estate beside a high stone wall. Broken glass was sunk into the top of the wall along its entire length—just huge broken chunks of sharp glass which would have seriously injured anyone trying to climb the wall. I have often wondered why it was there, for my father's brother lived on the other estate located beyond the wall. I finally decided that it must have been placed there because of a quarrel, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that my father did it! He was a very proud and stubborn man. If he thought he was right, nothing could move him.

I am certain that the wall and garden were located beside the driveway, because I remember standing there one day and watching one of the grooms riding a horse down this driveway. He was having trouble, for the horse had bolted and the groom couldn't stop him. Just as they reached [the] stables, the horse suddenly halted, and threw his rider over his head. It didn't hurt the groom and I was highly amused. I have often wished that I had a picture of the old place. I can still see it in my memory, but it would be a pleasure to know that it is still there, and still the same.

When I was eleven years of age, my father brought me across the ocean and out to New Mexico. I remember crossing Kansas in a train, and seeing my first herd of buffalo through the train windows. The train had to stop to let them pass over the tracks, for you know, the buffalo will not turn. When their heads are set to go a certain way, they will keep on that way and nothing can change their direction. It was a marvelous sight to a young boy to see that great herd of shaggy beasts, several miles wide and reaching all the way back to the horizon, coming along in waves the way they do—wave after wave like the waves of the ocean.

We took the stage [probably from Kit Carson] over the Raton Pass, and eventually we arrived in Cimarron. There my father had a very high position with the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company. I suppose you know what that is, and the place the Maxwell family played in the early days of old [New] Mexico?

At my confession of ignorance [Mrs. Frickel said,] he shook his head in mock reproof, and settled himself back to talk and smoke.

"My father and I," he told me, "lived in the old Maxwell house, which at that time was a sort of hotel for the officials of the company."

It stood in the little town of Cimarron, then county seat of Colfax county, New Mexico, [Cimarron became the county seat in 1872] which is built on the Cimarron River a couple of miles down from the mouth of the canyon at the edge of the foothills of the Rockies, where the topography changes abruptly from mountain to prairie. On crossing the river from the east by way of the old stage road, you were at once in the main square of the town. [Henry M.] Porter and [Asa] Middaugh's general store was on the east side of the square. The printing office of the local newspaper, the Cimarron News and Press [founded in January 1875] was situated between that store and the bridge which crossed the Cimarron River. On the north [sic, west] side of the square stood the old Lucien B. Maxwell house. To the west and northwest [sic, southwest] of the square were the smaller stores, saloons, and so forth, of the business section. This was table-land, or rather second-bottom-land, flat and smooth for about a quarter mile from the river. There a long mesa stood. I remember an amusing incident concerning this mesa.

A couple of Englishmen went up on the mesa one day to practice rifle shooting. They had their target between them and the town below. After firing they found themselves surrounded by a hastilygathered-up posse from town. Their bullets had gone whining over the town, and the "cits" [citizens] thought it was Indians attacking. A few drinks all around and a big laugh closed the incident.

Over towards the southeast there was a double mountain about three [ten] miles from the foothills. These twin hills were called the "Cedar Hills," as they were covered with cedars. I have ridden to the top many times to enjoy the view, which could be seen for miles in any direction. To the [south-]west of Cimarron about three [sic, ten] miles, the Cimarroncito Creek ran. The sheriff, Joe Holbrook, lived on that creek. There was fine rainbow trout fishing up in the foothills on the Cimarroncito, and no fish and game laws existed. I soon found that out, and availed myself of the knowledge. This creek was so narrow that I could jump across it almost anywhere in the upper canyon, but it was nevertheless alive with rainbow trout. I used to catch a hundred-pound flour sack full some days, using a sapling pole and a piece of line, with grasshoppers for bait.

A lot of choke-cherries were growing not far from the mouth of the Cimarroncito canyon, and it was not uncommon for me to disturb a black bear feeding on the fruit when it was ripe. Down below Cimarron there was a large patch of wild yellow plums, small trees but full of fruit. They could be raked off by the handfuls, and were very sweet. I would usually manage to strip these trees as soon as they got ripe. It was the only patch of wild yellow plums I ever saw, although there were many patches of wild red plums along the creeks outside of the mountains.

I was treated like a young prince in those days. I always had a horse to ride whenever I wanted him, and I wanted him often, for I rode constantly, which explains my familiarity with that country. Even after my father's death, the folks thereabouts treated me royally, and I never wanted for a place to stay, nor for grub and provisions.

The old Maxwell house, in which Father and I lived, was really a palace for that country in those days. It had a wide porch about five feet above the level of the square. From this porch the front door opened into a large living room. A great fireplace with a beautifully decorated mantel-place added glamour to this room, which was filled with costly furniture. Below that floor was a full basement, as the ground on the east [sic, north] dropped sharply to the river.

This made the Maxwell house in effect a two story house [with 22 rooms]. The basement was also divided into several rooms, which were completely furnished. Lucien B. Maxwell himself I never met, as he had moved away from Cimarron before I got there. Old Lucien went to New Mexico as a young man, and married the daughter of the old Spanish Don, Beaubien y Quintana, or Beaubien, as they usually called him thereabouts. You know, the Spanish names are compounded from the two names of the parents. In this case, "Beaubien" was the father's name, and "Quintana" the mother's; "y" of course means "and." The land constituting the Beaubien y Quintana ranch was the original Spanish land grant. It spread out for sixty-six square leagues, which was quite a lot of country even in those days. Old Lucien Maxwell—young Maxwell then—married the ranch and they threw in the girl, so folks said in Cimarron. However that may be, he owned the whole three hundred [and] eighty thousand some odd [1,714,764.93] acres, until the English company bought it from him.

I was told that Lucien Maxwell was at one time a frontier scout and a sort of side kick to Kit Carson, and was himself a picturesque character. I heard at the time several stories concerning him which entertained me highly. One such incident concerned a rather pompous Englishman who was making an exploring trip over New Mexico. One evening he reached Cimarron and asked at Maxwell's house if he could put up there for the night. Maxwell made him welcome and next morning when the Englishman was ready to leave, he asked for his bill. Maxwell laughed at him good-naturedly and explained that there was never any charge at his house for a night's lodging. The Englishman protested, not being used to the ways of the West.

He said he wanted to pay for his lodging. Maxwell again refused—it was unheard-of then to accept money for hospitality—but the Englishman insisted, and even stated heatedly that he wasn't begging his way! So Maxwell, who was standing with his back to the fireplace which had a fire burning in it, coolly told his guest, "All right then, it's twenty dollars." The Englishman was game, and he handed Maxwell a twenty-dollar bill. Maxwell turned around, stooped over, and deliberately laid the bill on the burning logs. That ended the dispute.

Another story I heard about Maxwell had to do with old man [Henry] Pascoe. When Pascoe first came to New Mexico, he looked around for a location, and found what he wanted in what was then called the Merino valley, between Cimarron and Taos. As this piece of land was on the Maxwell Land Grant, Pascoe went to see Maxwell about it. Pascoe had a sort of whine in his speech which made him seem to be half-crying when he talked, especially if he was at all excited. Maxwell asked him what he wanted, and he answered in that peculiar way, "Why, Mistah Maxwell," he quavered, "I want to settle in the Merino valley!"

"Well," Maxwell boomed out at him. "What do you expect to do there, and how are you fixed to do it?"

"Well, Mistah Maxwell," answered Pascoe, "I got quite a family, sah. I hain't got no boys, just the old woman and ten gyurls, and sixteen head of cows, and they are all fresh, and I thought I would start a dairy," he finished, all in that half-crying voice of his. Maxwell looked him straight in the eye without a smile, and said, "Well! If you are in that kind of a shape, I think it's the best business you can get into. Go on! Go on and settle there!" Pascoe did settle there, and was living there when I was in Cimarron. I met several of his girls later, after they were married. They were a fine capable lot of women. I remember that [Deputy] Sheriff Joe Holbrook's wife was one of them. I am not sure of the exact number of girls in the family, but it was close enough to ten for me to feel justified in putting it that way.

While we are on the subject of Pascoe, I may as well tell of a personal experience I had with him. I found out early that, in spite of his white hair and querulous voice, he was not a man to be fooled with. I was about fourteen years old at the time, and one day when I was riding in the Cimarron canyon above Ute Creek, I met the old man. He stopped me and asked if I had seen anything of a stray horse around anywhere. "I lost mine las' night," he whispered in that half-crying voice. This struck me funny, and as I was pretty sassy in those days, I answered drawlingly, "Waa-al, Mistah Pascoe, I wouldn't worry about that, you'll find him all right. I wouldn't cry about it if I were you." Now the old man had one of those bull-whips hanging from the horn of his saddle. It was about fifteen feet long, with a short handle, and could be used very effectively by him.

"Why, you so-and-so, blankety-blank-blank-blank!" he yelped, loosening his whip. "I'll show you who's doin' the cryin' around here." I thought it was time to get out of the way, and started down the canyon, the old man right behind me, and it seemed as if that whip was popping within a few inches of my back, but my pony outran his, and I turned up Ute Creek, and the first chance I got, when I was far enough ahead of him, I wheeled into some timber and kept mighty still, letting him ride ahead of me. Soon as he had passed my hiding-place, I hopped out again and streaked it down the canyon for Cimarron. I never fooled with that old man again.

Pascoe was still in Cimarron when I lived there, but Maxwell had left after he sold the land grant to a company of Englishmen called "the English Company." They gave their concern the imposing name of the "Maxwell Land Grant and English Company," and stocked the land with cattle, sheep, and horses at what seemed to them favorable locations. It was the formation of this company that brought my father to New Mexico as a high official. There was quite a controversy between the men who wanted to settle up the country and the members of "the English Company" as to the size of the original land grant. The old Don had always claimed it was sixty-six leagues square, but the settlers claimed it was sixty-six square leagues! If they were right, it would leave much of the originally claimed grants public domain, open for settlement. Also, it would locate some very valuable coal deposits outside the grant as originally claimed. This controversy dragged through the courts for several years. I am not sure which side won in the end, but I think the settlers did.


Excerpted from Deep Trails in the Old West by Frank Clifford, Frederick Nolan. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frederick Nolan is a leading authority on outlaws and gunfighters of the Old West. His award-winning books include The West of Billy the Kid; The Wild West: History, Myth, and the Making of America; and The Lincoln County War: A Documentary History. He resides in England.

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