The passing of a tough lady

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The Cimarron country on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northeastern New Mexico is historically among the richest sub-regions in the state, and a favorite of mine. Thus, I was saddened to learn that one of the legendary elders there, cow-woman Gretchen Sammis, 86, of the famed Chase Ranch, had died last Aug. 14. I’d spent a fruitful day interviewing her on April 21, 1994, carrying away a notebook crammed with small nuggets of history.

The ranch, of which Sammis was the sole heir at the time of her death, had been founded in 1872 by her great-grandparents, Manly M. Chase and his wife Teresa.

From Cimarron-area rancher Steve Zimmer, I learned that Manly Chase is credited with trading a herd of wild horses to land baron Lucien Maxwell for 1,000 acres in beautiful Poñil Canyon, a short distance north of the town of Cimarron. As a cattle outfit, it expanded, prospered over the years, and was passed down through the next generation of Chases, and at last into the hands of Gretchen Sammis. She took over its management in 1964.

As a child, she had learned first hand elements of the cow trade, that included riding, roping and branding.

Though she spent time away from the ranch getting a pair of degrees, one from the University of New Mexico and another from the University of Colorado, her affections always remained with the ranching way of life, in spite of its hardships.

New Mexico Magazine in June 1987 quoted her thusly: “One thing folks need to know for sure is ranching’s not all glamour. Some people think it is. They figure when you ranch you just turn the bull out and then get calves and sell them. Not that simple!”

What led me to visit Sammis in 1994 was a rumor I’d heard that Kit Carson had once built and occupied a small dugout on the future Chase Ranch. As I discovered, she had a strong sense of history and readily showed me “the Carson site,” some 50 yards south of the main two-story ranch house erected by Manly Chase.

The only things visible now are a few foundation stones half-buried at a couple of the corners. Sammis good-naturedly stood on one corner while I photographed her.

She said it was always a family tradition that Manly Chase and his bride, Teresa, lived in the dugout while the first part of their large adobe home was under construction.

Despite a long search, I’ve never been able to find a specific documented reference to Kit putting up a dugout in Poñil Canyon. If he did, it was most likely in 1845.

In that year, he and another ex-mountain man, Richard Owens, came from Taos and started a farm on the little Cimarron River, perhaps below the later town of Cimarron.

In his memoirs, Kit said, “We built ourselves little huts,” and then they went to farming. Could they have set up a hut first on the Poñil River in the canyon, then abandoned it for a better location on the Cimarron? Possibly.

Sammis in the afternoon gave me a tour of the historic Chase home and ranch headquarters. She had kept the furnishings that accumulated over the years, including the bed she had been born in.

In the living room I saw heavy maroon drapery on a rod and an imported flowery carpet that had come from the Maxwell mansion and dated to the 1870s.

In another room, I was shown tin nailed to the floor next to a bed. It covered a blood stain from a ranch cowboy shot while chasing the Sam Ketchum gang of train robbers.

Rather than being sent to the rough bunkhouse when brought in, he was granted a comfortable bed in the owner’s quarters, where he bled his last and died.

Gretchen Sammis received many awards for her work in ranch-related organizations. In 1986 she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association named her State Cattleman of the Year in 2007.

Before her death, Sammis placed the Chase Ranch records in the archives at New Mexico State University. The home and land have gone to a foundation that will maintain the house as a museum and the property as a model historic ranch.