By December 31, 1860, Arapahoe County Sheriff Ned Wynkoop, according to the Denver Inter-Ocean, had a reputation as a “badman from Kansas, who wore buckskin breeches and carried a bowie knife and revolver in his belt.” The Denver weekly Field and Farm described him as “a wildcat sort of fellow and generally in debt.” Both statements were true, and on this winter day, when 24-year-old Wynkoop entered the post office in Denver, Kansas Territory, Postmaster William Park McLure made the mistake of testing his onetime friend’s reputation.
The week before, McLure had refused to hand over Wynkoop’s correspondence, as the sheriff hadn’t paid the $5 he owed for mail service. Wynkoop had simply grabbed his letters and walked off, with the postmaster screaming at his back. This time McLure wanted to avoid a repeat performance; he again cursed Wynkoop, but not with the sheriff’s mail in hand. They had been the best of friends, and friendship should have been worth more than 5 bucks—but not in this case. Contributing to their confrontation were their political differences. McLure was a Southerner, Wynkoop a Northerner, and each had been vocal about his views with civil war fast approaching. Wynkoop was not going to pay up now, and he wasn’t going to stand for any more cursing. Ignoring the fact that dueling was illegal, Wynkoop challenged the postmaster. McLure responded with a counterchallenge, one that Wynkoop accepted. They set their gentlemen’s duel for January 2, 1861.
‘Neither Sheriff Wynkoop nor officer Wynkoop would tolerate compromise. He had full trust in his viewpoint and always acted upon it —consequences be damned’
On January 1, the day before the scheduled showdown, McLure sent a mutual friend to tell Wynkoop how he “could hit larks on the wing.” Wynkoop smirked and commented, “Larks don’t have guns.” The sheriff then walked the streets of Denver, firing his weapons at selected targets. Although legend has it he shot silver dollars tossed in the air, Wynkoop wouldn’t have destroyed coins. He did, however, hit targets the size of silver dollars at up to 60 paces. Crowds gathered to watch, cheering each shot. When Wynkoop whirled around and drilled a heart drawn on a tree, a bystander cried out, “Thank God, I am not a gentleman.” Men placed odds against McLure’s chances the next day. During Wynkoop’s flashy shooting exhibition, no one dared confront him. After witnessing the sheriff’s marksmanship, Mrs. M.E. Cody, a milliner and aunt of William Cody (the future “Buffalo Bill”), hurried to McLure’s office and told the postmaster, “You’re a dead duck if you face that Kansas jayhawker.”
When Wynkoop arrived at the field of honor on January 2, he was all business—and this business figured to be deadly. As the duelists’ seconds went over the rules, McLure realized his friend-turned-foe was not about to back down. Some 1,500 people, including an undertaker, had gathered near the Catholic church to witness the event. McLure’s uneasiness grew; he was not ready to die. With time about to run out, the postmaster apologized to Wynkoop, handed him his mail and offered him a year’s free postal service. Wynkoop had won, but it had cost him a friend.
The near duel was hardly the only confrontation Wynkoop engaged in during the first half of his life. He lived by his own set of rules. While loyal to friends, he would stand up to them if need be. And while he was true to his country, he walked his own trail and had no fear of taking an unpopular stance that would garner him enemies. This independence was unwavering and would guide him later when he served in the Army. Neither Sheriff Wynkoop nor officer Wynkoop would tolerate compromise. He had full trust in his viewpoint and always acted upon it—consequences be damned.
The independent streak Wynkoop displayed on the streets of Denver would resurface four years later during an 1864 clash with Cheyennes in Colorado Territory that put him in the national spotlight. That September, Major Wynkoop of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry did what he thought was right. He met the warring Indians, received four white child captives and brought seven Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs to Denver to discuss ending the conflict. It so happened he had acted without orders and was removed from command. With Wynkoop out of the way, Colorado volunteers attacked mostly peace-minded Indians at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864. Reports that soldiers had murdered children and mutilated the dead outraged Wynkoop, who damned the victory. His viewpoint didn’t sit well with most whites, especially Denver’s citizens. Wynkoop withstood the harsh backlash and maintained that Sand Creek was more massacre than battle.
Wynkoop’s connection with Sand Creek is well known, but his Denver years have only recently come to light. Not until age 22 did he even reach that part of the country. Born Edward Wanshaer Wynkoop in Philadelphia on June 19, 1836, he was the seventh and last child of John and Angeline Wynkoop. John, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a merchant and man of property at the time of Ned’s birth. A reversal of fortune that year forced John to start selling off his property, and he died the next year just short of his 43rd birthday. His 34-year-old widow had to finish raising 1-year-old Ned and the other six children alone. Ned, though, had the benefit of older siblings who introduced him to literature and the arts and to such concepts as equality and patriotism. Emily, 12 years his senior, had the greatest impact on his life. In 1856, 20-year-old Ned moved to Lecompton, Kansas Territory, to live with Emily and her second husband, Colonel William Brindle, who was appointed to a position at the Pawnee Land Office. Brindle hired him as a clerk. At that time antislavery elements were confronting proslavery border ruffians in Bleeding Kansas, and Wynkoop, seeing the necessity, quickly mastered the use of firearms.
In 1858, seeing no future in Kansas Territory, Wynkoop joined one of the first land development outfits to set out for the goldfields on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. Kansas Territorial Governor James W. Denver appointed him sheriff of sprawling Arapahoe County. Wynkoop and his companions reached the junction of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek on November 2 and looked upon the land that would soon become Denver City.
Within a year Wynkoop was a man of property, owning several Denver City lots. He mined a few claims but found little gold dust. He also held onto his part-time position of sheriff, although he only got paid when the court convicted lawbreakers. And Wynkoop’s jurisdiction remained outside city limits, further limiting the amount of money he could earn. By late fall 1859 frigid temperatures had set in, accompanied by boredom. On December 7, to break up the daily monotony, Sheriff Wynkoop risked the catcalls of rowdy Denverites by portraying the mountaineer Hardicamp in Skatara, the Mountain Chieftain. The play promoted Denver, the Rockies and the upstart Jefferson Territory’s attempt to sever ties with Kansas Territory. Wynkoop, though, took the unpopular view of opposing the political move. He also took a shine to popular 23-year-old professional actress Louise Wakely, whom he began courting in early 1860. Louise and her sisters Rose, 18, and Flora, 14, constituted the Haydee Star Company. Often billed as “M’lle Haydee,” the beautiful Rose performed alluring dances and acted, while Flora sang.
By spring 1860 Wynkoop had begun selling his lots to make ends meet. He also began flouting the law when he disagreed with it. At a March dinner party Acting Jefferson Territorial Governor L.W. Bliss insulted Dr. Joseph S. Stone, knowing the doctor would challenge him to a duel, irrespective of Denver’s ban on the practice. Sheriff Wynkoop shouldn’t have acted as Bliss’ second, but he did, negotiating shotguns at 30 paces. With Wynkoop attending, Bliss faced Stone on March 7. At the prearranged signal Dr. Stone fired and missed; Bliss didn’t, and the doctor fell with balls penetrating his bladder. He would linger several painful months before dying.
Soon after the duel Madam Wakely, Louise’s mother, arranged for the three sisters to perform in Mountain City, and Wynkoop followed Louise into the mountains. Their relationship had grown, and they needed more privacy than her tight-knit family allowed. When Wynkoop asked Louise to move in with him, she accepted, and before the Haydee Star Company’s first season in Mountain City had ended, the couple left to keep house back in Denver.
To manage his ongoing financial woes short of selling all his city lots, Wynkoop began moonlighting as a bartender at Southerner Charles Harrison’s Criterion, an ornate, two-story white frame building that offered dancing, dining, drinking and gambling on the first floor and a hotel on the second floor. One pioneer described Harrison, who claimed to have killed 14 people, as “a fine-looking man and always dressed in perfect style, with plenty of diamonds.”
While Wynkoop refused to support Jefferson Territory’s struggle for legitimacy, he saw no conflict with running for sheriff on the Arapahoe County ticket when the provisional government announced its first election for October 22, 1860. He won and began collecting a regular paycheck.
On November 2, Wynkoop drank late into the night at the Criterion with friend and boss Harrison and others. They discussed the plight of postmaster McLure, who had threatened Denver’s first schoolmaster, O.J. Goldrick, and then been locked up by City Marshal James Shaffer for refusing to post a $2,000 bond to guarantee his good behavior. Sheriff Wynkoop and the others decided they must stand by their friend McLure. That night the group stormed the makeshift jail in the C.A. Cook & Co. building and sprung McLure.
The next day Shaffer and a posse that looked more like a lynch mob surrounded the post office and demanded McLure’s surrender. When someone inside yelled, “Fire!” the posse scattered, and Shaffer scrambled to reassemble his men. At that point Wynkoop strode up to him and offered to act as mediator, to end the standoff before it erupted into gunfire. Shaffer turned him down, and the posse dispersed.
A day passed. But on November 5 Shaffer again assembled a posse, and the group resolved that McLure must pay the bond or face the consequences. But Shaffer didn’t find McLure at his rented room on Ferry Street, and the mob canvassed the neighborhood looking for him. About then Wynkoop showed up, told Shaffer to meet him at the nearby Star Saloon and walked off. Shaffer and his men immediately headed to the saloon run by Ki Harrison (no relation to Wynkoop’s boss Charlie).
Minutes later Wynkoop arrived alone at the Star and pushed his way through the possemen bellied up to the bar. He told Shaffer he’d deliver McLure to Judge Jacob Downing’s office within five minutes. As promised, Wynkoop appeared with McLure, and the postmaster paid the bond. The afternoon edition of the Rocky Mountain News editorialized its hope to never again “chronicle events similar to those which have transpired within the last three days.”
Lawlessness, including shootings and knifings, was running rampant in Denver—thugs even attacked Rocky Mountain News editor William Byers—but Sheriff Wynkoop had no authority within the city limits. National politics, which garnered the majority of newspaper headlines, intensified the violent atmosphere. On November 6 antislavery candidate Abraham Lincoln’s presidential election victory set in motion events that would split the country and impact the gold region. Pro-Union supporters seemed to have the upper hand in Denver. While Wynkoop was one of them, that didn’t keep the independent-minded sheriff from befriending many Southerners. On election night, though, Wynkoop joined the Northerners who swarmed the streets, lit bonfires, drank and fired guns in the air, while the outnumbered Southerners wisely kept a low profile.
As Wynkoop was friends with Byers, the Rocky Mountain News editor refrained from attacking Ned in print. The Western Mountaineer, on the other hand, took dead aim at both Wynkoop and McLure. The paper hadn’t been pleased with Sheriff Wynkoop since Bliss mortally wounded Dr. Stone (Stone finally died on October 11). “Vice stings even in our pleasures; but virtue consoles even in our pains,” read an article in the November 15 edition, quoting a contemporary poet. “If Bliss would shun the former, and cleave unto the latter, he would realize how happy we are. Try it on, Ned.” In the same issue the paper expressed its disbelief over the conduct of the city’s postmaster: “McLure still survives!” Wynkoop, however, was not going to let any newspaper dictate how he behaved or whom he should call friend.
Wynkoop became aware that fall of a family situation unknown to Louise and her parents: Rose Wakely was seeing gambler Thomas Evans on the sly. Evans, like Charlie Harrison, was a well-dressed and dangerous man. In November 1860 Rose disappeared with Evans, and word spread the gambler had kidnapped the alluring dancer/actress. Assuming Evans intended to take her to the States, Sheriff Wynkoop set out in pursuit, following the South Platte northeastward. Near Julesburg he caught up with the fleeing couple.
Things were not as Wynkoop thought. Rose explained that Evans had not abducted her—she had eloped with him. Regardless, Wynkoop had resolved to return Louise’s sister to her family. During a fierce snowstorm on November 19, Wynkoop rode into Denver with a livid Rose and a shackled Evans. While many miners were outraged at Evans for “forcing” the teenager to go with him, the Wakely family struggled with the truth. The court set a trial date for Evans, which came and went. On November 24 it became clear why Evans wasn’t tried—Ki Harrison married the enamored couple in his saloon. Shortly after the nuptials, Rose and her husband left Denver, and they never looked back.
Whether at work or not, Wynkoop spent most of his time in the company of Charlie Harrison at the Criterion. They learned on December 2 that one James Cochrane had pistol-whipped Harrison employee Andy Goff. Wynkoop and Harrison tracked down Cochrane, shouted at him and flashed their guns but refrained from pulling the triggers. That night at the Criterion, more trouble, unrelated to the Goff-Cochrane dustup, surfaced. Wynkoop was tending bar when hard-drinking saloon patron James Hill grabbed him and spun him around. Hill was fighting mad over Wynkoop’s victory in the October election for sheriff and over the relationship between Wynkoop and an unnamed woman (maybe Louise Wakely). The sheriff broke free of the taller man and walked away, but Hill gave chase and grabbed him again. Hill had made some unflattering remarks about Wynkoop and now announced he was going to whip him. “You’re a goddamn liar!” Wynkoop yelled.
Hill yanked his pistol, but Wynkoop didn’t back down. He said that if Hill was trying to frighten him, it wouldn’t work. “I don’t draw my pistol unless I design to use it,” Hill said. The Criterion drew deathly still. But when Wynkoop drew his own revolver, Hill didn’t shoot. Wynkoop then told Hill to holster his weapon. Hill didn’t listen, so Wynkoop used his gun as a club, swinging it at the drunk. Harrison stepped between them, saying he didn’t want friends shooting each other in his place. O.B. Thomas, also serving drinks that night, convinced Wynkoop to holster his revolver and move to the other end of the bar.
Meanwhile, Hill put away his own pistol and had another drink, compliments of Harrison. Thomas then asked Hill to step outside to talk, but Hill only cursed the bartender. Then Harrison stopped playing nice; he stormed the loudmouth. Hill again drew his gun. A struggle ensued, during which Harrison produced his own revolver and shot Hill at close range. While the saloon crowd scattered, the wounded Hill fell to the floor. Delirious, he insisted on talking to Wynkoop while a doctor poured brandy into him to ease his pain. A half hour later Hill collapsed. He died the next morning.
The next day, Harrison went to trial. After hearing two days of testimony, the jury returned a split decision—10 for acquittal, two for conviction. Displeased with press coverage of the proceedings, Judge William Slaughter decided against a retrial. Harrison was a free man. Editor Byers was angry. He wanted Denver to prohibit the carrying of firearms, and he wanted the bad element, which included some of Wynkoop’s friends, run out of town. But even though the sheriff supported Harrison and approved Judge Slaughter’s decision, Byers still refrained from attacking his friend in print.
Of course, Sheriff Wynkoop also had to deal with problems that didn’t involve him or his friends. For instance, a few days after Harrison’s trial, a freighter found farmer Thomas Freeman’s deserted wagon covered with blood and gore. Wynkoop deputized W.T. Shortridge and sent him to investigate. Shortridge rode north, asking questions at each homestead he passed. When he reached Cottonwood Springs, Nebraska Territory, he found a suspect, Patrick Waters, in possession of Freeman’s rifle and horse. Shortridge returned to Denver with Waters in custody on December 15.
At a meeting the next day the city Masons asked Wynkoop to find Freeman’s body and determine how he died. The sheriff set out after dark with a dozen possemen, including Harrison and Byers, as well as prisoner Waters. During the night ride Waters maintained his innocence, but Wynkoop didn’t believe him. In the morning the sheriff threatened to lynch the prisoner unless he showed the posse where he had hid the body. Waters refused to speak at first but changed his mind once they placed a rope around his neck. The prisoner led them to Freeman, whom Waters had blasted with a shotgun at close range on November 30.
On December 19 a people’s court gathered outside the Criterion. Wynkoop rounded up perspective jurors, and the trial began. The next day, bad weather forced the proceedings inside. Wynkoop, Shortridge and Harrison, among others, testified. The jury convicted Waters, and he was hanged the next day.
Then Wynkoop went back to more personal matters, namely the heated argument he was having with McLure, the onetime friend the sheriff had once broken out of jail. When the postmaster backed down from their scheduled January 2 duel and handed Wynkoop his mail, Byers expressed his relief no blood had been shed. The newspaperman decided, however, he could no longer be protective of the sheriff, who had fully intended to carry out the illegal duel. A week later Byers published an editorial suggesting that winners on “the field of honor” be hung from “the nearest tree.”
Politics added to the tensions that month, as Denverites debated the issues that had the country on the brink of civil war. On February 28, 1861, Congress officially organized Colorado Territory to replace the unrecognized Jefferson Territory (which had been in place since October 24, 1859). As Harrison’s Criterion had become the unofficial headquarters for secession, and because Harrison himself was so vocal and violent, Wynkoop quit tending bar. Better that, he decided, than being untrue to his beliefs or getting into a deadly fight with his old boss and friend.
As for Sheriff Wynkoop, he had not yet seen his last days as a lawman. In fact, when James Shaffer announced in March that he would seek reelection as city marshal, Wynkoop decided to challenge him. As election day approached, Byers went after Wynkoop as never before. In the March 20 Rocky Mountain News, without actually naming Wynkoop, Byers stated, “We want no man for city marshal whose sympathies will influence him to protect and screen those who are disturbers of the peace and violators of law.” Eleven days later, when Byers’ competition, the Daily Denver Mountaineer, accused Shaffer of pocketing fines, Wynkoop condemned the accusation. Byers said Wynkoop was “too much of a gentleman” to drag his opponent’s name through the mud. But on election day (April 1), Byers accused Wynkoop’s supporters of stuffing the ballet box in east Denver when the judges broke for dinner. Wynkoop damned the alleged fraud but was convinced by friends not to drop out of the race. Angry that Wynkoop didn’t concede the election, Byers condemned him in print for breaking McLure out of jail and for refusing to acknowledge the legality of the Denver City government.
A second election for marshal was held on April 5. Wynkoop’s supporters, the Laborer Party, marched the streets, touted their man and bullied anyone who confronted them. By night it appeared as if Wynkoop had won. However, in a shocking turnabout the next day, the Rocky Mountain News printed the election results: Shaffer, 671; Wynkoop, 508. Byers immediately went to work healing wounds. “We have no desire to exult over the defeat of Mr. Wynkoop,” read the April 6 issue of the News. “He has acted, so far as we can learn, with all fairness and honor through both elections and has publicly rebuked and condemned every fraudulent attempt to increase his vote.”
Ned Wynkoop would not have a city marshal’s pay, but he still had a sheriff’s salary. The Civil War began that same month back East, and Indian troubles loomed ahead in the Denver area. That summer Territorial Governor William Gilpin organized the 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers to combat the threat of a Confederate invasion, and on July 31 Wynkoop ended his law enforcement career and enlisted as a second lieutenant. On August 21 he married Louise, and five days later he won promotion to captain. Their first child, Edward Estill, was born on October 6.
As a lawman, Ned Wynkoop had done his duty as he saw fit and had persevered despite his detractors. As an Army officer, he again did his duty as he saw fit and drew many detractors in and out of the service. By 1864 the independent, damn the consequences attitude that defined his Denver years had grown even stronger. His behavior before and after the Sand Creek Massacre caused an uproar among citizens of Colorado Territory and criticism from the press, the military and the U.S. government. But Wynkoop did not waver from his decisions. He had done what he thought was right while serving Denver’s citizens, and now he was doing the same with new friends and associates—the Cheyennes.
California author Louis Kraft is a frequent contributor to Wild West. For further reading see his 2011 book Ned Wynkoop and the Lonely Road from Sand Creek (University of Oklahoma Press).