Open Range: The Life of Agnes Morley Cleaveland

Open Range: The Life of Agnes Morley Cleaveland

by Darlis A. Miller

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Agnes Morley Cleaveland found lasting fame after publishing her memoir, No Life for a Lady, in 1941. Her account of growing up on a cattle ranch in west-central New Mexico captivated readers from coast to coast, and it remains in print to this day. In her book, Cleaveland memorably portrayed herself and other ranchwomen as capable workers and independent thinkers. Her life, however, was not limited to the ranch. In Open Range, Darlis A. Miller expands our understanding of Cleaveland's significance, showing how a young girl who was a fearless risk-taker grew up to be a prolific author and well-known social activist.

Following a hardscrabble childhood in remote regions of northern and central New Mexico, and then many years of rigorous education, Agnes Morley married Newton Cleaveland in 1899. The couple took up primary residence in Berkeley, California, where Agnes lived another kind of life as clubwoman and activist. Yet Agnes's ranch in the Datil Mountains always drew her back to New Mexico and provided the raw material for her writing.

Seen as a whole, Cleaveland's life story spans the years from territorial New Mexico to the Cold War, includes the raising of her four children and interactions with a wide range of national and regional characters, and provides insight into such aspects of western culture as railroads, cattle, and tourism. Her biography is a case study in the roles that wealthy and well-educated women played during the first half of the twentieth century in both domestic and political spheres and will intrigue anyone familiar with the writings of this multifaceted woman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806184333
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 12/05/2011
Series: The Oklahoma Western Biographies , #26
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Darlis A. Miller is the author of numerous books on the Southwest, including Soldiers and Settlers, Captain Jack Crawford, and Above a Common Soldier, about Frank and Mary Clarke. She is Professor Emerita in the History Department at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

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Open Range

The Life Of Agnes Morley Cleaveland

By Darlis A. Miller


Copyright © 2010 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8433-3


A Turbulent Beginning

AGNES Morley was born in Cimarron, New Mexico, on the night that Clay Allison shot up the town. Cimarron, a town of a few hundred residents and headquarters for the legendary Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company, lived up to its name, which in Spanish means "wild" or "untamed." On the day of Agnes's birth, June 26, 1874, her father, William Raymond (Ray) Morley, then manager of the Maxwell company, had gone into hiding after learning that Allison was coming to town. Given Allison's reputation as a gunfighter, one who held a grudge against Morley, the manager's decision was no doubt prudent. What Morley had not anticipated, however, was the premature arrival of his first-born. Or, as Agnes later described that night in her memoirs, "My father, expecting Clay but not me, had retired to an already prepared hideout, from which he emerged to find Clay gone and the three-odd pounds of my militant self awaiting him."

Agnes's mother, the refined Ada McPherson Morley, had reason to doubt the wisdom of raising a family in Cimarron, especially after four-year-old Agnes witnessed a killing while sitting on the family's front doorstep. Nonetheless, her father, fired with ambition and determined to make his fortune in the West, convinced his young wife to stay on.

The couple had met at the state university in Iowa City in the late 1860s. They came from different backgrounds, but their deep feelings for one another offset such disparities. Born in Massachusetts in 1846 but soon orphaned, Morley grew up on an uncle's farm in Iowa. At age seventeen, he enlisted in the Iowa Volunteers during the Civil War and subsequently marched with Sherman's army to the sea. At the university he took engineering courses but left after two years for lack of funds. In contrast, Ada McPherson, born in 1852, grew up in an Iowa family of privilege and wealth. Her father, Marcus L. McPherson, was a distinguished lawyer and politician, and her mother, Mary Tibbles McPherson, a woman of refined tastes and spiritual leanings. In her youth, Ada became an accomplished pianist, and, after she won a prize in a music festival, her father gave her a Steinway piano, which she took with her when she migrated to the West.

After leaving the university in 1869, Ray Morley carried on a three-year courtship with Ada McPherson, mainly through correspondence. In June of that year, writing from Sioux City, Iowa, where he held a surveying job, he professed his undying love in a long letter to his "darling." He soon headed west, however, and found work with the Kansas Pacific Railway, then laying rails in Colorado and Wyoming. His energy and competence caught the attention of William J. Palmer, managing director of the railroad company. As a consequence, Morley's future—and that of Ada and their children—became entangled in the violence connected with the Maxwell Land Grant and the Colfax County War, and in the dramatic battles to control railroad routes in New Mexico and Colorado.

The story of the Maxwell Grant, a western epic of greed, strife, and political intrigue, centers on Lucien B. Maxwell, who through marriage and a series of purchases came to own the old Beaubien-Miranda Land Grant located in northern New Mexico. By the 1860s, several hundred Hispano settlers lived on this princely domain of immense but as yet unspecified dimensions, many as Maxwell's servants and peones. For the most part, Maxwell proved a benevolent landlord, collecting rents of grain, cattle, wool, or sheep without undue discord. As conditions changed, however, and miners swarmed over his property, Maxwell grew weary of managing his estate, and he sold out to a group of European investors in 1870.

Although years of bloodshed and litigation awaited the new owners, they nonetheless expected to profit from their investment. The Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company was set up to manage local affairs, with William J. Palmer named president of its board of directors. He immediately hired William R. Morley to oversee the company's engineering and surveying work. But after Palmer resigned his position, the company experienced financial difficulties. To bring stability to the enterprise, the board of directors appointed Morley, in November 1872, as the company's manager and executive officer.

By this date Ray Morley and Ada McPherson had become engaged. In accepting this new position, Ray gained the wherewithal to establish a home worthy of his fiancée: a salary of $4,500 per year, lodging in the company's "Cimarron House" (the old Maxwell mansion), and the use of horses and a buggy. He and Ada were married in Iowa in January 1873. On their wedding journey to Cimarron, located in Colfax County in the northeastern corner of New Mexico, they traveled in a stagecoach over the Santa Fe Trail, stopping for a time at Richens L. (Uncle Dick) Wootton's establishment on the crest of Raton Pass. Here Wootton had built an adobe inn and collected fees for the use of his toll road over the pass. As a young bride on her first trip to New Mexico, Ada Morley had no premonition of the heartache that lay ahead for her and her family.

Still, her daughter Agnes would long retain fond memories of the Maxwell mansion, where she was born and raised until the age of five. The two-storied adobe house formed one entire side of Cimarron's plaza. The furnishings were elegant: massive beds and chairs, plush carpets, heavy draperies, large gilt-framed oil paintings, fine china, silver, and crystal, two dining rooms, and four large pianos—two upstairs and two downstairs. Her "most vivid recollection," however, was of the two stuffed Bengal tigers at the foot "of the massive staircase in the entrance hall." "Many a time have I mounted one of those jungle beasts and galloped away to adventure," she later recalled.

Across the street from the Maxwell mansion stood the St. James Hotel, owned and operated by Henry Lambert, President Abraham Lincoln's erstwhile chef. In addition to tending bar, overseeing meals, and welcoming guests, Lambert ran the only livery stable in town. Although townspeople regarded the St. James as a "respectable establishment," many a gunfight took place in its saloon—surely a trial for the young mother, Ada Morley. When guns blazed in the barroom, some patrons found refuge in the Morley residence.

As executive officer of the Maxwell company, Ray Morley inherited a "morass" of financial and legal problems. He also inherited the company's newspaper, the Cimarron News (later the Cimarron News and Press). To help handle legal problems and to run the newspaper, Morley persuaded his friend and former university classmate Frank Springer to relocate in Cimarron. Among Morley's major headaches were the many settlers who challenged the company's title to the grant and refused to pay rent for or buy the land they occupied. Although Morley and Springer sympathized with the settlers because they faced eviction, they nonetheless agreed that the company held legal title. Both men also came to believe that the Santa Fe Ring—a loosely bound collection of attorneys, politicians, and businessmen who attempted to control territorial politics for their own personal gain—exerted too much influence over company affairs.

The conflagration that erupted into the Colfax County War was ignited by the assassination of the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby on September 14, 1875, as he was returning to Cimarron from the mining community of Elizabethtown. A close friend of the Morley family, Tolby had vowed to "clean up" Colfax County and to break the power of the Santa Fe Ring. Tradition holds that Tolby and Morley had written an anonymous series of articles for the New York Sun that excoriated the Santa Fe Ring.

After Tolby's death, violence escalated. Oscar P. McMains, a part-time Methodist preacher, vowed to track down Tolby's killers. In a string of tragic events, vigilantes hanged the suspected killer, Cruz Vega, and killed two others, one a relative of Vega and the other thought to be connected to Tolby's death. In the midst of these tumultuous times, Ray Morley left for Las Vegas, New Mexico, on business, and Ada and little Agnes found refuge at the ranch of Manley and Theresa Chase, the Morleys' good friends.

Tensions in Cimarron continued to mount. Residents directed some of their hostility against the Cimarron News and Press, which, under editor Will Dawson, now sided with the Santa Fe Ring. Ray Morley and Frank Springer, although no longer in control of editorial policy, had become joint owners of the newspaper. So when a mob broke into the News and Press office and demolished the press on the night of January 19, 1876, it was a financial loss for both men.

In her reminiscences, Agnes Morley Cleaveland recalled that it was Clay Allison and his henchmen who destroyed the press and dumped it into the river. The next morning, however, Allison made amends after he encountered Agnes's mother, now seven months pregnant, at the site of the wrecked building. According to Agnes, Ada lambasted Clay for his malicious deed. Thereafter, he stuck a roll of greenbacks into Ada's hand, telling her to go buy another printing press. "I don't fight women," he reportedly said.

In the spring of 1876, a grand jury indicted Reverend McMains (and fourteen others) for the murder of Cruz Vega. Thereupon, McMains was arrested and placed in the Cimarron jail to await trial. His friends often visited him there to help relieve his boredom. On one occasion, Ray Morley brought Agnes along to receive a little bow and arrow that McMains had made for her. On other occasions, McMains was let out of jail to take meals with the Morleys and other supporters. When the case finally came to trial in August 1877, McMains was convicted of murder in the "fifth degree" (meaning McMains's negligence resulted in the killing of Vega). The verdict was later quashed.

In the year preceding McMain's trial, the Morley family had undergone several changes. Ada gave birth to a son, William Raymond Morley, Jr., on March 17, 1876, and later that spring she traveled east with the baby and two-year-old Agnes to visit her family. In the summer, Ray left the employ of the Maxwell company to work for the Denver and Rio Grande Railway (D&RG), then constructing lines in southern Colorado. A year later, however, he switched his loyalties to the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF), which had extended its rails to Pueblo, Colorado. As the Santa Fe's locating engineer, Morley became a key player in its fight with the D&RG to control two desirable railroad routes, one over Raton Pass providing access to the West Coast and the other through the Royal Gorge (Grand Canyon of the Arkansas) leading to the rich mining district of Leadville, Colorado.

While Ray was in the field, often for months at a time, Ada and the children continued to reside in Cimarron. The senior Morleys kept up a steady stream of correspondence when apart, writing of their activities and expressing affection for one another. On September 26, 1877, for example, Ray wrote to "My Dear One" from his camp near Florrissant, Colorado: "I have received nine letters from you since writing but you will not blame me I know for I have been almost constantly either in the saddle or on the line from morning at sunrise until dark." He was "rushing things as fast as possible" so that he could return to his wife and babies. Four days later he wrote again, saying that his location work was going well and that he would be in Raton Pass by mid-October—and then home. "I thank God for the faith I have that I shall meet this same good noble pure wife that I left in July," he concluded.

Legend has it that Morley spent weeks scouting the Raton area disguised as a sheepherder so that rival D&RG surveyors would not suspect his real mission. He wandered over the hilltops with Uncle Dick Wootton's sheep and stopped at Uncle Dick's inn for provisions. On December 19, he notified company officials that his survey was finished and that Wootton would sell the right-of-way to his toll road for a fair price.

Ray probably did rush home after finishing his work in Raton Pass—to be with Ada when she gave birth, on January 9, 1878, to their third child, Ada Loraine (Lora) Morley. Still, in February, when William B. Strong, general manager of the AT&SF, ordered Albert A. Robinson, his chief engineer, to occupy Raton Pass, Ray went with him.

To keep from arousing the suspicion of rival railroaders, Robinson and Morley left El Moro, Colorado, a D&RG townsite, in the dead of night in a hired buckboard. Once they reached Uncle Dick's place some twenty miles away, they enlisted a makeshift crew of cowboys and freighters camped nearby to start work on a railroad bed. A half hour after sunrise the next morning, February 27, a D&RG work crew arrived to find their rivals already in control of the pass. Heated words were exchanged, but Robinson and Morley stood firm. For the rest of the year, Robinson's crews labored to build a road from the AT&SF line at La Junta, Colorado, to Raton. When the first rail was laid across the Colorado border into New Mexico, on December 6, 1878, Ray Morley was on hand to take part in driving the ceremonial spikes.

Meanwhile, six weeks following Morley and Robinson's race to control Raton Pass, Morley made a second historic ride to claim the right-of-way through Royal Gorge for the AT&SF. At stake was access to the mining camp of Leadville, high in the Rocky Mountains, where a silver boom had begun in 1877. Both the AT&SF and the D&RG wanted to serve this area of great potential wealth. The only feasible route was through the Royal Gorge, a spectacular crevasse whose walls in some places rise 3,000 feet above the river below.

The D&RG seemed to have the advantage, as its lines extended to within a mile of Cañon City at the mouth of the gorge. On April 16, 1878, company officials ordered a construction crew to move by train from El Moro, via Pueblo, to the end of the track at Cañon City and then begin building into Royal Gorge. Learning of these plans, AT&SF officers told Ray Morley to get to Cañon City first. The race was on. Morley, who had been in La Junta, rushed to Pueblo where he hoped to charter a D&RG train to reach his goal. Rebuffed by a D&RG agent who refused his request, Ray saddled his own big black horse, King William, and dashed off into the night.

Morley and King William made the forty-mile ride in record time and reached Cañon City ahead of the D&RG work train. He then roused the townspeople to action. They despised the Rio Grande company and turned out en masse to help Morley. As the Colorado Chieftain of Pueblo reported: "Morley had no men with him, but the people of Cañon sympathized with him, and it was but the work of a few moments to get every available man and boy in the city to shoulder a shovel, gun or pick. All the available teams were collected and the party, headed by Morley, who had made a regular Phil Sheridan ride of it, rushed up to the mouth of the cañon and commenced grading on the line surveyed last fall through the cañon."

A half hour after Morley's men entered the cañon, a D&RG crew arrived and commenced work a few yards away. Each side quickly brought in gunmen to solidify its claim to the right of way. "Tensions increased, tempers flared," and a real war seemed possible. In her memoirs, Agnes Morley Cleaveland succinctly wrapped up this episode in her family's history: "Months of litigation and some physical violence, known as the 'Grand Cañon War,' ensued. The dispute was finally settled by the purchase of the Santa Fe's rights by the Denver and Rio Grande." She then inserted the one memory she retained of the entire affair: the grand moment when her father led her to the brink of the gorge and allowed her to peer down into its depths.

In mid-1879 the family moved to Las Vegas, where Ray, as the Santa Fe's newly appointed resident engineer, had his headquarters. But Morley seemed always on the move, and by year's end, he had begun work on another major engineering project–to locate and build a railroad from Guaymas, Mexico, a small fishing village on the Gulf of California, to Nogales, Arizona. With connecting rails extending into New Mexico, company officials hoped to create a new transcontinental route that would capture a large share of foreign trade funneled through Guaymas.

For the next three years, Morley spent most of his time in Mexico, joined on occasion by Ada and the children. In early December 1879, he wrote to her from Hermosillo in the Mexican state of Sonora, reporting on the progress of his location work. On New Year's Eve, upon his return to that city from a brief trip to Guaymas, he received word that Ada had given birth to a baby boy, whom they named Frank. Clearly overjoyed by the news, he nonetheless told Ada in a letter written January 1, 1880, that he regretted not having been "with you dear to help and cheer you in your hours of pain and peril." He then speculated on the reactions of the other children to this newest member of the family: "I can hear Agnes discussing this matter in her wise way and Ray's cute remarks, but poor little Lora—how she must have rebelled and moaned when she lost her baby rights to another."


Excerpted from Open Range by Darlis A. Miller. Copyright © 2010 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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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Series Editor's Preface,
Preface and Acknowledgments,
1. A Turbulent Beginning,
2. Growing Up in White House Canyon,
3. A Jekyll-Hyde Life,
4. "With Sleeves Rolled Up[,] Breathing Fire and Brimstone",
5. No Life for a Lady,
6. False Starts and Satan's Paradise,
7. "Post Mortem",

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