A former slave from South Carolina, Barney escaped at age seventeen, taught himself how to read and write and achieved great business success, becoming the most noted caterer and restaurateur in the Rocky Mountain region and Colorado’s most notable black businessman. Mr. Ford was also very active in civic and education causes.
Born on January 22nd, 1822 in Virginia, Barney Ford grew up on Darington Plantation in South Carolina. Barney was the son of the plantation owner Mr. Darington and Phoebe, one of Mr. Darington’s slaves. Barney’s mother is reputed to have encouraged Barney to learn to read, despite the danger. His mother died c. 1837 reportedly drowned while attempting to escape on the Underground Railroad. Upon her death Barney was sold to owners of a plantation in Kentucky, and at age 18 was sold again to a plantation in Georgia. He also spent time working on paddle-wheelers on the Mississippi.
Chicago & The Underground Railroad
Barney Escaped slavery in the 1840s (dates vary depending on what source you are reading) and made his way to Chicago where he ultimately became a “conductor’ on the Underground Railroad, meeting and corresponding with other figures like Frederick Douglass. In Chicago Barney meet and married Julia Lyoni (m.1849), sister of the supervisor of the Underground Railroad in Chicago. It is reportedly Julia who suggested he take on the name of Lancelot Ford after a locomotive, which he shortened to Barney L. Ford – reportedly he thought Lancelot was taking it too far.
While in Chicago Barney Ford also first began working in hotels, working in the hotel barbershop, and appears to have had plans to open his own barbershop when news of the California Gold Rush broke.
In 1851 Barney and Julia took passage from New York to Greytown, Nicaragua en route to California, not risking the quicker route through New Orleans. They would never make it to California as Barney had fallen seriously ill probably of a tropical disease like malaria on the journey down the aptly named Mosquito Coast. While stuck in Greytown, they decided that instead of continuing on to California, to open their own hotel in Greytown, Nicaragua. Ford’s United States Hotel specifically catered to Americans traveling through on their way to and from California. It reportedly became very popular with American businessmen and dignitaries and even played host to the American Ambassador and Commodore Vanderbilt.
Nicaragua at the time was a major transit corridor for travelers to the U.S. west coast and the new state of California (admitted to the Union in 1950). There was much debate about the proposed location for a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with Panama and Nicaragua being leading candidates. Many, including Vanderbilt who proposed a route through Nicaragua, favored a canal though Nicaragua as it was closer to the U.S. and, due to their ability to incorporate Lake Nicaragua, making much of the journey already navigable.
In 1854 The Fords were forced to abandon Nicaragua when hostilities between the Americans and British lead to the bombardment of Greytown, their hotel being one of the first buildings being destroyed by the ensuing fire.
Return to Chicago
Upon their return from Nicaragua, Barney Ford took over operations for the Underground Railroad in Chicago. In 1859, along with Frederick Douglass, the famous detective Allan Pinkerton and others, Barney Ford took part in what has been called “the boldest exploit of the Underground Railroad.”A raid into Missouri liberated a group of slaves who then had to be transported through Chicago to Detroit and ultimately into Canada. This operation was greatly complicated by all the publicity, as the newspapers had caught wind of the story.
Barney Ford arrived in Denver in May of 1860 having hired on to a wagon train making the plains crossing to reach the newly found Pikes Peak gold fields. Barney Ford was one of the first prospectors to arrive and stake a claim in Breckenridge. However, Ford’s status as an African American made his position precarious. Reportedly Ford was forced to abandon his first claim near Central City when a group of armed white men forcible removed him from the land at gunpoint claiming one of their number was the rightful owner of the claim. The law at the time prohibited black men from owning homesteads or mining rights, or at least so this group claimed, and at the very least, legal and law enforcement authorities would not support a black man’s claim over a white man’s.Ford then tried to stake another claim above Breckenridge, but found himself removed by law enforcement, apparently due to the malpractice of the lawyer through whom Ford had made the claim.
Business Life in Denver
His mining claims having proved fruitless he switched his focus back to hotels and barbershops. Beginning in 1861, as his wife and son joined him in Colorado, Ford began acquiring and running a boarding house in Breckenridge and a barbershop in Denver.
By 1861, Ford and his family had moved back down to Denver and began building a veritable hotel and restaurant empire. One of Ford’s best-known business enterprises was the Inter-Ocean Hotel opened in 1873 and stood at the corner of 16thand Blake Streets in Denver. The Inter-Ocean was proclaimed to be “the finest in the territory and the best appointed hotel west of Saint Louis,” by the editor of the Rocky Mountain News at the Time.He owned restaurants and hotels in Denver, Breckenridge and Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he opened a second Inter-Ocean Hotel in 1875. By the 1870s he was one of the two richest black men in Colorado.
Denver Politics & Society
Nearly everyone who was anyone in Denver society came through Ford’s hotels, restaurants and shops, making the Fords one of the most prominent families in Denver. “Ford was asked to join the local bank as a trustee, and the city’s most influential people were soon visiting his wife in the new Ford mansion. He was appointed a member of the Republican Party Central Committee and served as the first black member of a federal grand jury in Colorado.”Ford was even asked to travel to Washington D.C. to lobby the president and congress for black suffrage rights in Colorado. Back in Colorado Ford worked to ensure that when a new school was needed in Denver, that the city’s black children, his among them, would not be bared from attending. Ford went on to found a school for African American children.
Later Life & Legacy
In 1882 the Ford’s built a home in Breckenridge, which is now a museum. Barney Ford died in 1902 at the age of 80 and was buried at Riverside Cemetery next to his wife – she died in 1899.
Barney Ford’s legacy lives on: there is now a hill in Breckenridge that bears his name, Denver Public Schools named a school after him in 1973,he was inducted into both the Colorado Business Hall of Fame and the Colorado Black Hall of Fame, and there is now a stained glass window of Barney Ford in the Colorado State House Chamber directly behind the desk of the Speaker of the House.
American National Biography
Find A Grave
Denver Public Library
A note on the sources: the Parkhill book is far closer to historical fiction than an actual biography; the author takes a lot of liberties and adds lots of embellishments. Further, many of the more recent sources I have used seem to have been drawing from either Parkhill’s book or Barney Ford: Black Baron (1973) by Marian Talmadge and Iris Gilmore, which purports to be a biography but has similar issues of embellishment (I strongly suspect that Talmadge and Gilmore may have been using Parkhill’s book as a source). I have tried in this piece to only include details that I feel are reasonably well supported and I am reasonably certain are knowable, but it is likely that I have not completely succeeded.
- Ammon, Richard T. “Landmark Inter Ocean Hotel Ravaged by Fire.” Cheyenne City from Wyoming Tribune, originally published: 1916.
- Beisser, Fred. “Barney Launcelot Ford.” Find A Grave. Date Added: 24 May 2004.
- Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. “Museums and Exhibits.”
- Fernando, Kalyani. “Barney Ford: African American Pioneer.” History Colorado. Published: Feb 8, 2017.
- Nelson, Annie. “Barney Lancelot Ford (1822-1902) Pioneer. Activist. Agent of Change.” Denver Public Library: Genealogy, African American & Western History Resources. Published: March 13, 2015.
- Parkhill, Forbes. Mister Barney Ford: A Portrait in Bistre. Denver: Sage Books, 1963.
- Raymond, Maria Elena. “Ford, Barney Launcelot.” American National Biography. Published: February 2000.
- Snow, Shawn. “Denver’s Historic Inter-Ocean Hotel.” DenverUrbanism. Published: March 11, 2012.
Published: Feb 16, 2019
Author: Robin Pope