The larger ranches in the Mountain Empire employed cowboys and other staff to help with all manner of ranching activities. This month’s article focuses on Edward “Ned” Hilliard, an African-American cowboy who worked for the Vail family on the Empire Ranch starting about 1894. The information for this article derives from genealogy and newspaper records, Empire Ranch Foundation and University of Arizona archives, and information shared by Victoria Gordillo Watt, Ned’s great-granddaughter. Ned’s last name was spelled a variety of ways–Hilliard and Hillyard the most common. I’ve settled on the spelling used in the Empire Land & Cattle Company ledgers and on Ned’s gravestone.

No known photos of Ned Hilliard exist. It’s possible that the third cowboy from the right (bending over) is Ned, who was 6’2” in height. Photo taken circa 1900. Photo courtesy the Empire Ranch Foundation

Edward “Ned” Hilliard was born in Texas, the son of freed slaves, Edmund and Silvy Hilliard. The 1870 U.S. Census lists him, at age 4, living with his parents and siblings near San Augustine, Texas. This record suggests that he was born in 1866, but in later census records Ned lists his birth year as 1872. Some of those who knew him believed he was older than he claimed: “Ned by his own is 69 years old… Old time cowmen differ with Ned and say he is …80 years of age.” [Arizona Daily Star, 7/17/1941].

Ned began working as a cowboy at age 14 for Henry Coffield, a well-known Texas rancher. He spent about 12 years in Sonora, Mexico, on a Coffield ranch, and returned to the U.S. about 1890 to work for Bill Land, one of the Babacomari ranchers in Arizona. An 1894 voter registration record lists him as living at Fort Huachuca; his occupation was cowboy.

Empire Land & Cattle Company ledgers confirm that Ned worked for the Vail family—the first entries are dated 1895. His starting salary was $30 per month, which he mostly spent outfitting himself with chaps, boots, a revolver & cartridges, and a reata [braided rope].

Ned was known for “his great ability with a rope in rough country as well as his all around ability as a cowhand.” [Arizona Daily Star, 11/20/1945]. He handled wild cattle and horses expertly and without concern but was greatly afraid of lightning. Once while working along near the Whetstone Mountains he was struck by lightning on the top of his head and his horse was killed. Ned survived but carried a scar ever after.

He was a skilled hunter, collecting a $20 bounty on a lion from Pima County. [Arizona Daily Star, 9/16/1899]. At some point the Vail family asked Ned to work on their ranch on Santa Rosa Island in California. Ned did that for a short time but grew homesick for Arizona and returned. [Arizona Daily Star 11/19/1951].

Ned married Carmen Robles in 1896. The 1900 census lists Ned and Carmen as living in rural Pima County with two children, Glora born in 1897 and Frank born in 1900. No further records have been found of Glora and Frank so they may have died young.

The 1910 census lists only Ned, living near Benson. By 1920 Ned is still living near Benson with two children, Francesca, born in 1901, and Julian, born in 1902. In 1917 the General Land Office granted Ned a patent on 160 acres of land in Cochise County, northeast of Benson. In 1938 he was granted ownership of 480 acres adjacent to his earlier holdings. Ned continued to ranch in the Benson area well into his 70s.

By 1940 he had moved to Tucson, where he died in 1945. He was either 90 (if you go by the 1855 date of birth on his tombstone), 79 (if you go by the first census birthdate of 1866) or 73 (if you go by the 1872 birthdate he used for a time).