NOTE: I’ve taken some liberty with the recorded accounts and put some of the historical account into the form of dialogue. Otherwise, it’s accurate.
The man on horse back paused about a mile from the town. Like so many old west communities, the town was made of logs, roughly sawn boards, and nailed together with dreams. He studied the community for a moment before urging the horse towards it.
He didn’t look like much. Just a rangy middle aged cowhand like so many cowhands across the west. But if you studied him, you noticed things about him. He wore his gun low, the sign of a man accustomed to fighting for his life. His gaze shifted this way and that, and he sniffed the air as if he might smell danger.
People looked at him in shock as he came into town. This was indeed a novelty riding into town. Some wondered what he was doing here. After all, there were few of his kind around. Maybe he was lost.
The miners in the town of Yankee Hill, Colorado were certain the man was trouble.
Why else would a black man ride into this town.
As if they didn’t have enough trouble of their own without him showing up!
The year was 1874. The mining town of Yankee Hill, high in the Colorado mountains, was the personal playground of a man named Barney Casewit. He’d bullied and terrorized the town for over two years. He’d killed men, killed a marshal or two, scared off a few more, and raped at 15 year old girl named Birdie Campbell. When confronted by her father, Casewit gunned him down and left him dead in the street. The town marshal, a man named Craig tried to arrest him. Casewit laid him out right next to Birdie’s father. Ben Reed from nearby Ruby Hill replaced Craig. He didn’t do any better and was gunned down as well. The next marshal left town after seeing Casewit kill two saddle tramps.
Like the giant Goliath in the Bible, men feared him. He swaggered around the town, secure in his domain and dominance over the citizens. No one could match him. And no one challenged him. This was his, and no one, and nothing could beat him.
What this particular Goliath hadn’t counted on was that Davids have an annoying tendency to just show up, and David had just ridden into town.
Matt Borden owned the Square Deal General Store. He was also the mayor of Yankee Hill, and he and a couple of the city councilmen were discussing town business in Fat Sarah Palmers Café over coffee when the black cowboy walked in. He went straight up to them and said, “My name is Willie Kennard. I read your town is looking for a marshal. I’d like to apply for the job.”
Borden would say years later that he wasn’t impressed. One of the councilmen looked up at him and asked, “You can read, boy?”
If the comment irritated Willie, he didn’t show it.
Borden decided to have some fun with the applicant. “The hiring process is pretty steep. We have to make sure you can handle the job.”
“Oh. And what is that?”
“There’s a man in the bar across the street. He’s already killed several men to include two former marshals. Arrest him and the job is yours.”
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall that day. I know men like Willie Kennard. I know the cloth they’re cut from. I’ve fought alongside these kinds of men and called them friends. These men are steel hard and don’t scare. Like so many of them did, I wonder if Willie smiled and asked, “Is that all?”
They handed him the marshal badge, sure they’d be getting it back soon.
“He’s over there,” they told him, and pointed towards Gaylors Saloon. “His name is Barney Casewit.” They gave him a description.
With a node, the newly minted marshal started walking across the street.
If these men expected Willie to run, or to die, they’d grossly underestimated him. Willie was a battle hardened warrior and had fought as a Corporal with the 7th Illinois Rifle Company. He also served with the Ninth Cavalry, an entirely black unit, that was at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and later moved to Ft. Davis, Arizona. There, he fought against the Apaches. Being a Corporal made him a leader of men. His time in the unit soon convinced others he knew his way around a firearm, and he became an instructor at the Montrose Training Camp.
But when the war ended, and like so many others, Willie looked around and found few opportunities for a man of his talents. So he drifted to Denver, and one day reads about the town that needed a marshal.
Now with minutes behind the badge, he walks into the saloon and sees Casewit. He spent a moment studying him, noting how he also wore his pistols low. He also studied the man’s two associates.
He approached the table, and informs Casewit that he’s under arrest.
Well, Casewit and friends thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard.
“I’m supposed to just come with you?” Casewit asked. “Where are we going?”
“It’s your choice,” Willie answered. “You can go to jail or you can go to hell.”
Casewit was now in a pickle. He had exactly two choices. Surrender or add to his list of killings.
Option two was easy for him.
He stood, and started to reach for his pistols.
What happened next is debated. Some say before he even touched the guns, Willie had drawn and fired twice. The bullets struck the pistols, nearly tearing them from the gunbelt and rendering both weapons useless. Having been in gunfights, and being a student of the gunfights and the pistol, I have trouble buying this story. The first rule of gunfighting is don’t get killed. Shooting someone’s weapon could easily end up with your violating that rule if you missed. Besides, it’s not that easy, especially when the heat is on.
Others say that Willie drew and clubbed Casewit hard across the side of the head with the drawn pistol, knocking him to the floor and out. This one, I’ll buy. Willie was outnumbered, and the double action pistol hadn’t been invented. That meant he had to pull the hammer back after each shot so the pistol would advance to the next round.
Also, the old time six shooters were heavy. Unlike the Glock and etc. favored today, the Old West pistol was American Heavy Metal at its best. They were so solid and heavy you could pound a nail with one if you had to.
The blow knocked Casewit down and out.
That left Willie with two fully loaded and ready to go pistols.
While stories dispute what he did to Casewit, no one disputes is what happened to Casewit’s buddies.
Both tried to draw on the new marshal. Before they even got halfway out, he’d taken them out with a bullet each, and right between the eyes.
Casewit went to jail.
Justice was swift back then. He was tried for the rape of the Campbell girl, the murders of the marshals and townspeople, and taken to the edge of town to a pine tree and hung. Stories have it that he wrapped his legs around the tree in an effort to keep from dying. But all that did was prolong his agonies and eventually his strength gave out and he was left to choke to death while dangling 10 feet off the ground. It was a fitting end for this brute of man.
The town of Yankee Hill had a new marshal. He was paid $100.00 a month. (A little shy of $2300.00 dollars in today’s money. He still did better than I did as a Deputy Sheriff.)
That’s not to say he never got tested again. Indeed, one of his tests shows his understanding of human psychology.
A robber named Billy McGeorge was an escapee from the territorial prison. He’d formed a gang around himself and they preyed on the freight wagons and stages that ran the Gold Trail.
The Town Council asked Marshal Kennard to track them down.
Kennard realized that wasn’t such a good idea. Colorado was a large area, and he’d chase them all over the territory and still never catch them.
“I’m going to make them come to me,” he said.
“And how are you going to do that?”
I can imagine he smiled as he went out to set up his plan.
Soon, wanted posters began showing up on trees and posts. The marshal had put a bounty on McGeorge’s head of a measly $50.00.
To say it ticked McGeorge off would be an understatement. Every other marshal around was asking at least $300.00. But fifty bucks! That almost wasn’t worth walking across the street for.
As expected, he and his gang showed up in Yankee Hill to explain the facts of life to this black man who had insulted him so.
They found Marshal Kennard waiting for them with a double barrel shotgun.
“You men can just drop your weapons!” Kennard ordered, leveling the shotgun at them.
One of them, an outlaw named Cash Downing, tried to pull on Willie.
Willie blew him off the horse with a blast from the shotgun. The blast also killed the outlaw right behind Downing and blew the window out of the General Store.
With one barrel still loaded and aimed right at him, McGeorge told his men to surrender. But as Kennard took them to jail, they breathed out threats of vengeance.
They never got the chance. They soon found themselves dangling from the same tree that Casewit had died on a few months before.
By 1877, Yankee Hill was a quiet town. But it was also a dying town. The gold was running out, and people were moving on.
Willie looked around and realized the place was going to be a ghost town soon. He handed in his badge and said, “I’m going out east to find a wife.”
Today, there’s not a lot left to even mark the town of Yankee Hill ever existed except a few crumbling foundations and a couple of logs and boards that haven’t melted into the ground yet. In the overhead imagery, there appears to be the remains of a tailings dump. I couldn’t find evidence of a graveyard. The mountains have pretty well swallowed up the remains of the town.
I find very little about the community in newspaper searches, and aside from a few reminisces that have be written down, there’s not a lot to tell.
Today, the old ghost town is a popular destination for hikers and jeeps.
We know Willie was in Denver around 1884 and worked as a body guard for Barney Ford, a former slave who had built a thriving business there.
Then he vanishes from history. Where Willie went, when he died, and where he’s buried are unknowns. I find very little on the internet about him. Newspapers, assuming Yankee Hill had one, no longer seem to exist or are online so anything written there is gone (though I’m still checking out the Library of Congress, but that’s not looking promising).
Willie Kennard remains an enigma. Aside from a few brief flashes, he vanishes leaving few traces as well. I’d be happy to find out if he found himself a nice lady, they had children, and someplace out there, he has great, great grandchildren. I wonder if they know who he was or what he did.
For the time being however, like so many Old West heroes, Willie Kennard rode into history leaving a lasting legacy as Colorado’s first black lawman.
But sometimes becoming part of history is a good thing. Sometimes, it’s best to let a legend remain a legend.
WRITERS NOTE: To a very large degree, in my lawman series of novels, I’ve based Will Diaz’s buddy Jonesy (Michael Jones, LAPD) on Willie.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Like my blog and stories? Check out my novels available on Amazon. I have two out right now, The Cross and the Badge, and Against Flesh and Blood. A third novel, The Judas Tree will be coming out soon. Click on the novel names to be taken straight to them.
As always, thanks for dropping by and for your support. God Bless.
Additional resources possibly found at your library:
Cain, D. Lawmen of the Old West: The Good Guys (2000).
Childs, D. Willie Kennard-Black Cowboy (2013).
Corgan, B. Mining Camp Lawyer (1897).
Lindemann, G. Willie Kennard Yankee Hill’s Black Marshall (1996).
Miller, R. H. & R. Leonard. Reflections of a Black Cowboy (1991).
Miller, R. H. Cowboys (2004).
Milligan, B. & C. Shaw. Lawmen: Stories of Men Who Tamed the West (1994)