The rise and fall of Sheriff James Kendall

Willa Kane
Frontier Historical Society
Members of the Aspen Militia sent to quell the Ute Uprising pose for a photo in August 1887. The uprising was a creation by Garfield County Sheriff James Kendall as an opportunity to retain his position in the upcoming November 1887 election. Kendall did win re-election, but at a cost of $100,000 to the state of Colorado and the life of Deputy Jasper Ward.
Photo Courtesy Frontier Historical Society |

“I hereby certify that I have executed the within writ by killing the within David Beach.”

— Garfield County Sheriff James Kendall in response to a warrant issued by Mesa County for the apprehension of David Beach, The Glenwood Echo, March 19, 1887

The original Hotel Glenwood was filled with cigar smoke and Democrats. Men pushed to the bar for the opportunity to meet the Democratic nominee for Garfield County Sheriff, James C. Kendall. Along with the meeting came a free drink of hard liquor and a pitch from the hopeful candidate.

The Nov. 3, 1885, election was Kendall’s first step into the political limelight. He was over 6 feet tall, about 40 years of age, thin, with rounded shoulders, short dark hair, and a thin moustache. His wide brimmed cowboy hat and pistol reinforced his tough no-nonsense ranching image, which had been honed by his position as boss of the LO7 Cattle Ranch 10 miles from Meeker. Kendall carried on easy conversation with a southern accent, perhaps Kentuckian, and knew how to work situations to his advantage.

Because Kendall personified the ranching image, and he promised to rid the northern part of the county of cattle and horse thieves, he easily defeated his Republican opponent, Neil Cooper. He then thrust himself in the responsibilities of his office by pursing and capturing accused murderers, transporting prisoners, and making arrests in other crimes. At times, he enlisted the assistance of esteemed lawman, Dave J. Cook of the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency.

Kendall was described as “one of the most efficient and fearless officers of the state.” But his star faded in winter of 1886 as his reputation grew for his liberal use of force and firearms. In February 1887, he and Deputy Jasper Ward attempted to arrest David Beach on Elk Creek per a warrant from Mesa County. Beach was killed during the arrest, and with questions swirling about the procedure of the arrest, a coroner’s inquest was held. It was determined Kendall shot Beach in self-defense.

Kendall’s private life began to reflect also on his profession. Although professionally overt, he was personally secretive, possessing a dark addiction to gambling and saloons. In January 1887 he was caught in a small blaze in an Aspen saloon. The fire singed his signature moustache and his reputation, and announced publicly what many discussed privately about his habits. He realized he faced defeat in the fall election.

His opportunity presented itself in July 1887 when Colorow and his followers left the Ute Reservation in Utah to hunt near Rangely. Kendall convinced the district attorney that two Utes in the party were guilty of horse stealing, and an order was made for their arrest. Kendall and his volunteers created a quarrel with the Indians, fired some shots, and then sent couriers with messages declaring an uprising. With still fresh memories of the Meeker Massacre, Gov. Adams sent a militia to quell the “uprising.” Two weeks later, at the expense of nearly $100,000 to the state of Colorado, and with the death of Kendall’s deputy, Jasper Ward, along the White River west of Rangely, Kendall secured his seat on the Democratic ticket. He was re-elected November 1887.

In April 1888, Kendall’s relationship with the Board of Commissioners soured. He submitted $3,286 in bills connected with the Ute affair but was denied. After that meeting, Kendall simply vanished, abandoning his position as sheriff, leaving his accounts $3,000 short, and forcing his bondsmen to cover his financial obligation. He also abandoned a wife and young daughter.

Mrs. James Kendall hailed from Mobile, Ala. She was refined, a stylish dresser, pretty and a good conversationalist. When her husband disappeared, she started an affair with County Deputy George C. Martindale. Martindale took $400 from the household coffers, abandoned his wife and children, and headed with Mrs. Kendall to the Oklahoma Land Rush in the spring of 1889, where it is reported, they found James Kendall. The Kendalls did not reunite.

The Board of County Commissioners stabilized their situation by appointing Frank Sheridan of Meeker Garfield County Sheriff in January 1889. As for James Kendall, he may have traveled from Oklahoma to Texas, ultimately settling in his declining years on a cattle ranch in Val Verde County near the Mexican border. Sometimes, life comes full circle.

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.

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