Stephen Venard – Goldrush Lawman


Stephen Venard

Stephen Venard

Stephen Venard was 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, he 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 Nevada City, 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 W.W. Wright.

Nevada City, California, 1866

Nevada City, California, 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 election.

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.

Venard Gunfight

Venard Gunfight

In June 1866, Venard became a deputy sheriff working at the nearby boom town 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.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated February 2020.

Also See:

California – The Golden State

California Gold Rush

Historic California People

Old West Lawmen