'Your choice, jail or hell': How a Buffalo Soldier-turned-lawman saved his town

Willie Kennard, a former Buffalo Soldier, was quite possibly the first black lawman in Colorado

Like fireworks on the 4th of July, one Wild West lawman and the town he cleaned up brilliantly appeared at one moment in time and then suddenly, both were gone.

The town, which disappeared with the gold that spawned it, was Yankee Hill, Colorado. The remarkable man who tamed it was Marshal Willie Kennard, who was quite possibly the first black lawman in Colorado.

A Yankee marksman and Buffalo Soldier

According to historian Gerald Lindemann, Kennard was a corporal in the 7th Illinois Rifles during the Civil War. After the war, Kennard joined the famous 9th US Cavalry, known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” Kennard served for years with the 9th, riding out of Fort Bliss, Texas, as well as fighting against the Mescalero Apache out of Fort Davis.

Throughout his military career Kennard was said to have been a talented firearms instructor.

Terror in Yankee Hill

The discovery of gold in the Pike’s Peak area brought Yankee Hill to life in 1858. In 1874, the town turned lawless thanks to a cur by the name of Barney Casewit. This deadly gunman took control of the town, killing anyone who tried to stop him.

Casewit sparked outrage by raping a 15-year-old girl named Birdie Campbell. When Birdie’s father confronted Casewit about his horrendous crime, Casewit shot him dead. Yankee Hill’s marshal was also gunned down during an attempt to arrest Casewit. Within a three-month period, two more marshals were hired, but one was outgunned and the other was sent packing.

The desperate mayor and council posted an ad for a new marshal in the Rocky Mountain News. They offered $100 a month in pay, an impressive amount for the times.

Enter Marshal Kennard

Shortly thereafter, the tall and thinly muscled 42-year-old, Willie Kennard, rode into Yankee Hill. He caught many an eye with his tied-down holsters, holding a pair of low-hanging pistols on each side. 

After a brief interview, the mayor pinned a badge on Kennard, promising him the job permanently if he could arrest Casewit. Kennard headed directly to Gaylor’s Saloon in Yankee Hill where Casewit was known to be playing cards. The Buffalo Soldiers’ motto of “We can, we will” was on display in Kennard’s look of determination as he approached the saloon.

Kennard entered the saloon, assessed the scene for a moment and announced to Casewit, “You are under arrest.”

Casewit stood up and asked with a smirk, “I’m supposed to come with you? Where are we supposed to go?”

Kennard responded, “Your choice, jail or hell.”

Casewit went to grab the butts of his two holstered pistols, but in a blink, Kennard drew and fired, hitting both of Casewit’s guns while they were still in their holsters, rendering them inoperable.

Casewit’s partners, Ira Goodrich and Sam Betts, drew their guns, but both were dispatched by Kennard. They were shot “between the eyes,” according to a witness.

A shocked Casewit threw up his hands.

Swift justice

The town’s people wasted no time. They quickly tried, convicted and sentenced Casewit to death.

Shortly after, Kennard nailed a crossbeam to an old pine and threw a rope over it. He led Casewit to it, placed the rope around his neck, pulled him up and tied it off.

Casewit tried to delay the inevitable by wrapping his legs around the old pine. He held fast for a time, but accepted his fate when his legs finally gave out.

Peace in Yankee Hill

Kennard was permanently hired as marshal.

Not everyone in Yankee Hill was in favor of having a black marshal, however. On September 2, 1874, Reese Dunham confronted Kennard, but Dunham fared no better than Casewit and his friends.

The miners, ruffians, businessmen and residents of Yankee Hill came to respect the black marshal, thankful for the peace he brought to the town.

The McGeorge Gang

In spring of 1875, the “Gold Trail” was plagued by a gang, led by 40-year-old prison escapee Billy McGeorge. After the gang robbed and murdered a family traveling West from Ohio on the trail, the town council asked Kennard to capture them.

Instead, Kennard orchestrated a canard. He posted a $50 “Dead or Alive” reward for the whole gang all over the “Gold Trail.” The small reward outraged the vain outlaws. They were insulted, believing their depravities were worthy of a much higher reward.

On June 28, 1875, McGeorge, along with several members of his gang, rode into Yankee Hill looking to kill the black marshal. Kennard, who was expecting them, stepped in front of the mounted men on the end of Front Street armed with a double-barreled shotgun. He called for the gang to drop their weapons.

As one member of the gang, Cash Downing, drew, Kennard opened up with the shotgun and blew both Downing and another outlaw off their horses. Both men’s souls were irrevocably transferred to a higher venue.

This so shocked McGeorge that he gave up and ordered the rest of his men to do the same.

McGeorge was tried, convicted and hung from the same crossbeam as quickly as Casewit had been. McGeorge had no grounds to complain, however, since they hung him with a new rope.

Into the sunset

Kennard turned in his badge in 1877, after having tamed Yankee Hill. He explained to the mayor he was leaving to find a wife. With his resignation properly submitted, Kennard spurred his mount westward and disappeared from the pages of history as he quite literally rode into the sunset.

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