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. Willie Kennard seems like an interesting character who should have his own movie, something along the lines of Tombstone. There is a movie that sounds like a part of his life mentioned in this article, but I wouldn’t want to equate his life and accomplishments to a movie like Blazing Saddles without knowing more about him. It does seem to have an uncanny parallel to the part of his life where he had to prove himself by arresting a notorious outlaw before being given the job. In Blazing Saddles, Bart the sheriff faces extreme racism when he arrives in town, and he was actually appointed by the governor. I can’t imagine the actual reaction of the councilmen when Kennard walked in and just told them he wanted the job without any government power backing him up.
    I’m going to do more research on him, because it’s fascinating to me that nobody really knows what happened to him in his later years.

  2. The idea of cowboys and outlaws are something that often fascinate the American mind. Even more so, the idea of lands that were without law and jurisdiction. For Willie Kennard, this was but a perfect environment to make a name for himself and display that the color of one’s skin does not define their abilities. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear about this man and his trials and success stories. It’s important that as educators, we work towards including the tales of a variety of those of different backgrounds. Willie Kennard, is but one individual who could prove to be the turning point for one child’s sudden interest in history. That turning point for the child’s sudden interest in history being the ability to familiarize and see themselves in the history that they read. Willie Kennard, could be that individual that a child sees themselves in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.