by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
What was the Santa Fe Ring?
Anyone with a remote interest in New Mexico Territorial history (1850-1912) has heard of what was called the Santa Fe Ring. The notion that such a group existed has been taken for granted for many years, beginning as early as the last third of the 19th century. But did it, really, exist?
Much has been written about the Ring, but mostly from an angle rather than head-on. That is true because no one was quite sure what the Santa Fe Ring actually was. On one extreme, there were those who believed that the Ring was at least a quasi-formal organization with officers and rules; a group which held meetings and planned its nefarious activities. On the other end of the spectrum were those who believed that Ring did not really exist at all; that it was nothing more than a group of like-minded businessmen who met occasionally for a cup of coffee or a drink of whiskey. Some believed that its membership was exclusively male, Anglo and Republican, but it was hard to square that position with the fact that Democrats and Hispanics—both Republican and Demo
crat—were identified with the Ring at one time or another; in one way or another. Most observers agreed that no matter what else the Ring was, its motivations were greed and political power.
And since politics are often brought into any discussion of the Santa Fe Ring, it is worth noting what British observer, James Bryce, wrote in 1895: “Neither party has any principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both have certainly war cries, organizations, interests enlisted in their support. But these interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of the government.” He concluded by noting that the Republican and Democratic parties “. . . were like two bottles. Each bore a label denoting the kind of liquor it contained, but each was empty.”
So what is the truth about the Ring and its era, and where would one go to find answers? Nowadays that question is easily answered thanks to New Mexico historian David Caffey and his new book, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring: Power and Privilege in Territorial New Mexico.
(See below for book information.)
Caffey begins at the logical place: the beginning. The territorial period in New Mexico coexisted with the so-called Gilded Age across the United States—named as such by Mark Twain—during which laissez-faire capitalism and the unfettered accumulation of great wealth were the normal goals of those engaged in the national business community. Think of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and others of that ilk.
Caffey also points out that at the time there were business and political rings elsewhere in the United States; long before the term was attached to the Santa Fe group. Most notable was Tammany Hall, also known as the Tweed Ring, in New York City which was made up Democrats who practiced massive government corruption. There were other rings in Colorado and Arizona and elsewhere.
Back in New Mexico, Caffey introduces readers to such notables as Thomas B. Catron, Stephen B. Elkins, William Breeden and Henry Waldo: three Republicans and a Democrat, respectively. If the Santa Fe Ring had a cadre, these men were probably it. However, the thing most important to know at this point is that the Ring had no formal existence; at least the proof of one has not been found. These men were, however, closely associated with each other in the legal, political and business professions. Caffey identifies another seventy or so men who were associated with the first four, to a greater or lesser extent, over the years. He provides a grid in which he identifies which men were identified as Ring members by which historians: a very useful tool, indeed.
The interactions of these seventy or so men over a period of forty-six years—from 1866 to 1912—make up the basis of the history and legend of the Santa Fe Ring. Caffey goes into considerable detail concerning the Colfax and Lincoln county wars, the causes of which were often laid at the doorstep of the Ring. He also discusses the Spanish and Mexican land grants, and how some Ring associates were able become huge landowners. He notes their involvement in ranching, mining, timber and other business activities. All of this provides the most complete look ever at what the Santa Fe Ring was, and was not, and what it meant to the New Mexico territory and its prospects for statehood. (As an aside, it should be noted that while William M. “Boss” Tweed of the Tweed Ring went to prison for his sins, no one associated with the Santa Fe Ring was ever convicted of a crime although some were tried.)
This book is an enormous contribution to understanding New Mexico in the last third of the nineteenth century; and to some extent, understanding New Mexico today. It is a genuine contribution to the historiography of territorial New Mexico.
David Caffey has served as director the University of New Mexico’s Harwood Library and Museum in Taos, director of Institutional Support Services at San Juan College in Farmington, and vice president for instruction at Clovis Community College. He also served as first vice president of the Historical Society of New Mexico and continues to serve on the society’s board of directors. His earlier award-winning book, Frank Springer and New Mexico: From the Colfax County War to the Emergence of Modern Santa Fe, is also excellent.
Chasing The Santa Fe Ring:
Power and Privilege in Territorial New Mexico.
By David L. Caffey
University of New Mexico Press
$34.95, 366 pages, 29 halftones
Twitchell, The Military Occupation of … New Mexico
Don Bullis’ latest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, available at www.donbullis.biz or www.NMSantos.com