Willie Kennard- Black Cowboy and U.S. Marshall

Black Cowboys- Nineteenth Century https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5633579/The-Wests-forgotten-black-cowboys-ranch-hands-gunslingers-got-worst-jobs.html

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

This article will continue with the theme of exploring the use of biographies to teach history. We previously also discussed little known historic figures in American history that were not fully acknowledged because of their racial background. In a previous article I wrote about black cowboys, a sub-group who played a major part of US history. Willie Kennard was a well-known African American cowboy and US Marshal during the nineteenth century who most people may not have heard of. This article will offer a brief summary of Kennard’s life.

Willie Kennard (1832 – ?)
Willie Kennard was a town marshal, military corporal, and gunslinger and also a Civil War soldier of the seventh Illinois Rifles. Little is known about his life in the three decades before the war. After the war ended Kennard struggled to find employment and enlisted in the Ninth Cavalry, an entirely African American unit. His unit served in Fort Bliss, Texas and then moved to the Arizona Territory at Fort Davis where they fought against the Apache Indians. He earned a reputation for having a talent with weaponry and became an arms instructor for nearly 25 years. In the summer of 1874 Kennard responded to an ad for a town marshal in the Rocky Mountain News in Yankee Hill located in the Colorado Territory for $100 per month. He traveled to the town and sought out the local leaders to inquire about the position.          

He was directed to Yankee Hill’s five city councilmen that were meeting over their usual cups of coffee in Sarah Palmer’s Café. When the 42 year old black man announced that he wanted to apply for the position he was met with ridicule. They expressed surprise that the black middle aged man could actually read. Councilman Matt Borden –owner of the Square Deal General Store and mayor of the town– offered him a challenge. The successful candidate for the job was obligated to arrest the outlaw Barney Casewit who had wreaked havoc in Yankee Hill for two years. In Casewit’s most recent exploit he raped Birdie Campbell the 15 year old daughter of a bank employee in 1874. When the banker tried to avenge his daughter’s death he was shot and killed by Casewit. The outlaw also killed the town marshal who tried to arrest him. Two other marshals within the last three months had also attempted to apprehend the bandit but to no avail.

While the councilmen met, Barney Casewit was playing poker across the street at the rowdy Gaylord’s Saloon. Kennard was urged to promptly arrest Casewit before he could have the job. He agreed to the terms. After the new lawman was donned with a marshal’s star he casually and confidently made his way toward the saloon accompanied by the councilmen. Arriving at the Saloon, Kennard took a moment to assess the situation. He noticed that Casewit was wearing two revolvers and seemed to be a skilled gunman based on the way he wore his guns low. The ex-soldier then decided to make his move. The outlaws found it amusing when the black marshal informed Casewit that he was under arrest. After the two men exchanged more words Casewit went for his guns, but before he could shoot, Kennard promptly shot both Colt .44 pistols out of his hands. Casewit’s two sidekicks Ira Goodrich and Sam Betts tried to retaliate and take down the marshal but Kennard promptly shot them between the eyes. The outlaw surrendered immediately. After a speedy trial Barney Casewit was sentenced to death for the rape of Birdie Campbell and hung from an old pine tree the next day. It was in this way that Willie Kennard earned the job and the town’s respect as the sharp shooting marshal of Yankee Hill.   

Even though Kennard had earned his stripes many could not get used to the idea of having a black town marshal. Reese Durham, a manager of the Butterfield Stage Station, became preoccupied with the idea of getting rid of the African American lawman. After having several glasses of whiskey he challenged Kennard to a western style gunfight. The marshal prevailed, killing Durham September 2, 1874. The next year in 1875 Kennard ridded the town of the fugitive Billy McGeorge and his gang. They preyed on freight trains and passengers on the Gold Trail route. Willie lured Billy McGeorge to town by offering an insultingly low reward of $50.00 for his capture. The men were offended and showed up to Yankee Hill seeking revenge. Kennard warned them to throw down their guns, when they refused he shot down two of them in the street with a double-barrel shot gun. By 1877 Willie Kennard had successfully brought law and order back to the town. A short time later he turned in his badge and relocated to the East to seek a wife. The date and location of his death are unknown. Willie Kennard’s last known whereabouts were in Denver in 1884 when he worked as a bodyguard for the prominent African American businessman Barney Ford, known as the Black Baron of Colorado. But his heroic exploits place him alongside Wild West legends such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and Wyatt Earp in history.

When studying American history the story is not complete without studying individuals like Willie Kennard. In the twenty-first century, state and national standards require that educators teach a diverse curriculum that explores a wide spectrum of people and cultures. In this way, American history does not only cover those of European descent; but also examines those from other cultural backgrounds, including African American culture.

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think black cowboys and men like Willie Kennard are omitted from history textbooks.
2. In what ways might historic figures like Kennard help students find history more interesting?
3. How might teachers incorporate subject matter such as this into their curriculum?

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).


  1. Wow! There’s so much I don’t know about my own history. I didn’t know that there were black cowboys. I don’t think that men like willie Kennard are omitted from history textbooks because of slavery and they didn’t want the word to get out that black people could be a town marshal. Historical figures like Kennard can help student find history more interesting because they challenged the rules but in a good way.

  2. Before this article I had never heard of Willie Kennard. He sounds like he was a real hero and he definitely had to fight for the respect he earned. He was a good man and did the world some serious favors. 

  3. I found the story of Willie Kennard very interesting. I have never heard of him until now and I personally think his story should be told and taught in school. It is very rare that you hear of an African American great things in history class, and Willie’s story is astonishing, especially keeping in mind the time period he was in and all of the challenges African Americans faced. Willie Kennard took on every challenge thrown at him and succeeded.

  4. Willie Kennard has a very interesting story and a significant presence in history. Although he was/is not so well known, his impact is notable. I have always been a huge fan of the American West and western outlaws, so I was sad to find out that Willie Kennard is/was not taught in most U.S. schools. I think it went down like that because of his skin color, unfortunately. I know that my peers and I learned about Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and the James Gang, and I know we did not learn about Willie. It just does not fit the narrative of the white man’s manifest destiny.

  5. I agree that using biographies when teaching social studies is integral to personifying history and the events that took place. Anyone can memorize dates or events, but it is crucial to understand the impact on society and the various people involved. This is notion is critical to understanding why things took place the way they did and the impact on future societies.
    Here are my answers to the discussion questions that accompany this article:
    1. Why do you think black cowboys and men like Willie Kennard are omitted from history textbooks?
    As mentioned in many of our discussions, other articles, and lessons, American history, especially early history, is primarily written by white males. To avoid negatively presenting themselves or their colleagues, they omitted men like Willie from history books.
    2. In what ways might historic figures like Kennard help students find history more interesting?
    Students would probably be intrigued by Kennard’s skill and perseverance even with opposition. Kennard can demonstrate many personal traits students can admire, such as dedication, commitment, and strength through adversity. Students of various ethnic groups, especially, can be motivated by Kennard who succeeded regardless of his ethnic heritage.
    3. How might teachers incorporate subject matter such as this into their curriculum?
    Teachers can easily incorporate this type of subject matter into their curriculum. When conducting a unit study biographies can easily be included and help set the stage for the time period and/or culture within the region. Students could be asked to place themselves in the person of interest’s shoes and describe what they may have done or been thinking had they been present for the event/period. Within a diverse classroom students may feel more included or be interested to learn of prominent people in history with similar backgrounds.

  6. When I think of cowboys and the Wild West, i tend to think of old Western movies from the 1950s and 1960s where all of the cowboys were white. I had remembered hearing about how there were many African American cowboys in the Wild West but had never heard of any of their names. This was an interesting read because it shows a very traditional story in a new way. A person that was in the military but is not anymore becomes the sheriff/marshal of a small town. This story was a surprising new version because it gave information about a forgotten American hero.

  7. Willie Kennard. Sadly unheard of by most yet one of the better snippets of history I can recall. Kennard of course felt the very essence of prejudice even after numerous feats and relevant experience when applying for the Marshal position.

  8. This story amazes me because it is so cool to see something people wouldn’t expect. I think it is amazing to see an African American cowboy. Growing up I have only seen white cowboys and I have never seen or even thought about an African American one. It is mind-blowing to me how in a time of mostly white males being cowboys someone took a big risk and achieved their goals.

  9. It is baffling to me that we don’t learn about major historical figures like Willie Kennard in school. Looking back, it seems like Willie Kennard’s story is more relevant than some of the other things I was taught in public school. His unique life shows another side of our history during the Civil War and defies our usual expectations of an American cowboy.

    • 8. “Willie Kennard- Black Cowboy and U.S. Marshall”

      It is baffling to me that we don’t learn about major historical figures like Willie Kennard in school. Looking back, it seems like Kennard’s story is more relevant than some of the other things I was taught in public school. Learning about another influential African American from our past (that I have never heard of before) makes me question the significance of other things I was taught in school like the time we spent weeks discussing Christopher Columbus. It would seem that other stories like those of Kennard were just as important if not more important to learn than the others. Kennard’s unique life shows another side of our history during the Civil War and defies our usual expectations of an American cowboy.

  10. I think this text is very interesting because I have never really thought about there being a cowboy that was black, let alone a Marshall. I found it interesting that in order for him to get the job he was faced with a difficult task, where as if he was white and interviewing for the job they would have just given him the position. this story makes me happy because he proved many people that had doubted him wrong with his expert gun skills.

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