Place  /  Museum Review

Meet The Black Cowboys Who Shaped Colorado History

The gunslingers, innovators, and explorers who carved their destinies from the sprawling promise of the West.

“This was during the Black migration west,” Rice-Allen says. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, hundreds of formerly enslaved people traveled west in search of a better life. Many of them found decent pay, camaraderie, and a sense of equality on horseback. “About one in four cowboys was Black,” Rice-Allen says. At the time, one of the most significant Black cowboys was Bose Ikard. Ikard was born into slavery in Mississippi but moved to Texas post-emancipation. He quickly became a skilled rider and eagle-eyed tracker. Ikard rose through the ranks from ranch hand to cowboy to field detective for pioneering rancher Charles Goodnight (whose Pueblo home you can still visit today).

For years, Ikard drove cattle through Colorado along the 2,000-mile Goodnight-Loving Trail, riding through high country storms, tracking game, and clashing with Comanche warriors. During that time, Ikard was Goodnight’s right-hand man and a prominent figure on the ranching circuit. He worked alongside storied riders like Nat Love, rodeo stars, and famous outlaws alike.

As Ikard was building his reputation, so was Willie Kennard. Kennard first learned to fire a gun when he enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he joined the 9th US Cavalry, an all-Black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. “The Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in the military,” Rice-Allen says. “They escorted wagon trains, assisted in the Indian War situation, and assisted in the later Range Wars.” By then, Kennard had gotten pretty good with a gun. So good, in fact, that his superiors promoted him to arms instructor. After a few years, Kennard decided to try something new. He moved to Colorado, arrested Barney Casewit, and became the town marshall of Yankee Hill. (While time has erased the town from the mountains, the hill itself remains accessible. You can get there via a scenic gravel-bike ride or hike from the charming mountain town of Idaho Springs.)

Later in life, Kennard moved to Denver, where he became the bodyguard of Barney Ford, the Denver restaurateur, hotelier, and gold prospector known as the Black Baron of Colorado. (You can still eat in the building that contained his historic People’s Restaurant in Denver, and visit a museum dedicated to him at his former Breckenridge home.)