EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series, to be published bi-weekly in the Sierra Sun.
In the 19th century, the rough and tumble town of Truckee endured many years of shoot outs, bar brawls and frequent street fights.
The nearby resort community of Tahoe City managed to avoid the chaos, but Truckee’s saloons and back alleys were rife with transient toughs and increasing vigilantism. The frequent violence that marred Truckee’s reputation in its earliest decades required lawmen with nerves of steel and strong will. Men like that were hard to come by, but early Truckee residents were protected by some of the best in the West.
Truckee’s first constable was Arthur Andrus, appointed in 1867 by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. Truckee was already a rowdy town, bustling with railroad construction workers, businessmen, thieves, con men and prostitutes. Enforcing the law there was impossible for one man; fortunately Andrus had Steven Venard as deputy sheriff. Little is known about Andrus, he quit after less than a year on the job, but Deputy Venard soon gained a national reputation as one of the west’s greatest lawmen.
As the only deputy sheriff in eastern Nevada County, then known as Meadow Lake Township, Venard was responsible for more than Truckee crime. He also patrolled a vast area studded with lucrative gold mining operations and Mother Lode towns connected by busy stagecoach and freight lines.
VENERABLE DEPUTY VENARD
Born in Ohio in 1824, Steve Venard earned a good education before traveling overland to California in the gold rush, arriving in September 1850. He tried mining near Nevada City for about a year, but made little money. He then worked odd jobs and by 1853 was partner in a grocery store. During the mid-1850s, Venard served as deputy sheriff until the 1860s when he was elected to two terms as Nevada City marshal. He lost his bid for the office of Sheriff in early 1866 and returned to private business.
At the time the region was plagued by a gang of highwaymen committing robberies on local stagecoach lines. The final straw came on May 16, 1866, when the North San Juan stage was held up by the so-called Shanks Gang. The armed criminals escaped with $8,000 from the Wells Fargo money box as well as valuables from six passengers.
Determined to stop the criminals once and for all, Nevada City Sheriff Robert Gentry organized a citizen’s posse consisting of five local men, including Steve Venard. The posse was hot on the trail of the bandits when the horse prints they were following veered off the road into rough terrain.
Hoping to catch the gang together when they crossed a bridge further up the road, the sheriff split up his men, sending Venard to bushwhack up country on foot while the others traveled the main road. Steve Venard may have been alone, but he was a savvy tracker and armed with a Henry repeating rifle loaded with 16 rounds. After some tough hiking, Venard suddenly came upon the three robbers near a ravine, surprising them from about 20 feet away.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
Taking advantage of the moment, the ex-sheriff squeezed the trigger of his Henry as the men reached for their guns. One bandit dropped dead. One of his cohorts dove behind a large rock and tried to shoot Venard with his revolver, but the pistol misfired. Once again Venard dropped his opponent with just one shot, and without hesitation he dispatched the third criminal with two well-aimed bullets. Within a matter of seconds, Steve Venard had singlehandedly shot and killed the notorious Shanks Gang and earned a place as one of the bravest lawmen in the West.
An agent for Wells Fargo offered him the $3,000 reward that had been posted for the capture or killing of George Shanks, Robert Finn and George Moore, but Venard refused the money. He did, however, accept an appointment as a local deputy sheriff patrolling Meadow Lake, a boom town in the mountains west of Truckee, as well as a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the state militia by California’s governor.
In honor of his bravery, Wells Fargo presented Venard with a gold-mounted Henry rifle engraved with a depiction of the incident and the date. One newspaper opined: “A few such lessons as Venard has given will put an end to that sort of amusement in California. Venard has done more good than all the criminal trials which have taken place in that section of the country for years.”
Steve Venard eventually worked for Wells Fargo as a shotgun guard escorting money-laden stages. Later promoted to company detective, he captured many criminals over the years. By 1883 Venard was back in Nevada City working as constable and night watchman, but he later moved to western Nevada where he spent several years ranching. Respected for his heroic service and temperate habits, Steve Venard died on May 20, 1891, so broke that his friends had to pay for his burial.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
On July 19, descendants of legendary Truckee lawman Jacob Teeter will be holding a family reunion at the annual Old Timer’s Picnic at the Truckee River Regional Park, sponsored by the Truckee Donner Historical Society.
The historic jail in downtown Truckee opens the following day with a new exhibit focused on Constable Teeter’s law enforcement history.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Marks blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.