c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in New Legends Magazine.
Alexander “Zan” Hicklin was a sight to behold. The Missouri native with the thick southern drawl towered over six feet in height—taller if he was wearing his high silk hat. The man seemed friendly enough, with a chuckle or a joke at the ready. But Hicklin also had his secrets, extending one hand in welcome to those who enjoyed his hospitality while keeping the other hand busy with issues of a more serious nature.
There were no bones about it: Hicklin was a southerner through and through. He first came west along the Santa Fe Trail circa 1845 to work with a merchant train for Ceran St. Vrain’s trading post at Taos, New Mexico. He quickly became good friends with St. Vrain’s business partners, Cornelio Vigil and Charles, George and William Bent. The Bent brothers’ fort along the Arkansas River in Colorado was not only a key stopping point along the Santa Fe Trail before it reached the Mountain Branch at Pueblo; it was also a base for Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny when his “Army of the West” readied for battle during the war against Mexico in 1846.
Hicklin was mighty keen on wars over for a good cause. He was on his way to fight in the Battle of Sacramento alongside Colonel Alexander Doniphan in January of 1847 when he learned that Charles Bent had been murdered in the infamous Taos Uprising in New Mexico. By the time he returned in 1851, Bent’s children were under the care of their uncle, the famed trapper and explorer, Christopher “Kit” Carson. And the oldest daughter, Maria Estefana Bent, was heir to 5,000 of the 4.1 million acres held by the Vigil and St. Vrain Land Grant in southern Colorado.
By 1856 Hicklin had married Estefana Bent. Shortly after the 1860 census was taken the couple moved to their land in the Greenhorn Valley some twenty-five miles south of Pueblo and filed their ownership claim. The Hicklin ranch, alternatively known as Hicklin’s Rancho and Greenhorn Rancho, was situated close to the Taos Trail which crossed Greenhorn Creek and paralleled the Santa Fe Trail south into New Mexico. Visitors from both trails could stop at Greenhorn Rancho for a meal or night’s stay. And Zan Hicklin was more than accommodating.
For many years, Greenhorn Rancho was the only civilized place on the trail between Pueblo and Santa Fe. By the early 1860’s the Hicklin was well known as one of the most prominent farmers and stock growers in Colorado. Hicklin’s friends recalled that he became quite wealthy and spent his money freely. He was friendly and kind, and a shrewd businessman. Notably, he also was in the habit of sealing his deals with a drink. On more than one occasion he became too inebriated to make it back to Greenhorn, but those he did business with appreciated his good nature and sense of humor.
The hospitality provided at Greenhorn Rancho was widely known too. Pueblo’s Colorado Chieftain raved about Hicklin’s “open-handed hospitality,” the impromptu parties and horse races at the ranch, and Estefana’s fine meals of beef and lamb, warm tortillas, fresh vegetables and fruit, and homemade wine. Notably, Hicklin was less keen on “city folk” who were often the victims of his practical jokes. He once led a couple of well-dressed visitors to believe he planned to rob them, and insisted they stay over until the next day. The frightened men agreed but lit out in the dead of night, scared for their lives. Another time Hicklin fooled two other guests into believing a dead Indian was being prepared for supper instead of an antelope. He also once charged a guest $7.00 instead of the usual $1.50 for his stay, explaining that “your friend waited upon himself, and it took everybody about the ranch to wait upon you.”
There also was a darker side to the jovial Hicklin. As the Civil War loomed on the horizon, the devout southerner sided with the Confederacy. Colorado was claimed by the Union, and forts in the area were none the wiser to Hicklin’s political views. The wily Hicklin was able to establish a Union mail station a a way to garner information, and sold the army produce for as much as ten cents a pound which was willingly paid. But when Colonel John Heffner appeared on the scene to secretly organize a Confederate army and take over Colorado, Hicklin happily led him to Mace’s Hole, a former outlaw hideout west of his ranch where Confederate sympathizers could hatch their plan. Hicklin not only supplied the rebels with beef; he also passed on information he heard from the Union soldiers passing through Greenhorn Rancho.
Spying on the Union was not easy but Hicklin did it with finesse, passing himself off as a hick farmer who was not quite right in the head. He even rented his adobe to former United States Marshal Peter Dotson in 1862, but made sure to be on hand when the Union mail stage came through. Meanwhile, Hicklin sent hundreds of Confederate recruits to Mace’s Hole while skillfully guiding Union soldiers safely past the hideout on the way to Fort Garland. He also continued selling goods to Fort Garland—although the beef cows he sold were often inexplicably scattered in the night and either made it back to Greenhorn Rancho or were driven to Mace’s Hole. In the meantime, southern sympathizers knew of Hicklin’s hospitality at Greenhorn Rancho, and stayed there often while traveling the Santa Fe.
In time, the Union did discover Mace’s Hole. Too many visitors to Fort Garland were asking suspicious questions, and one soldier actually rode into Greenhorn Rancho and made a direct inquiry about the hideout to Marshal Dotson. Upon realizing his mistake the man rode off amidst gunshots. These missed, but a sentry near Mace’s Hole did not, and the southerner was killed. Soon after Union soldiers discovered the rebels, they arrived at Hicklin’s place and arrested him. Yet he was almost immediately released upon simply taking an oath to support the Constitution. The Union still believed he was a crackpot, which Hicklin added to by offering to shoot the rebels he caught if they numbered too many.
As the Civil War raged on, a number of wagon roads within the vicinity of Greenhorn Rancho kept Hicklin busy. There were the Santa Fe and Taos Trails, but also the Sangre de Cristo Wagon Road three miles south of the ranch and other lesser-known trails, some of whom were served by the Barlow and Sanderson Stage Line. Thus Hicklin stayed busy even after the war ended, meriting occasional mention in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers. When a new post office opened at Greenhorn in 1866, he was made postmaster. The following year, Greenhorn Station became a stage stop.
Alexander Hicklin died on Friday, the 13th of February in 1874—just ten days before his wife Estefana was officially awarded her portion of the Vigil-St. Vrain Land Grant. Most unfortunately most of the land was sold to meet her expenses as squatters invaded her property. The Hicklins have no direct descendants, but Alexander Hicklin’s many adventures are kept alive by mention in history books and his grave, which rests in a field near the site of his ranch.
Photo: The author at Alexander Hicklin’s grave near Greenhorn.