Black and white photograph of Barney Ford looking into the camera, wearing a suit jacket and a tie.

Lost Highways

You Don't Know Barney Ford

Season 4, episode 3

Barney Ford was one of the most successful and resilient Black businessmen in the early American West. He came in search of gold, owned and operated hotels and restaurants, lost them in fires, rebuilt them, and enjoyed a reputation as a King of hospitality in early Denver, Breckenridge, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Much of his legend was built upon a 1963 biography called "Mr. Barney Ford: A Portrait in Bistre" written by a hack journalist named Forbes Parkhill who moonlighted as a screenwriter for schlocky westerns. And for almost 60 years, Parkhill's colorful account of Ford's birth, his enslavement, and his heroic escape to freedom were taken largely as fact. But then, in 2022, history happened.

You Don't Know Barney Ford Script


Noel: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.

If you’re like I was BEFORE I did this episode, you’ve probably never heard the name Barney Ford. And even if you HAVE heard his name, says Dexter Nelson II, Associate Curator of Black History and Cultural Heritage at History Colorado …

Dexter Nelson  …you don't know as much as you think you know about Barney Ford.

On this episode, we’re going to introduce you to Barney Ford if you haven’t heard of him, and REINTRODUCE you to him if you have. He was one of the earliest and most successful Black businessmen to try his luck in the Rocky Mountain West in the mid-1800s And that fact alone makes him  remarkable in the context of American history, its long practice of slavery, and the Civil War that arose because of it.

But Barney Ford was so much more than that. He was an activist for Black suffrage, a philanthropist, and a trailblazer for those who came after him. And his story is one of almost unfathomable drive and resilience in the pursuit of the American Dream. It’s a story about the kind of determination it can take to be successful in a country where the very fabric of the society, its laws and prejudices, are designed to keep you down.

But until recently, much of Ford’s story originated from a biography that was as much myth as it was fact.

In order to tell THAT story, we also have to talk about the STORY ABOUT THE  STORY of Barney Ford, and how myths can be used, for better and worse, to help us recover the past when we need it most, but don’t yet fully know it. 


Noel: To know Barney Ford and his story, we have to start with what we KNOW WE KNOW about him. Because he never kept a journal, or wrote his memoirs, most of what is known about his life comes through census records, business records, property records, newspaper articles and advertisements,  photographs, city directory lists, and the histories of his known associates at that time. Much of this information and scholarship was compiled recently in a report delivered to The National Park Service on March 31st, 2022 so that some of his former properties might be considered for National Historic Landmark designation.

Larissa O'Neil is one of the scholars who contributed to that report. She’s the executive director of Breckenridge History, the museum that’s now housed in what was once Barney Ford’s home in Summit County.

Larissa O'Neal: Barney Ford was born in 1822 on a plantation in Virginia. And we know that as a young boy, he was moved to South Carolina. And at that point in our country's history, slavery was exploding. In Stafford County, where he was born, in the 1600s, enslaved people made up about 7% of the population. By the time Barney Ford is born, more than half of the population in that area is enslaved. And that was due to the extreme dependance on enslaved people for labor, for all the plantations and the crops and all that was dependent upon them to drive the economy at that time.

Noel: Here’s Dexter Nelson II with more of the outline of what we know about Ford.

Dexter Nelson II: Born enslaved. His mother was a slave. His father was the slave master. And really, you know, we kind of have a loose trajectory of his life while he was enslaved. So from 1822 to about 1839, he would have been in Virginia, Virginia to South Carolina. And then 1839 to 1846, he was driving hogs and mules, as well as working in a cotton barge. And this took him to a few states as well, including Kentucky and Georgia. And then in 1846, in 1848, he's actually working on a steamship.

Noel: At some point in his early life, Ford learned how to read and write. Though we don’t know how, or from whom, it was a remarkable feat for an enslaved person at that time.

Larissa O'Neal: Enslaved people were not allowed a traditional education. It was considered illegal. It could have been that he had individuals who were also enslaved with him who taught him. But it really was something that could be punishable.


Noel: Then, in 1848, records show Barney Ford living as free man in Chicago. At that time, there were approximately 4 million people of African descent living in The United States. About 3.2 Million of those were still enslaved; just under 400,000 were BORN Free; and the remaining 430,000 were FORMERLY enslaved living in the north AND south.

How exactly Barney Ford BECAME FREE has long been one of the most sensational parts of his story.

But we’ll come back to that. Because up until May 7th, 2021, there was no clear record of it.

Larissa O'Neal So Barney Ford is in Chicago. He meets Julia. He gets married. He's probably working as an operative on the Underground Railroad with Wagoner.

Noel: WAGONER is Henry O. Wagoner, a teacher, journalist, and prominent abolitionist. Born free in Maryland in 1816, Wagoner was active in the Underground Railroad for many years, and fought for the rights of African Americans throughout his life  After moving to Chicago in 1846, he continued to work tirelessly for Black freedom, Black suffrage and Black business and property ownership.

When Barney Ford arrived in Chicago in 1848, he seems to have connected with Wagoner through the Underground Railroad. Wagoner’’s wife Susan introduced him to her sister Julia, and they were soon married. It’s through Julia’s name on a business record in Chicago at that time that we THINK Julia and Barney owned and operated a barber shop where he likely cut white men’s hair.

Dexter Nelson II: If you don't want to work on a, you know, on a field or on a train ride, being a porter, that was that was an occupation that was available to us then .

Noel: And for an ambitious businessman like Ford, cutting white mens’ hair would’ve been a goldmine of information he could pass along to Wagoner and the Underground Railroad, and also for business opportunities.

Dexter Nelson II: But we see how it also afforded people this, knowledge is power. Right? So we know that when you're cutting hair, you're trading information. And so, Barney Ford would cut white patrons hair and then use them the information he gained and learned about they're in the in the chair getting a haircut to to really further his own interest.

Noel: As we remind listeners on almost every episode of Lost Highways: 1848 was the year The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. It ended the Mexican-American War, and created much of what is now the American southwest. And that document was what started a tidal wave of westward colonization for the next half-century that began with the California Gold Rush in 1849.

And when Barney Ford was cutting hair in Chicago during that time, he would’ve undoubtedly heard A LOT OF TALK about the Gold Rush.

Larissa O’Neal: Barney has an adventurous spirit, I think, in his core. He's an entrepreneur from the moment he's free, I think. And for him, he's ready to get out of Chicago.And he sees opportunity in the West. And so he's decided to go to California.

Noel: To a man like Barney Ford, it was a thrilling time to be alive, says Leigh Girvin, an interpreter at Breckenridge History. He was a man who saw opportunity in the narrowest of openings, and an entire new part of the country had just opened up with potential riches everywhere you looked.

Leigh Girvin: Barney Ford clearly had gold fever. He would chase America's gold rushes.

Noel: But those years between 1848 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 were also incredibly fraught for formerly enslaved Black people. While the West promised both freedom and opportunity to many like Barney Ford, it also stoked fears in the South that the new territory and states would become havens for fleeing slaves. And so the southern states forced the passage of The Fugitive Slave Act.

Larissa O'Neil: So the Fugitive Slave Laws had been in effect in the United States since the 1700s. What that basically said was that even if an individual, an enslaved person, makes his or her way to a free state, he or she is not technically free. And there could be bounty hunters or the enslavers coming after that person to bring them back. And in 1850, there's an even more kind of elevated almost terrorist level of that law. And it expands it. And it says the federal government is actually responsible for bringing enslaved people back to their rightful owners.

Noel: As Frederick Douglass said in an address at the Free Soil Party Convention in 1852, QUOTE:

“A black man may be carried away without any reference to a jury. It is only necessary to claim him, and that some villain should swear to his identity. There is more protection there for a horse, for a donkey, or anything, rather than a colored man–who is, therefore, justified in the eye of God in maintaining his right with arm.”

Noel: But Barney Ford was wasn’t about to let the Fugitive Slave Act stop him from chasing HIS American dream.


Noel: Many of the qualities that Barney Ford would need to become one of the most successful businessmen in the early west were the same qualities he would need to get there: pluck, courage, a strong preference for the unknown, an abiding faith in his ability to realize his dreams, and a willingness to risk his life to get there.

Even though he WAS technically free by 1851, and relatively safe from the Fugitive Slave Act while he was living in Chicago, it meant that the overland trip to California that many white adventurers and settlers would take would have added peril for a Black man. 

California wasn’t exempt from the fugitive slave laws EITHER, but he may have figured that bounty hunters were unlikely to see the value in trying to capture him so far away from the south if he could just GET THERE. 

Either way, says Leigh Girvin,... 

Leigh Girvin: 1851 he went by what they call the southern route, the sea route, no doubt Ford from Chicago, took a train to New York, got on some kind of a steamer ship, traveled down the coast of the Americas to Nicaragua. The city of San Juan today. It was Graytown then.


Noel: At the time, there were MULTIPLE southern routes to California. The first and longest route was the treacherous sea voyage from New York down the east coasts of both North and South America, and through the brutal seas around Cape Horn, then back up the Pacific coast. It was a grueling journey that could take up to five months, and could cost $1,000 – a small fortune at the time.

Then there was the Isthmus of Panama, a dangerous jungle crossing that would eventually become the Panama Canal. It cut nearly 8,000 miles and hundreds of dollars off the journey if passage to San Francisco could be secured once you reached Panama City on the Pacific Coast. 

But there was another route through Nicaragua, which has been largely forgotten. It was the shortest at that time because almost the entire journey could be made by steamship from Greytown on the Miskito coast, up the San Juan river, and across Lake Nicaragua to San Juan del Sur on the West Coast.  Here’s Michelle Moran-Taylor, an adjunct Professor of Geography at the University of Denver. She’s currently in Nicaragua working on a museum that will preserve the history of that lesser-known trans-oceanic route.

Michelle Moran-Taylor: This route became popular, especially in the 1850s, because it turned out to be the fastest and least expensive option during this time. 


Noel: Nicaragua had been a crossing and a place of convergence and conflict for dozens of cultures and civilizations moving between what are now Colombia and Mexico long before the Spanish arrived in1522. It won its independence in 1832 after decades of rebellion against Spain led by Simón Bolivar spread throughout the Americas in the early 1800s. But then, when the California gold rush sparked a new wave of migration across the isthmus, American and British interests began to lay claim to Nicaragua’s ports and passages again. 

The most powerful American in Nicaragua at that time was the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. 

Michelle Moran-Taylor: Vanderbilt was from New York and had become a very prominent businessman and was known as the biggest tycoon of his time. Sort of like the Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Bill Gates of our time.

Noel: When the California gold rush began in earnest in 1849, Vanderbilt had already established one of the most powerful fleets of steam ships in the world, earning him the nickname “The Commodore.”

Michele Moran-Taylor: He realized that he could make great profits from this passage.

Noel: He set up the Accessory Transit Company to ferry gold seekers From New York to Greytown on the Miskito coast of Nicaragua. He then monopolized the short route up the San Juan river and across Lake Nicaragua to get to the Pacific Coast. Here’s Leigh Girvin:

Leigh Girvin: The San Juan River apparently is mostly navigable, to Castillo Falls. And they would get around Castillo Falls and then they would make their way all the way across Lake Nicaragua. Then a stage over the mountains to the Pacific coast. And then you get another boat to California about a month.

Noel: The Nicaragua route was about 300 miles shorter than the Panama crossing, and took 7 MONTH LESS than the trip around Cape Horn at the tip of South America.  

Michele Moran-Taylor: In a year, he was making about $1,000,000 just from his Accessory Transit Company.

Noel: Moran-Taylor says TENS OF THOUSANDS of would-be miners made the passage in just the first two years of the California Gold Rush. It’s likely that when Barney Ford arrived in Greytown in 1851 and saw the staggering number of late-comers there to make the crossing, he quickly figured there was probably more gold in the pockets of would-be miners like him right there in Nicaragua than anything he might find in California.

Steve Shepard: He figured that, hey, man, this is a place that I can build a hotel and a restaurant and much better facilities than exist down here now, because the only facilities at that point were makeshift tents and lean-tos and hardly any eating facilities.

Noel: This is Steve Shepard, a longtime member of the Jane Taylor Reenactors Guild, a part of the Black American West Museum in Denver. He’s spent the past several years studying Barney Ford in order to portray him for children.

Noel: Shepard likes to share his portrayal of Barney Ford to show kids just how resourceful he was in the face of so much adversity. Even today, few would undertake the journey to California through Nicaragua. Nevermind that he stayed there for three years and started a restaurant and hotel. 

Larissa O'Neal:  the United States Hotel, along the Mosquito Coast in Nicaragua. Again, a very rugged type of operation and not the kind of hotel we think of today.

Noel: It’s unclear if his wife, Julia, was with him during his time there. Regardless, Ford ran the  hotel and restaurant successfully for the next three years there in Greytown, not even halfway to California. The west, and its gold, would have to wait.


Noel: Barney Ford wasn’t the only person in Nicaragua cashing in on the shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The crossing had long been lucrative for trade between Asia, Europe and Britain. And the British, who’d once dominated the world’s oceans, had controlled the Mosquito Coast even during much of the Spanish occupation of the Americas. Tensions rose as more Americans and American interests came to Greytown during the gold rush. And in July 1854, after the British occupying forces tried to arrest an American steamer captain for killing a local,  the US sent a navy gunboat and bombarded Greytown. A massive fire burned almost everything to the ground.

Larissa O'Neal: And that's the fire that burns down his business due to the bombardment of Greytown. And so then he has to start anew. He works for Vanderbilt and is and then starts another hotel in Virgin Bay, Nicaragua.

Noel: Leigh Girvin

Leigh Girvin: This time it's on the far western end of this river route.It was on the west side of Lake Nicaragua.

Noel: Business on the American-controlled side of Nicaragua seemed a far better bet the second time around, and Barney Ford decided to open the California Hotel in 1855. But the temptation to control that lucrative crossing more than a decade before the transcontinental railroad shrank the journey across the United States from months to days was a constant source of conflict. 

Michelle Moran-Taylor: by 1856, the route was disrupted due to the shenanigans of William Walker.  Walker was a well-educated gentleman from Nashville, Tennessee. And by his early thirties, he was a a lawyer, a doctor, a journalist, and then became the filibuster or what some would call a mercenary. He basically became the most notorious filibuster in U.S. history. So Walker was interested in extended Manifest Destiny and in establishing his own Republic of Nicaragua. He had already tried doing this in Mexico, but that attempt failed. In 1855, Walker invaded Nicaragua, held an election, declared himself president, reinstituted slavery, which had been banned in Central America since the 1820s. And so this is really interesting because in the U.S., he had been in favor of abolition. But then when it came to Nicaragua, he was in favor of slavery and reinstituted it.

Noel: Though Walker was eventually defeated by an organization of militias hired by Cornelius Vanderbilt called the Allied Armies of Central America, Ford wasn’t about to stick around just to become a slave again.

It’s unclear why he didn’t continue on to California at that point, but in 1855, he left Nicaragua and traveled back to Chicago. Then, in 1860, right before  the Civil War, and shortly after the Pikes Peak Gold Rush took hold of the young country’s imagination, he went west. Overland this time.

[Music ]

Dexter Nelson: He leaves Chicago for the second time going to Colorado because he hears about gold and the idea of gold and make a new life for yourself, new opportunity.

Noel: The 1859 gold rush, known as the Pikes Peak gold rush, was actually centered around the confluence Cherry Creek and the South Platte  in what’s now Denver. But it quickly began to move westward.

Larissa O'Neal Like many other individuals he heads up to the mountains to what is now central city.

Noel: Ford then went on and filed a couple of mining claims in Breckenridge. Some sources say that he actually found gold. But when news of his strike go out, racist miners drove him off the claim. In any case, just like in Nicaragua, he quickly saw that there was more than enough money to be made from would-be prospectors with glints of gold in their eyes.

Larissa O’Neal cont’d:We call it mining the miners because the people who did well in mining communities were not the miners themselves. It was the people in town who were providing supplies. That was the restaurateurs, the hotel owners and Ford with his business acumen that I think was partially just ingrained in his in his psyche, realized that was the way to make it out here in the West.

Noel: He stayed in Breckenridge for a year, and set up another boarding house and a restaurant. But he was always restless.

Leigh Girvin: He went back to Denver and he opened a series of successful businesses, starting with a barbershop and a lunch counter.

Noel: Denver wasn’t much at that time, says historian Jason Hanson, Chief Creative Officer at History Colorado.

Jason Hanson: Everywhere you look, there still would be people living in tents, but the town would have been divided up into lots. It was being platted and sold off. Streets were being laid out.

Noel: And it was DRY.

Jason Hanson: The descriptions we have. Someone called it treeless, grassless, and bushless. It was an arid landscape, as we all know, those of us who live here. All of the trees that we all enjoy, those of us who live in Denver today, almost every single one of those was planted by somebody intentionally. So it was dusty and without shade and lots of wood frame houses, lots of construction, lots of, uh, dusty streets, wagons and horses kicking up that dust.

Noel: And when it wasn’t dusty, says Hanson, it was mud, or muddy ice, or icy mud, or some variation thereof. And it often made the streets impassable from October to March.  But no matter whether it was sweaty jungle thick with insects, or bushless dust, or mud, Barney Ford always felt right at home where things were raw and possible.

Larissa O'Neil: Barney Ford at one point says he says the far west is the place for the colored man. He said here is a place where he's free from the bounds of slavery. He can survive on what education and skill have afforded him.

Noel:  Not long after he arrived in Denver, Ford opened the People’s Restaurant on Blake Street in Denver where he served OYSTERS..

Jason Hanson: Oysters were an incredibly popular food for Americans throughout the country, including out West.

Noel: Even before the transcontinental railroad shortened the trip across the US  to a matter of days, overland traders would pack wagons full of oysters in sawdust and ice.

Jason Hanson:  And the oysters could survive long enough, especially if you refreshed their cold, damp beds regularly to make it to places like Denver where very brave restaurant goers would enjoy them by the dozen. I mean, you see ads for restaurants throughout the state in every corner of the state, including the most rough and ready mining camps. Like Creed, serving oysters to their customers.

Noel: The People’s Restaurant grossed $250 a day which is equivalent to more than $8,000 a day now. And for the better part of two years, Ford’s enterprise was a huge success until his fortunes took a familiar turn.

Leigh Girvin: The great fire of April 1863 burned down Barney's Restaurant.

Noel: The fire destroyed much of Denver’s newly built downtown. The cause was never known, but it started in a dry goods store on the corner of 15th and Lawrence streets. Fueled by fierce Spring winds common to Colorado’s Front Range, it spread quickly.

Jason Hanson:  So the first homes and buildings in Denver were built, timber framed, built from local timber sources, mostly up in the foothills. And this is not a story that is unique to Denver. Towns throughout the West in their early years burned at an alarming rate.

Noel: The fire raged for hours, consuming nearly 200 buildings and causing more than a million dollars in damages. The hook and ladder companies that predated the formal establishment of the Denver Fire Dept. struggled to contain the flames. Though it took years to recover, says Jason Hanson, Denver DID build back smarter.

Jason Hanson: They passed the brick ordinance requiring the the new buildings after the fire within the business district, what we call lower downtown to be built out of brick. A lot of those buildings still stand today. And we can see that the brickwork.

Noel: If Ford seemed doomed to lose his businesses in sudden twists of fate, he’d grown accustomed to the changes in fortune that came with living at the edges of civilization where he felt freest. And he never lost an opportunity to start over.

Leigh Girvin Luther Koontz, who was starting a bank in Denver, Colorado National Bank, I believe, was offering reconstruction loans at 25% interest. He wouldn't lend to just anybody, but he lent to Barney Ford $9,000.

Steve Shepard: He decided that he would at least go down to the bank, and the bank had reestablished itself in a small shed down on the corner. And Barney walked into that building, and he asked the banker if he could borrow  $1,000 just to get started. And the banker looked at him, he said, Barney, I know you, I know you. You're a hard worker. You're honest. And $1,000 is just not going to do it for you. But eventually Barney was convinced to take $9,000 and to reestablish himself. And in four months, he had built a restaurant, a bar, and a barber all in one building.

Noel: Dexter Nelson II says that it’s possible the banker who lent him that money charged such high interest because Ford was Black. But it’s also possible, he says, that, because of his light skin tone,  he was passing, and 25% was just the going rate for a business loan during a gold boom and such uncertain economic times in the West 

Noel: Regardless, says Leigh Girvin,

Leigh Girvin: Once he was operational, within three months he paid back that loan to Koontz at 25% interest. That means he's setting aside over $100 a day just to pay that loan back. That's just in addition to buying supplies, paying his people, amortizing his loan..

Dexter Nelson So again, we see the tenacity of Barney Ford. I mean, that's just that's insane. The fact that he didn't didn't miss a beat. It burnt down. He rebuilt it. And it was back to business as usual.

Larissa O'Neal: Throughout his adult life in Colorado, Barney Ford went from moments of tremendous success to severe failure.


Noel: And that new building that opened in August of 1863 with his THREE NEW businesses in it? It was made of brick, and it still stands today at 1514 Blake in LoDo.

[Music ]

Noel: Though Barney Ford had already proven himself to be an incredibly resilient entrepreneur, bouncing back wasn’t enough.

Leigh Girvin: Barney is a man who is on a mission to make money. He understands that the transcontinental railway is coming and it is not coming to Denver; it’s going to go through Cheyenne.

Noel: Among his many business instincts, Ford also had a nose for FUTURE opportunities.

Larissa O'Neal:  He makes his way to this fledgling town and builds a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming. And when the first trains come in, he does very well for himself. He grossed 1100 dollars that first day. And so here's an example of Barney Ford having, again, tremendous business success. He ran that hotel in Cheyenne for a couple of years. He's incredibly loved in Cheyenne.

Noel: But no matter where he went, fate always seemed to follow fortune. And in 1870, as was so common in the west at that time, The Ford House, his hotel and restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, burned down. 

Leigh Girvin: So fire and Barney Ford go hand in hand.

Noel: But again, the community rallied behind him. A newspaper account from 1870 stated that residents donated $4,000 to help Ford rebuild a “fire-proof” restaurant.  And within eight months he was back in business.

Larissa O'Neal: So he has these moments of wealth and prominence, and then he has these times in his life where he really faces some tremendous setbacks.

Noel: And Ford’s reputation for success in the WAKE of these setbacks became a kind of insurance policy. 

Larissa O'Neal cont’d: Barney Ford, just like the successful businesses today, was branded. And for him in the restaurant business, that brand was customer service. He said, Come to me day or night and I will be there to provide you with a square meal. I think he just created this brand for himself very quickly. And he had such strong business acumen that that that brand just kept carrying forth, even when he was dealt some pretty serious blows.


Noel: Barney Ford’s own personal BOOMS and BUSTS continued. The biltmore hotels and opened more restaurants. He got rich, lost it all, started over, rebuilt, and came back many times over. Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver; San Francisco. Until finally, in 1879, he moved back to Breckenridge where he’d opened his first business after giving up on gold.  

This time, he opened the Main Forge Chop Stand and the Forge Chop House. Both were successful even before the train arrived, in 1882.

Leigh Girvin: Once that train hit Breckenridge, everything changed. And Ford, for one, could easily get to Denver and manage other business interests down there. It was about a nine hour train ride from Breckenridge to Denver. Within three years of being back in Breckenridge, he had the means to build this beautiful house that we're sitting in right now, the Barney Ford House, 1882. It was a mansion. It was one of the nicest houses in Breckenridge.

Noel: But, says Dexter Nelson II:

Dexter Nelson II: It wasn't all business, though. He was also very philanthropic. So he actually was one of the early founders that helped establish Zion Baptist Church. And as we know the black church has a very important role in black in ways of religious celebration, obviously. But also a lot of these churches, they were the staging grounds for civil rights movement, for protest and for even voting rights, which Barney fought was very active in Colorado, as well as Wyoming.

Noel: He also founded a school for African American children; helped to block passage of the Colorado Constitution in its first bid for Statehood in 1865 because it DIDN’T grant Black men the right to vote, AND traveled to Washington to lobby for the 15th Amendment, which DID grant Black men the right to vote in 1870.

[Music ]

Noel: And all of this by itself is incredible. From enslavement to wealthy philanthropist, Barney Ford WAS the model of western grit.  It’s one of the great rags-to-riches, against-all-odds western stories with a happy ending that could easily be cited as the realization of “The American Dream.”

When Barney Ford died on December 14, 1902, he was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery next to his wife Julia, who passed away three years earlier in 1899. His obituary was written by the historian Frank Hall and published in two columns on the front page of the Denver Post on December 22, 1902. It closely mirrored Hall’s one-and-a-half page account of Barney Ford’s life that he’d published in his four volume History of the State of Colorado, but with this added anecdote about how he’d learned Ford’s story:

[Music ]

Fifteen or twenty years ago he told me the story of his life, and it was extremely interesting. A less modest narrator would have put touches of color into it, looking more or less to the heroic phases, but as he gave it, the adventures he passed through were mere incidents that might have happened to any person.

Noel: Again, up to this point in the story, everything we've shared about Barney Ford's life is, to our knowledge, true based on the documentation known to historians and scholars.

After Barney Ford died, his “MODEST” story was largely forgotten for the next 60 years.

But on January 1, 1963, almost as if conjured from thin Colorado air, a FULL 218 PAGE biography titled “Mister Barney Ford: A Portrait in Bistre” appeared on bookstore shelves.  (Bistre, by the way, is a color of yellowish-brown pigment made from soot.)  And in the book, we get a far more cinematic picture of Ford’s early life that includes all the color and all the heroic phases of his origin story:

[Music ]

His mother drowns trying to reach the underground railroad when he’s still a baby. As he grows,  his enslaver’s wife, seeing how light skinned he is, and how much he looks like her husband, sells him off.  Trustworthy and hardworking, young Barney is allowed to work off the plantation of this new enslaver. Refusing to accept his lot, though, he teaches himself how to read and write and to speak like a gentleman. Then comes his harrowing escape with all manner of derring-do, near-misses, and cleverly improvised disguises, all garnished with the unexpected kindness of good-hearted strangers and a few recitations of Shakespeare sprinkled on top.

In other words, it reads like a Hollywood screenplay. And as it turns out, that 218-page book that appeared out of nowhere was written by a Hollywood screenwriter turned journalist named Forbes Parkhill.

[Music ]

Noel: Forbes Parkhill was born in 1892 and grew up in Denver. As a young man, he wrote at least two screenplays: 1935’s Blazing Guns AND No Man’s Range–both schlocky Westerns. He also wrote short stories for Western magazines, several of which were adapted into MORE schlocky westerns in the late 1930s.

But he didn’t just write screenplays; He was an all-out HACK, a term that comes from the word Hackney, a kind of work horse that was easy to ride and could take on any job. And Parkhill was that kind of  hack.  By day, he was a reporter and editor for the Denver Post. He taught journalism and short story writing at the University of Denver, and he also worked as a research assistant to U.S. Senator Eugene Millikin.

As Parkhill neared the end of his career in the 1960s, the matter of Civil Rights for Black Americans was in the headlines daily. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, and Billie Holiday were shaping American culture under Jim Crow while the west was still being romanticized as the beacon of freedom and manifest destiny for the white man. At a time when the tidy American myths of the west in Hollywood were at their apex with films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How The West Was Won, Parkhill likely sensed that the time had come to elevate a BLACK western hero.

<Spencer Tracey epilogue from How the West Was Won:>

 “The west that was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain never plowed under by tractors, never buried in a compost of events.”

Noel: And Parkhill had just the guy to help America reconsider that mythologized West. He almost certainly learned about Barney Ford from Frank Hall’s History of the State of Colorado. Parkhill’s father was a doctor who’d also been featured in the History, and he likely would have had a copy of it. And so, hack that he was…

Leigh Girvin: He decides to write a book.

Noel: Leigh Girvin

Leigh Girvin: I believe that what he saw was the burgeoning civil rights movement in the late fifties. He was looking for a character from Colorado's history that he could elevate as an example of someone who was a legacy of or helped create the legacy of the civil rights movement today.

Noel: Parkhill had enough FACTS about Barney Ford’s life  to work with beginning in the late 1840s when he met his wife Julia, and through his years in Nicaragua, and his eventual move out west. Here’s Terri Gentry. She’s a board member for the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in Denver. She also works for History Colorado.

Terri Gentry: Most of the things I think we've heard about him in Colorado are true. We have that documented.

Noel: But everything before that? Parkhill probably figured he needed more of an origin story to sell his book.

Terri Gentry: So a lot of it was filled in and a lot of guesses were made about what his experiences were. But I think everybody got so excited about reading the story, it kind of missed that. I think later on when you go back and you look at how the story was written, those authors said that we filled in some blanks.

Noel: His mother’s drowning, the slaver’s wife selling him off after seeing his light skin, his daring escape…

Larissa O'Neal In Forbes Park Hill's book, he talks about another African-American on the ship working with Barney Ford to help him.

Noel: And while the Riverboat is docked…

Larissa O’Neil cont’d: … he pushes a sack of rice overboard and he says, man overboard.  And Barney Ford, in dramatic fashion, goes racing off the boat, catches the underground railroad and makes his way to freedom.

Noel: Though Parkhill’s book reports the facts of Ford’s later life with journalistic accuracy, these stories of his early life were the kind of schlock you’d find in his screenplays.

But it wasn’t just Forbes Parkhill propagating this fictionalized version of Ford’s life.  In 1973, ANOTHER BIOGRAPHY called Barney Ford, Black Baron appeared. Largely cribbed from Parkhill’s biography, authors Marian Talmadge and Iris Gilmore couldn’t resist the urge to embellish the riverboat story further. Larissa O’Neal:

Larissa O’Neil: In that book, the authors claim that Barney Ford befriends someone who is a fan of Shakespeare, a playwright, maybe…

Noel: Ford, a worldly auto-didact in their version, is absent-mindedly reciting Shakespeare lines from the play they’re getting ready to perform for the guests under his breath while he’s setting the tables, catching the attention of the director of the play…

Larissa O’Neil: …and this person dresses Barney Ford as a woman and they go walking off the boat together…

Noel: And all these colorful stories?

Leigh Girvin: They came down to us as the truth of Barney Ford's life.

Noel: As recently as 2021, an hour long documentary produced by Rocky Mountain Public Media relied heavily on this narrative, much of which was still considered fact even by Breckenridge History, which is housed in Ford’s home.

And then history happened.  

[Music ]

Noel: Shortly after the Rocky Mountain PBS Documentary about Barney Ford came out in 2021, Alex Knapp, an editor at Forbes Magazine published an article titled, “Meet the Man Who Escaped Slavery And Made A Fortune In the Old West – Again and Again.”

Like Forbes Parkhill’s 1963 book, both the documentary AND the article revived the memory of Barney Ford at a critical moment in American civil rights history as the Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd Protests spilled through the streets.

But 60 years after Forbes Parkhill’s biography appeared, and just a few months shy of Barney Ford’s 200th birthday, Alex Knapp discovered a letter from Barney Ford to Colonel Nathaniel Garland Woods, the last man who had enslaved him.

Here’s Dexter Nelson II, reading some excerpts from the letter:

< music>

Sir, I never thought that it would be my duty to write you a letter of this kind, but of necessity I am driven to it. Sir, I have thought seriously and deliberately upon this matter, and have finally come to the conclusion that I am entitled to my liberty. Sir, you know that you have told me a great many times that I was as free as you were. Now, sir, if I were as free as you are, why did you not pay me for my services?

I have told you that I would not leave you, but I find that I can’t serve God and serve you; for when I am reading my Bible at night, you frequently make me quit reading and go to bed, so that I can get up early to serve you. Now, sire, if I was as free as you are, you could not have such dominion over me. Then it can’t be said that I have run away from you, if I am as free as you say; and moreover, I am free according to the laws of this state. If a man brings his slave here and remains in the state for 10 days, that the slave is then free. So, with this on my side, I don’t think that I have done wrong in leaving you.

Now, sir, I must bid you farewell Sir, you have my best wishes for your success in your present and future engagements, and if we never meet on earth, I hope to meet you in Heaven.

Your humble servant, B.L. Ford

Oct. 10, 1848

Quincy, Illinois

Noel: Leigh Girvin was floored when she read the letter for the first time, and immediately got in touch with Alex Knapp. Knapp had discovered a reference to the letter in Dr. Alonzo M. Ward’s unpublished 2017 dissertation through a database at the University of Michigan. He then tracked down the article, which was originally published in The Western Citizen, an abolitionist newspaper. 

Leigh Girvin: We now have a primary source document in Ford's own writing, his own words that he left his enslaver when he left him there in Quincy, Illinois.

Noel: Open letters from formerly enslaved people eventually became common on the front pages of abolitionist newspapers. And Ford’s was likely inspired by Frederick Douglass’ letter to his former enslaver published just a month earlier in September 1848. They were meant to call out enslavers by turning Christian values and rhetoric against them. Slavery was often characterized not only as the theft of labor, but as an inherent sin.

But the re-discovery of Ford’s 1850 open letter to Nathaniel Woods in the The Western Citizen also opened the door to more ACCURATE information about Ford’s early life.

Leigh Girvin:  Researchers were able to find Woods's will in Saint Louis. And Wood manumitted Barney in his will, freed Barney in his will. So two years later, Woods died two years later, after Barney had achieved his freedom. So now we know exactly how Barney Ford got his freedom, when, who enslaved him, how long he'd been with him, the conditions of his enslavement, the relationship that they had. There's a tremendous amount of information in this one document.


Noel: The re-discovery of Ford’s letter might not SEEM like a big deal. What does it change? So what if he freed himself with a letter or was freed by his enslaver’s will? He was still enslaved, and he still escaped. Wasn’t Barney Ford still the same successful businessman and tireless advocate for black people in the west that Forbes Parkhill portrayed in his book?

Noel: For his part, Dexter Nelson II is happy to see the myths surrounding Barney Ford’s life dispelled.

Dexter Nelson: it's never too late to correct the wrongs. Like, I feel like it's for a museum or historian or writer. Like, our responsibility is to try to understand and eliminate our biases. And so in saying that, what's the truth? Not the romanticized or hero worship, what do we know as far as we can tell is the most accurate? And if we don't know, it's our job to say we don't know. You know, we should not be ashamed to say we don't know when you do more research.

Noel: Larissa O’Neil agrees. And she’s grateful the truth about Ford’s early life is getting clearer. But she’s still grateful to Forbes Parkhill, too.

Larissa O'Neil  I think we do have to credit Parkhill with bringing Barnie Ford’s story to the state during an era when African-American rights, the civil rights movement was gaining a tremendous amount of traction.

Noel: It’s impossible to say what Forbes Parkhill’s exact motivations for publishing his fictionalized biography of Barney Ford were. Perhaps it was more for money or recognition at an opportune time; or maybe it was his intention to contribute to the broader civil rights discourse and remind Americans in love with white myths about the American West that Black people had built it, too. Perhaps it was all the above. Either way, he seemed to intuit that the story, in the absence of details, needed the myth to be remembered.

Larissa O’Niel: without Parkhill, I don't know that Barney Ford’ss story would have ever risen to the level at which it did and the level that allows us to now have a museum dedicated to him. And he certainly did a lot to create a lot of energy around the Barney Ford story.

Noel: Jason Hanson agrees, and finds Forbes Parkhill’s mythification of Ford forgivable. And he also welcomes the new, more accurate history emerging with the National Park Service’s report and the re-discovered letter from Ford.

Jason: For me, I don't know that it changes how I think about Barney Ford. But what it does do is it gives Barney Ford a voice… a sense of his personality or his personhood that comes from, you know, him directly instead of is being inferred from his achievements and actions throughout his life. 

Noel: Having this re-discovered letter  helps us see the history of the WHOLE West more truthfully, says Dexter Nelson II.

Dexter Nelson II: On the kind of basic level, people don't understand the African-American contribution to Colorado.  There have been African-American trappers, fur traders, Buffalo soldiers. And so it really flies in the face of the myth that African-Americans weren't in the West. Right. We didn't go west. So I feel like Barney Ford’s story, really, really honors that. 

[Theme and Credits]

Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: Tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at

Many thanks to our Producers, María José Maddox and Dustin Hodge, who did most of the research for this episode.

Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for newspaper and periodical research; to Tyler Hill, our story editor; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.

Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at

Devin James Fry composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.

Many thanks to our editorial team:

Shaun Boyd, Kimberly Kronwall, Jose Ortega, Angel Vigil, Marissa Volpe, and Zach Werkowitch

And to our Advisory Group:

Stephen Sturm, Emily Sturm, Thomas Andrews, Jonathan Futa, Charlie Woolley, Susan Schulten, Tom Romero, and Cara DeGette

Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.