Barney Ford: Colorado Pioneer

54. One of the Colorado pioneers that Clara Brown helped out was Barney Launcelot Ford (1822-1902). Barney was born in Virginia, the son of a white plantation owner and Phoebe, an enslaved worker. His mother made sure that he learned how to read and write, unusual for most people in those days, and extremely rare for slaves. It is said that the day after his mother’s funeral, he was sold off. Census records suggest that he spent time in both South Carolina and Georgia.

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His last slaveowner rented him out to a cotton boat, perhaps to be a cook or steward. In 1848, when the boat docked in Quincy, Illinois, Barney walked away, and with the help of the Underground Railroad, he went to Chicago. He worked as a barber (1850 Census), and married Julia A. Lyoni (1827-1899), a free black woman, born in Indiana. She helped Barney decide on a last name. He picked “Launcelot Ford” after seeing a powerful steam engine by that name. She also gave him the $2 he needed for Barber School tuition.

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In 1851, Barney got gold fever, and the Fords intended to sail to California. They were delayed in Nicaragua, and the Fords decided instead to open a hotel and restaurant in Greytown, on the Mosquito Coast. The town’s port was on Commodore Vanderbilt’s “Nicaragua Route” to California. When the town tried to levy taxes and duties on ships using the port, the U.S. Navy attacked. A sloop shelled the town, and then the Marines moved in and burned the town. The “Lyons Hotel” is labeled in this 1854 British magazine drawing:

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The Fords were unharmed, but left Nicaragua and returned to Chicago. Barney opened a livery stable that also served as an Underground Railroad station.

In 1860, Ford got the gold bug again, and headed west for Colorado, which was still part of the Kansas Territory). On his arrival, he got help from Clara Brown. It’s difficult to sort out fact from fiction at this point, but Ford’s gold plans fell through, and by the 1860 Census, he was in the new village of Denver, working as a barber. Julia remained in Chicago, staying with her older sister, Susan, and brother-in-law, Henry Wagoner. (Like Barney, Henry, born in Maryland, had a white father and a black mother, and had escaped to Illinois via the Underground Railroad.)

In March 1862, Barney bought the building he’d been renting, probably a false-front building made of lodgepole pine. Thirteen months later, the building burned in the “Great Fire” of April 1863, which started nearby, and wiped out seventy buildings in the fledgling business district.

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This 1860 photo from the Denver Public Library shows the corner of Blake and 15th Street.       Ford’s Barbershop is just to the left of the Platte House in the center.

Ford was able to borrow $9000 and within four months, had built a brick building, with his barbershop and salon in the basement, the People’s Restaurant on the main floor, and a saloon on the second floor. This building, at 1514 Blake St., still stands, complete with a historic marker about Ford:
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In 1867, the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming (at the time, part of the Dakota Territory) sprung up virtually overnight. Barney went there immediately, and opened Ford House, a restaurant and lodging house. The photo shows Cheyenne in 1867:

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By the time of the 1870 Census, Ford had been joined in Cheyenne by Julia and the children, Sarah (”Sadie”), Louis, and Frances (“Frankie,”) and her husband John F. Jones, born a free man in New York. Ford made a lot of money quickly, and returned to Denver. In 1873, he opened the Inter-Ocean Hotel, a local landmark for 100 years, until it was razed for a parking lot in 1973. By the time Barney sold it in 1876, he was known the “Black Baron,” and had accumulated the immense fortune for the day of $250,000, worth well in excess of $5 million in current dollars.

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In 1875, he was invited to come back to Cheyenne and build and open the town’s first substantial hotel, also called the Inter-Ocean Hotel.

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By this time, Ford was one of the richest men in the Colorado Territory. He was active in Republican politics, and was especially concerned with civil rights issues. In 1867, he had traveled to Washington to lobby against Colorado’s statehood petition until the territory changed its proposed state constitution, which contained a provision barring blacks from voting. Ford and his brother-in-law, Henry Wagoner, also established special schools so that blacks could pass the literacy tests imposed for voting. Like Clara Brown, Ford also freely spent his money helping other black families settle in Colorado. In 1873, he was nominated to run for the territorial legislature, but lost.

Meanwhile, the Cheyenne project had left him financially overextended. In 1878, he went to California and opened a restaurant in San Francisco. His daughter Frankie and family had also settled there.

By 1880, Ford was back in Colorado. He built a boarding house, barbershop, and restaurant, Ford’s Chop House, in Breckenridge. This was another successful project, and in 1882, the Fords built a Victorian house in Breckenridge. The house today is maintained as a museum.

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Ford remained active in politics. In 1885, he helped oversee passage of a law barring discrimination in public places. By 1889, the altitude in Breckenridge was bothering Julia, and the Fords returned to Denver. Julia died there in 1899. Barney then moved in with the Wagoners, and lived with them until his death in 1902. They are buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery.

Among Barney’s many honors, in the 1970s, an elementary school in Denver was named after him, and a stained glass portrait hangs in the State Capitol.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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