Louis Ford: Part 1 – Early Years in the Wild West
April 15, 2022 | Category: Our Collective History
“Money certainly seems to have been the root of considerable evil in the Ford family,” wrote the Breckenridge Bulletin on June 7, 1902. This cryptic statement has puzzled historians for decades. What was going on in the Ford family in summer 1902? Barney Ford and his wife Julia moved from Breckenridge a dozen years earlier. Julia passed away in May 1899. Barney, then a widower, was living in Denver. Who was at the root of the evil?
In the first of two articles on Louis N. Ford, Breckenridge History looks at his youth in Denver, Cheyenne and Breckenridge in the days of the Wild West. In part 2, we’ll learn about his first prison sentence and his young life drinking and gambling. In part 3, we’ll follow Louis to St. Louis, Missouri, where hand-written correspondence in his final years reveals details of his personality and family dynamics.
Little was known of Julia and Barney Ford’s children until recently when new primary source documents came to the attention of Breckenridge History. Now a thorough examination of the record shines a light on the Fords’ younger offspring. Breckenridge History recently shared the story of middle child Sarah Ford Wormley. Eldest daughter Frances remains largely a mystery, after she died in California, aged 46 in 1897.
Louis N. Ford, the youngest of the Ford children, was born on July 2, 1860 in Chicago, Illinois. The United States was deeply divided at the time over slavery and states’ rights. People remained enslaved in the South, while the North including Illinois wavered between ambivalence and radical abolitionism. Stephen Douglas, elected to the U.S. Senate by the people of Illinois, was a staunch supporter of the American system of slavery. He argued in 1857 that enslaved people were not citizens, which brought a strong rebuff from Barney Ford and other African-American men in the state. Also in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was in the running for President of the United States, a seat he would win later in 1860.
When Louis was born, his father, Barney L. Ford, was in the Rocky Mountains, having arrived to Denver City in May of 1860 to seek his fortune as a gold miner. The journey to the Pikes Peak gold region wasn’t the first time that Barney Ford was away from his family for an extended period of time. In the 1850s, Mr. Ford spent many years in Nicaragua after attempting to reach the California gold fields. At that time, Julia stayed in Chicago with their infant daughter Frances.
Mr. Ford likely met his only son in 1861 when he returned to Chicago for a brief period to attend to his restaurant there. Ford’s practice of being absent after the birth of his children for long periods, even for years, may have impacted their early development. Eldest daughter Frances married by age 18. Only his daughter Sarah, who enjoyed her father’s presence as a child, maintained a close relationship with Barney Ford throughout her life.
Historical records show that Barney Ford was primarily in the Denver area from 1860 through 1865. No documentation exists for the time that Julia and the children came west. The journey from Chicago to Denver for an African-American family would have been especially dangerous and difficult in the early 1860s. The Fugitive Slave Act was in effect, potentially endangering Julia and the children even though they were “free.” The travel was rough, combining journey by train with overland stagecoaches through Native American territory.
It is possible that Julia and the children came west while Barney Ford was in Denver in the early 1860s. Maybe Mr. Ford brought the family back to Denver with him when he returned after a brief stay in Chicago in 1865, or maybe he asked them to wait until they could take the train from Chicago to Cheyenne where he opened a restaurant in October 1867, coinciding with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.
At some point in the late 1860s, the family were all together in the new city of Cheyenne, Dakota Territory. The 1870 census shows the Ford family there, including daughter Frances, husband John Jones and baby William.
Cheyenne was a wild town in the 1860s, the wildest of the Wild West. In the city where Louis was raised, shootings, stabbings and thefts were common, and dance halls and saloons proliferated. Police shot through the streets at fleeing suspects. Livestock raced through the city. Louis was able to observe inebriated prostitutes “tumble themselves stupidly into a vehicle and go tearing through town,” flaunting themselves with their flying plumage. The city fathers decried the “bad impression on the minds of the moral men and women who visit our city.”
The 1870 census reveals that Louis was then 9 years old, going to school and that he could read and write. As both Barney and Julia were educated, they made education a priority for their children as well. The Ford family returned to Denver by 1871 after a devastating fire. They moved back to Cheyenne with the opening of the grand Inter-Ocean Hotel there in 1875.
By age 17, Louis was in trouble with the law. According to the Cheyenne Daily Sun on May 18, 1878, “Louis Ford…was arrested.” A Mr. James Burns, client of the Inter Ocean Hotel, entered the hotel at 1:00 a.m. “considerably intoxicated.” Louis Ford was the night clerk on duty. Burns entrusted Louis with $30 cash to keep for him until morning. When Burns called for the money the next day, Burns collected only $20 from the young man. Louis stated that he received $20 from Burns and showed an envelope fragment, torn open, which had been sealed by him in front of Burns. On the envelope was the inscription: ‘James Burns $20.’ Upon receipt of the money, Burns “tore the envelope in two and threw it into a spittoon, and…had Ford arrested.” The prosecuting attorney dismissed the charge “before the evidence was all in.”
The same edition of the Cheyenne Daily Sun, in fact the very same column, shared another story about the Ford family: “Mr. B.L. Ford will leave here Sunday for San Francisco… He has not fully decided what he will do… The best wishes of the people of Cheyenne will attend him.” Three days later, the Daily Sun wrote that Ford departed for the Pacific Coast because of “an indebtedness on the building, which he was unable to lift…” Perhaps the family faced woes in addition to financial concerns.
If the alleged theft from Mr. Burns were the only incident in Louis’ life, it would be easily dismissed as a drunk man’s accusation. Knowing the arc toward criminality that Louis would follow, the guest’s loss of funds probably indicated that a lack of respect for property and laws was becoming evident with the young man.
Louis, still a teen, likely went to San Francisco with the family. Barney Ford quickly learned that San Francisco was not for him. Ford famously wrote: “For a man without much means, San Francisco is about the hardest place in the world.”
In 1879, the Ford family returned to Breckenridge to start over. Barney Ford opened the Ford Chop Stand on Main Street and Louis helped him in the restaurant. At the time of the 1880 census, Louis and his sister Sarah, now adults, were living with their parents in Breckenridge. Soon the family would occupy the building we know today as The Photo Shop.
With his rebounding success in Breckenridge, in 1882 Barney Ford commissioned the construction of a new home for himself and Julia, today the Barney Ford House Museum. Tellingly, the house has two bedrooms. Whether Louis was welcome to stay is not known, though there were other outbuildings on the property, and at least one identified as a dwelling, where a young man could live. In 1883, Sarah returned from Denver following an assault and resided in the house with her parents.
In 1885, another census was taken that revealed both Louis and Sarah were off on their own. It wouldn’t be long before Louis would find himself in trouble with the law again.
Part 2 in the life of Louis N. Ford continues at this link.
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Written by Leigh Girvin