Editor’s note: The Journal continues “What’s in a Name?,” a twice a month column in which staff writer Elaine Briseño will give a short history of how places in New Mexico got their names.
“Thomas Benton Catron was for over half a century probably the best known man in New Mexico”
So the obituary read the day the man, for whom the state’s largest county in land size was named, died.
Catron County borders Arizona to the west and it became a county in 1921, the year Catron died. Its population might be tiny, just over 3,500, but its land size is massive. The largest in New Mexico, in fact. It spans nearly 7,000 square miles of mostly mountainous, rugged terrain in the Gila, Apache and Cibola national forests. It’s a mostly Anglo county, according to the U.S. Census and steeped in a rural lifestyle. Popular destination spots are Pie Town, known for exactly what its name implies, and the Gila Wilderness.
Catron was a hefty man physically, mentally, financially and most especially, politically. He was a complicated figure both admired and criticized. A lifelong Republican, Catron was bold, generous, a visionary who admired French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and a sometimes old-fashioned and controversial man who lived life unapologetically.
“While in the senate Mr. Catron always was a pronounced ‘stand patter’ of the old school, a fact demonstrated by his uncompromising stand against woman’s suffrage,” his obituary in the May 16, 1921 Santa Fe New Mexican read. “… friends and opponents always recognized his brains, ability and shrewdness and he was never an opponent to be lightly regarded.”
He held several political offices, including attorney general and U.S. senator, and was a driving force behind New Mexico’s statehood. He lead the Santa Fe Ring, which was a group of lawyers and land speculators who some believe became rich through political corruption and fraud.
A shrewd man, Catron familiarized himself with the intricacies of old Mexican land grants and became a juggernaut among land owners. He was owner or part-owner of 3 million acres of land in the state, making him the largest single landowner in New Mexico and one of the largest in the country.
Catron’s life started in 1840 on a small farm four miles from Lexington, Missouri. When the Civil War came, he sided with the South, standing against the government. As a Confederate solider, Catron did not shy away from public or political life when the South fell, even when others might have hoped he would.
He returned to Missouri after the Civil War, hoping to finish his law studies, only to discover the political climate had shifted. Missouri had passed a statute prohibiting any person from becoming a licensed attorney unless they signed an oath stating they had not borne arms against the United State government.
This was something he obviously could not do, so he set his sights on New Mexico.
In his May 16, 1921 Santa Fe New Mexican obituary, Catron’s family described how he prepared for life here. He knew Spanish was the prevalent language and purchased a Spanish grammar and dictionary for the 60-day journey to New Mexico. He studied it every day and by the time he set foot on New Mexican soil, he had amassed a large Spanish vocabulary.
But that didn’t quite mean he could speak it. He went about fixing that, too. He decided to live for a few months in Alcalde, where English was not spoken so he could immerse himself in the Spanish language. After becoming a decent conversationalist, he headed down south to Las Cruces, where he was able to finish his studies and was admitted to the bar in 1867, finally seeing his dream of being a lawyer come true.
He launched his political career in 1866, first serving as a district attorney and then a territorial attorney general. He was the United States Attorney for the New Mexico Territory from 1872 to 1878. Although he was a rich and powerful man, his devotion was always to the community. He served on the local school board in his later years and often worked pro bono for local Native Americans. He was the first of two senators to represent New Mexico in Congress after it earned statehood in 1912. By this time, his life had shifted to Santa Fe and he was married with four sons. His grandson Thomas B. Catron III, also a lawyer, was a founding member of the Santa Fe Opera.
Catron never truly retired. According to his obituary, he lobbied his party to make him the foreign minister to Chile shortly before his death. The governor closed the state house down for a day as a tribute to Catron upon his death.
Curious about how a town, street or building got its name? Email staff writer Elaine Briseño at email@example.com or 505-823-3965 as she continues the monthly journey in “What’s in a Name?”