Stephen Venard - Goldrush Lawman
Stephen Venard (1824-1891) – One of the most fearless
lawmen during the California Goldrush, Venard began his life on a farm near Lebanon, Ohio in 1824.
He received a good education as a child, attending Waynesville Academy and when
he grew up, moved to Fountain city, Indiana,
where he worked as a teacher. A man of strong morals, Venard soon became
involved in the Underground Railroad and his life was threatened when slave
owners put a price on his head. When gold fever began to sweep the country
during the California
Goldrush, Venard headed west in 1850. After prospecting on
his own for several months with little success, he finally settled down in
California, where he worked for wages on another miner’s claim.
Over the next several years, he tried his hand at a number of
ventures including a grocery store, the freighting business, and continued his
mining efforts. However, none of these provided the financial success he was
hoping for and in 1855, he took a job as a deputy under Nevada County Sheriff
California in 1866.
The following year, Sheriff Wright was killed,
and when a new sheriff – William Butterfield temporarily replaced him, Venard resigned, not having been on good terms with the other officer.
That same year, the infamous Henry Plummer (who would later be hanged as
an outlaw in
Montana in 1864) became the City Marshal. In 1857, Venard ran against
Plummer for the position, but lost, in what was said to have been a rigged
In the meantime, Venard continued to work in the area mines
while sometimes working as a Nevada City police
officer. After Henry Plummer had moved on, Venard became the Nevada City
Marshal in May, 1864 and was regarded with respect, especially for his
proficiency with his 16-shot Henry rifle.
On May 15, 1866 a Wells Fargo stagecoach was robbed near Nevada City by outlaws,
George Shanks, Robert Finn and George Moore, who made off with nearly
$8,000 in gold dust. A posse comprised of both county sheriffs and Nevada
City officers was quickly formed to pursue the bandits. The posse split up
to look for the desperadoes with Venard and Deputy Sheriff Lee, looking
for the men near the headwaters of Myer’s Creek. The two law officers soon
came upon the fugitives and when gunplay erupted, Venard killed all three
with a total of four shots.
Upon returning the gold bullion, Venard found that Wells Fargo had offered a $3,000 reward for the bandits. However, Venard refused
to accept the entire amount, insisting that it be split up among the posse
members. In the end, he accepted half of the reward and became an area
celebrity for his bravery. Governor Frederick Low appointed Venard to his
staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the National Guard and Wells Fargo presented him with a new gold-mounted Henry Rifle.
In June, 1866, Venard became a deputy sheriff working at the
nearby boomtown of Meadow Lake City.
However, the gold soon played out and Venard went to work as a shot-gun
messenger for Wells Fargo. During the construction of the transcontinental
railroad in 1869, he guarded the express coaches and served in the
Mountain Division for two years.
However, by 1871 he was
back in Nevada City,
working as a police officer, where that same year, he played an important
role in the capture of the John Houx Gang. It was not long before Wells Fargo asked him to come back as a detective when stagecoach robberies were
becoming rampant in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.
After serving for many
years for Wells Fargo, Venard died of complications from a kidney ailment
on May 20, 1891. Described as a "man of modest demeanor, thoroughly
temperate, of the strictest probity and not afraid of anything,” he
unfortunately died so poor that his friends had to take up a collection to
pay for his burial in Nevada City.
of America, updated July, 2012
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