Yankee Hill Marshal Willie Kennard
In 1858, gold was struck in Colorado Territory around Pikes Peak and within ten years hundreds of small mining camps had sprung up. Yankee Hill was one of them. The Yankee Hill community had the same problems as other mining camps. There were permanent hard working citizens and legitimate business owners. And then there were the conmen and hardened outlaws who preyed on them. Some of these mining camps often became held captive by marauding bandits. Such was the mix Willie Kennard, a tall 42 year old black man, rode into in 1874.
During the Civil War Willie had been a corporal in a company of black volunteers. His knowledge and skill with firearms earned him a position as a marksmanship instructor. But following his enlistment Willie found job opportunities slim. That’s why he was headed to Yankee Hill to answer an advertisement in the Rocky Mountain News for a professional town taming marshal. Little did he know of what he was setting himself up for. During a three month period the small town had lost as many marshals.
Yankee Hill’s main problem was a cold blooded killer named Barney Casewit who had terrorized the community for over two years. Casewit was fast and deadly with a gun and used it often. One marshal had tried to arrest him for the rape of a young girl. He not only shot and killed the marshal, but also the girl’s father who had come after him seeking revenge. Two other marshals followed, one who Casewit quickly outdrew and one who wisely turned in his badge after seeing Casewit outdraw two drifters who had come into town.
When Kennard arrived he began seeking the whereabouts of the town council in order to submit his application. He was told he could find them having their customary morning cup of coffee at a local café where they usually met to discuss town business.
In those days prejudice against blacks was common. But, for a black man to apply for a position such as town marshal was virtually unheard of. Yankee Hill officials were no different. At first Kennard’s proposition seemed ludicrous and they got a good laugh out of it. But, seeing Kennard’s determined look they knew he was serious. They asked Kennard to wait while they discussed the matter. The council whispered amongst themselves briefly and decided they had nothing to lose by giving this upstart a shot. So, they made a deal with Willie. If he could rid the town of Casewit, the job was his. He was told the bully could be found across the street in a saloon playing poker.
Without hesitation Kennard, pinned on the badge and headed for the saloon. He found the man and his cohorts at a table. When Willie told Casewit he was under arrest the group broke into uncontrolled laughter. Casewit told Willie he wasn’t about to submit to arrest, much less to a black man.
Meanwhile, Willie had been sizing Casewit up. He was wearing two revolvers, usually the sign of a showoff. But, in this case Willie could tell by the way he wore them down low he knew how to use them. Casewit stood up and went for his guns. What happened next, if it had not been seen by so many witnesses, would have gone down in history as pure myth.
Before Casewit could grasp his guns, Willie had drawn and fired hitting both of his opponent’s revolvers and rendering them as useless as scrap metal. For a moment the men at the table sat in stunned silence not believing what they had just seen. But once they had gathered their wits two others stood up and went for their guns. Both died instantly with shots placed neatly between their eyes, before they could reach their revolvers.
Before the two had hit the floor Casewit had his hands in the air. Willie marched him off to jail. The next day he was quickly tried and hung vigilante style and Willie was now officially the town marshal. But, despite Willie’s extraordinary skills, there were still some who couldn’t get used to the idea of having a black man as town marshal.
Reese Durham, local manager of the Butterfield Stage Station was one of those. He was determined to rid the town of this arrogant black man who had the audacity to pin on a marshal’s badge. One afternoon after downing several glasses of whiskey to bolster his courage, Reese challenged Kennard to a gunfight. He lost.
Willie was not only one of the fastest gunfighters ever to come out of the Old West, but he was smart as well. In the spring of 1875, Yankee Hill was having problems with the Billy McGeorge gang who were holding up freight wagons and stage coaches in the area. The gang consisted of eight outlaws and led by McGeorge, a 40 year old escapee from the Colorado Territorial Prison. It was Willie’s job to take care of the problem.
Unlike many lawmen who would’ve formed a posse and spent days or weeks tracking the gang down, Willie thought it would be a better idea for McGeorge to come to him. The town council thought he was off his rocker until he explained his plan. Willie plastered posters throughout the area offering a measly $50 reward for Mcgeorge’s capture dead or alive. To McGeorge, this was the ultimate insult. There wasn’t a reward for an outlaw anywhere at the time less than $300.
Outraged the McGeorge gang rode into Yankee Hill. They were met at the edge of town by Willie who had his feet firmly planted and holding a double barrel shotgun. The gang was ordered to drop their weapons on to the street. One outlaw went for his pistol and he and the man behind him were instantly killed. Losing their nerve, they were unceremoniously marched off to jail. McGeorge was found guilty of several murders and was hanged.
By 1877, Kennard had brought law and order to Yankee Hill. But, as with all mining camps of the era, once the gold played out, most eventually withered away. Kennard knew it was time to mosey on so he handed in his badge. Not much is known of his whereabouts after that. He was last seen in Denver in 1884.
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