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History Highlights

Adapted from The Fort Union Ranch by Edward A. Ames


In 1882 Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler of Lowell, Massachusetts, began acquiring land in northern New Mexico from a group of land speculators known as the Santa Fe Ring. Butler had served in Congress as a Republican representative from Massachusetts from 1867 to 1875, and again from 1877 to 1879. It is believed that while Butler was in Washington, he met Thomas Benton Catron, a member of the Ring who was later to serve as the first senator from the state of New Mexico. During the Civil War Butler had served as a brigadier general in the Union Army, whereas Catron had been an artillery officer in the Confederacy.


Starting in 1885, Butler bought a number of interests in the Mora Land Grant in northeastern New Mexico. According to family accounts, on February 8, 1885, Butler and Catron met in New York, and after a negotiation that went far into the night, Butler agreed to buy Catron’s share in the Mora Grant. Whatever agreement may have been reached at that meeting, there is no record of Butler’s ever having closed the deal. The era was rife with litigation over land matters; there were large financial stakes over the control of property interests, and since there were few surveys or deeds and much manipulation, nobody could be sure of who owned what land. Most of Butler’s transactions were done in the names of his son, Paul Butler, and his son-in-law, General Adelbert Ames. In any case, by 1885 the three men had acquired several hundred thousand acres in Mora County. Following a 1916 settlement of a quiet title suit and subsequent transactions, the core of these acquisitions became the Fort Union Ranch, a working cattle ranch that has been in the family ever since. This continuity of ownership is highly unusual for ranchland in the West. 


The ranch surrounds Fort Union National Monument, which is located in an enclave in the center of the range. Running across the ranch are the still visible traces of the Santa Fe Trail. The Army established the Fort in 1851 in order to protect travelers on the Trail from the Jicarilla Apache Indians and other Native American tribes that were attempting to defend their lands from incursions by settlers, both Hispanic and Anglo. Indian attacks peaked in 1874 and declined through the 1880s with the arrival of the railroads. Use of the Santa Fe Trail also declined, but during its heyday, wagon trains using the Trail had broad landscape-scale impacts, and their traces are still visible today. The Fort was decommissioned in 1891, and its acreage reverted back to the owners of the Mora Land Grant. In 1955 an agreement was struck between the ranch and the National Park Service to establish the Fort as a National Monument, which it remains today.


In 1885 General Butler founded the Union Land and Grazing Company, a New Jersey corporation, to own and manage the his New Mexico lands. We have little documentation about what the ranch was like in the early days.  We do know that both tenants and squatters farmed and ran cattle on the land. Open-range ranching in northern New Mexico had reached its peak in 1880, and although fencing progressed rapidly thereafter (in part in response to the rapid development of railroads), we do not know when the first perimeter fences were established at the Fort Union Ranch.  In any case, it is unlikely that there were any sustained cattle operations at the Fort Union Ranch before the U.S. Army departed in 1891. The Santa Fe Trail had broad, landscape-scale impacts, and during the period the when the army was billeted at Fort Union, the troops ranged widely over the entire area, cutting wood, slaking lime, and quarrying rock for the fort buildings. 


The shareholders of the Union Land and Grazing Company—all either descendants of General Butler or members of descendants’ extended families—continue to run the ranch. The dominant use of the ranch since its acquisition has been beef production through cattle ranching. Elk and pronghorn hunting and timber harvest have also provided significant income. The ranch has been an important part of the family’s identity and a link both to a period of history in which the family played a major role and to a western culture very different from that of the property’s eastern owners. The family was an absentee landlord for many years, but 1950 brought the arrival of Butler descendant Andrew Marshall Jr., his wife, Peggy Lincoln Sayre Marshall, and their children to the west. Family members were managing the land for the first time, and the Marshalls’ tenure continued until 1981. In 2010 Joshua Miner, another descendant of Benjamin Butler, made the ranch his home; he continues in residence there with his wife, Kezia Toth, and their son, Woodrow.

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