Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

1-08 Catron Law Firm Brings Memories of Old West

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Memories of the Wild West still live at the Catron law firm, founded in 1866 by Thomas Benton Catron, the reputed head of the notorious Santa Fe Ring.
The family of lawyers, headed by Thomas B. Catron III, grandson of the founder, is celebrating the 140th anniversary of the firm, making it one of New Mexico's oldest businesses.
Until about 15 years ago, the firm had its offices on the Santa Fe Plaza in the Catron Building, diagonally across the street from the Palace of the Governors, the seat of New Mexico government for almost 300 years.
Look up to the top of the two-story building at the corner of Old Santa Fe Trail and Palace Avenue and see the words "Catron Block," indicating that Catron owned much more than just that building. Those words were in full view of the governor and lawmakers as they entered and exited the Palace of the Governors.
Until the firm moved to modern office space in the early 1990s, the office still had the look of the 1880s, when it was built. Still practicing with the firm are Tom Catron III, 84, his brother John Catron and his son Fletcher Catron.
Tom Catron says the stories of his grandfather and the Santa Fe Ring are overblown. The Ring was not an early type of Mafia, Catron says.
Nevertheless, stories from a century ago abound about the group of lawyers, politicians and businessmen who used unscrupulous tactics to acquire Spanish land grants that had carried over to the United States after the Mexican War in the late 1840s. Reportedly, the Ring accumulated as much as two million acres of land.
Those stories also include accounts of the Ring controlling judges, district attorneys and lawmen throughout the territory who ran roughshod over citizens in their quest for even more power and money.
The Ring figured significantly in the Lincoln County War, about which we've often written. It reputedly backed the Murphy-Dolan faction, which used any means necessary to keep the Tunstall-McSween faction from competing for the lucrative contracts to supply Fort Stanton.
Billy the Kid was a cowboy, working for the Tunstall ranch. Tunstall's cruel murder set off the Lincoln County War and Billy's string of killings.
Tom Catron says the Santa Fe Ring's participation in these events is exaggerated. But some who have written about Billy and the Lincoln County War, say they would love to write about the Ring but fear for their lives if they do so.
Having known the Catron family for nearly 40 years, I find that very difficult to believe. The firm does much pro-bono work for non-profit organizations. Tom and his gracious wife June were early supporters of the Santa Fe Opera and continue to be some of its leading patrons. The Catrons are as nice a family as you'll ever meet.
Tom Catron acknowledges that his grandfather accrued a lot of land but says he lost most of it before he died. Tom says he doesn't have any of it. Catron also notes that he is a Democrat, whereas his grandfather's extensive political influence came through the Republican party.
Former state historian Myra Ellen Jenkins, the leading authority on just about everything until long after her retirement in 1980, dismissed conspiracy theories about the Santa Fe Ring. She also didn't think much of Billy the Kid. Just an obscure delinquent, she would say.
Whatever the senior Catron's shortcomings may have been, he made his mark on New Mexico. He came here after fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Having lost many of his rights to the Unionists, he moved West, settling first in Las Cruces, which briefly had been Confederate headquarters for New Mexico and Arizona during the war.
Soon he became district attorney, U.S. attorney, mayor of Santa Fe, a state legislator and New Mexico's first U.S. senator. Catron County was named after him in recognition of the major role he played in our effort to gain statehood.
MON, 1-08-07

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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