The Colorado gold mining town of Yankee Hill desperately needed a new town marshal, having lost its last three in only a three-month stretch. The reason for the high turnover rate was a hard case named Barney Casewit. Fast with a gun, with no qualms about killing, he had bullied and terrorized the town for two years. The culmination of his vile reign of terror came in 1874. After he raped 15-year-old Birdie Campbell, the girl’s father, a bookkeeper at the bank, tried to avenge his daughter. Casewit shot him dead and then did the same to the marshal at the time, a man named Craig, who attempted to arrest Casewit. Ben Reed from nearby Ruby Hill replaced Marshal Craig, but Reed also was outgunned by Casewit. The next lawman the camp hired turned in his badge and shipped out of town one night after watching Casewit gun down two saddle tramps.
Yes, Yankee Hill desperately needed a new marshal. The town councilmen, however, never expected anyone like Willie Kennard to show up in answer to the advertisement they had placed in the Rocky Mountain News. Matt Borden, owner of the Square Deal General Store and mayor of Yankee Hill, and the four other councilmen were discussing town business over their usual cups of morning coffee in Fat Sarah Palmer’s Cafe when a gangly 42-year-old black man approached them and said he had read the ad. ‘You mean you can read, boy? one of the councilmen asked. Notwithstanding the grim look on Kennard’s face, Mayor Borden decided to have some fun with this unlikely candidate for marshal. Before the councilmen could hire anyone, they had to make certain he was up to handling the job. A little test was in order. The job was his if he could arrest a notorious criminal who at that very moment was across the street playing poker in Gaylor’s Saloon. That was agreeable to Kennard, who pinned on a star and calmly headed for the saloon to make his first arrest.
One of the councilmen, lawyer Bert Corgan, later wrote in his autobiography, Mining Camp Lawyer (published in 1897 by Pruett Bros. of Los Angeles): I was perplexed by this darky. He was either, I calculated, an impetuous bunghead or as cold-blooded a gunslinger as ever I saw. With the others, I accompanied him to Gaylor’s Saloon, a rowdy place which the miscreant, Barney Casewit, frequented.
After pausing momentarily to size up his quarry, Kennard moved toward Casewit’s table. Casewit and his cronies really thought it hilarious when Kennard told him he was under arrest. I’m just supposed to come with you? Casewit asked innocently. Where are we supposed to go? When Kennard told him it was his choice, either jail or hell, Casewit knew the new lawman was not bluffing. And the way he wore his two revolvers, low and tied down, meant he probably knew how to use them. But Casewit was not about to let himself be arrested. Even if he wasn’t hanged, no one would ever respect him again if word got around that he had backed down to a black man.
Casewit got to his feet and, not heeding Kennard’s last-chance warning to give up peaceably, reached for the Colt .44s at his sides. The badman had barely gotten his hands on the butts when, according to Corgan, Kennard did something only talked about in legend but never before actually seen by anyone in Gaylor’s Saloon. Kennard drew his revolver and fired into Casewit’s still holstered Colts. The impact of the bullets knocked the butts out of Casewit’s hands. The shots almost ripped the holsters from his gunbelt and rendered his guns totally useless. Two of Casewit’s companions, Ira Goodrich and Sam Betts, decided this would be a propitious moment to make their moves on behalf of their friend. They were dead wrong. Kennard dropped them both with clean shots between the eyes as they drew, their guns barely clearing leather. Casewit’s hands instantly went straight up. He was taking no chances lest Kennard think he also might try something.
Justice was usually swift in the mining camps and towns of the Old West. The trial was held the next day, with Corgan, the only man in Yankee Hill available who had knowledge of the law, presiding. Casewit was found guilty of raping Birdie Campbell and sentenced to hang. Not wanting to waste time and money building a gallows, Corgan instructed Kennard to nail a crossbar to an old pine behind Glen Ritchey’s blacksmith shop. Casewit’s hands were tied behind his back, and a noose was looped around his neck. Kennard pulled him up about 10 feet off the ground. Casewit tried to delay his demise by wrapping his legs around the tree trunk and shinnying up it. He only succeeded in prolonging his agony. After about 20 minutes, the strength in his legs gave out. Releasing his grip, Casewit could only dangle helplessly as the rope slowly strangled him to death.
After this astonishing performance, no one on the Yankee Hill town council doubted Willie Kennard’s ability to fully execute the duties of the office of marshal; however, they wanted to know something about the man before taking him on permanently. Kennard obligingly filled them in on his background.
During the Civil War he had been a corporal in the 7th Illinois Rifles, a company made up entirely of black volunteers. Having a natural talent for using sidearms, he was made an instructor at the Montrose Training Camp. After the war, having found scant opportunities for civilian employment, Kennard enlisted in a black unit, the 9th Cavalry. He served five years at Fort Bliss, Texas, and then relocated with his unit to Fort Davis in Arizona Territory. He saw action against the Warm Springs Apache and Mescalero Apache. When his enlistment ran out, Kennard drifted about for a few months before responding to the newspaper ad in the summer of 1874 and becoming the marshal of Yankee Hill, Colorado Territory, at the tidy salary of $100 per month.
The town of Yankee Hill had a short but fascinating history. In 1858, pay dirt was struck in Colorado Territory in the area around Pikes Peak. As word spread, another California-style gold rush began. By 1866, hundreds of small mining camps had sprouted. Among them was Yankee Hill, situated about 25 miles west of Denver. Benefitting from its location on the toll road (the so-called Gold Trail) between Central City and Georgetown, Yankee Hill flourished. By 1874 the town had several hundred permanent residents and a few hundred more transient prospectors. Yankee Hill’s progress and prosperity brought with it the expected influx of human predators, including men like Barney Casewit who were fast with a gun and totally bereft of conscience. Relying on locals to enforce the laws and maintain order was not good enough anymore. And so it was that Yankee Hill advertised for a professional town tamer.
Willie Kennard’s auspicious debut as town marshal earned him instant respect from the citizens of Yankee Hill, who were grateful to be free of Casewit’s cruel tyranny. It was inevitable, though, that there would be those who could not accept the concept of a black man as town marshal. Reese Durham, local manager of the Butterfield Stage Station, became obsessed with the desire to run the lawman out of town. On the afternoon of September 2, 1874, emboldened by several glasses of whiskey, Durham challenged Kennard to a gunfight but only earned himself an early trip to the local cemetery.
In the spring of 1875, the town was being plagued by a gang of outlaws preying on the freight wagons and passenger stages that traveled the Gold Trail. The gang was an eight-man outfit led by Billy McGeorge, a 40-year-old fugitive from the Colorado Territorial Prison at Canon City. The town council asked Marshal Kennard to go out and round them up.
Not wanting to chase McGeorge up and down the trails and over half the territory, the marshal decided to set a trap. He had posters nailed to trees, offering a $50 reward for McGeorge’s capture dead or alive. McGeorge flew into a fit of rage when he saw one of the posters. There wasn’t another marshal in the territory offering less than $300. It was an insult that could not go unchallenged. On Monday, June 28, 1875, McGeorge and his gang rode into Yankee Hill to secure vengeance.
Alerted to their arrival, Kennard met them at the end of Front Street with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot. He ordered McGeorge and his men to toss their rifles to the ground. One of the outlaws, Cash Downing, tested the black marshal’s skill with a gun and paid for it with his life. The shot also killed the outlaw behind Downing and shattered the glass of the Evans Hardware Store. McGeorge then ordered his men to drop their guns. As Kennard led the gang off to the hoosegow, McGeorge vowed that someday he would get even. However, that day never came for McGeorge. Lawyer Bert Corgan, again acting as judge, had a slew of charges to choose from on which to try McGeorge. The murders of a family of immigrants from Ohio named Stalcup were suitable for the purpose. Found guilty, Billy McGeorge was hanged from the same pine on which Barney Casewit had met his fate just one year earlier.
By 1877, Kennard had thoroughly tamed the once wild and woolly mining town. The population was also declining as the gold began to play out. The traffic through Yankee Hill dropped because mining in Central City and Georgetown had plummeted. Kennard, most likely Colorado’s first black lawman, decided it was time for him to move on as well. He handed in his badge, saying he was headed back East to find a wife. Not much is known of his whereabouts or activities after he left Yankee Hill. He surfaced for a time in Denver in 1884, working as a bodyguard for Barney Ford, a wealthy businessman and former slave who became known as the Black Baron of Colorado. Where Kennard went after that remains a mystery, as does the date of his death. As for Yankee Hill, it is gone and all but forgotten. Only remnants of a few buildings remain.
Legendary lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Wild Bill Hickok are well remembered today, but most Western lawmen, like Willie Kennard, toiled and died in obscurity after bringing law and order to an untamed land. Bat Masterson described them as just plain ordinary men who could shoot straight and had the most utter courage and perfect nerve–and, for the most part, a keen sense of right and wrong. Well, in Willie Kennard’s case, maybe not so ordinary.
This article was written by Gerald Lindemann and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!