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John M. Hensley: Madera’s gift to Fresno

Madera County Historical Society

John M. Hensley, Madera County pioneer and sheriff of Fresno County.


The sheriff’s granddaughter sat composed and alert while I probed her memory for pieces of Madera County’s past. She told me of her days in Pershing School and then Lincoln School. She took me down the halls of Madera High School from which she graduated in 1932. Then she turned the other way to go back in time — before she was born — and focused on her grandfather, John M. Hensley, the only Maderan who was ever elected Sheriff of Fresno County.

John Hensley was just 3 years old when his family pulled up stakes in 1853 to head for California in a covered wagon and was 12 when his father chose to settle permanently on the Fresno River.

After working with the family for two years, he ventured out on his own and gained employment herding sheep for Jonathan Rea. Later, he began an independent venture in the sheep business but lost everything in the drought of 1877. That’s when he turned to law enforcement.

The town of Madera had just been established a year earlier, and it needed a constable. John M. Hensley got the job, but his jurisdiction extended beyond Madera to most of what is now Madera County. That’s why folks came after him in 1880 when there was trouble in Buchanan. There had been a killing in a saloon there. As constable, Hensley headed for the scene of the shooting.

As Hensley reached the outskirts of Buchanan, a stranger, gasping for air, came running up. He identified himself as John Bennett and indicated that he was the man who fired the fatal shots in the saloon. He wanted to give himself up. Hensley obliged the man and secured him in a spare room of a nearby farm house and decided to wait there with him until morning before removing him to Madera. About midnight, Hensley was shaken from his slumbers by ominous sounding voices outside.

“Where will we hang him?” one voice queried. “There’s not a limb within a mile of here.” Sitting upright, Hensley understood everything. A lynch mob had formed outside the house and they meant to dispense justice. Hensley grabbed his prisoner and beat a hasty retreat out the back door.

The constable and his prisoner headed for the woods, and before long the vigilantes were in hot pursuit. They kept up the chase all night long, as Hensley tried to make it to Madera safely with his prisoner. Once the lynch mob got so close that the two men could hear their voices.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was a cold winter night, sweat stood out in large drops on Bennett’s forehead. He was afraid his luck was about to run out. He was mistaken. Dame Fortune was definitely on Bennett’s side, because he and Hensley made it to Madera where the former was incarcerated. There would be no illegal hangings on John M. Hensley’s watch.

Hensley continued to serve as a Fresno County constable and became active in the Democratic Party. In 1888, he threw his hat into the ring for sheriff and was elected. In 1892, he was reelected and served until January 1893.

During his tenure as Sheriff, Hensley experienced life as a pioneer lawman to the fullest. He joined lawmen in chasing the Dalton gang, train robbers Sontag and Evans, and scores of lesser known outlaws and desperadoes. Then came 1893.

By that time, sentiment for carving up Fresno County was at a fever pitch. Residents on the north side of the San Joaquin River wanted to break away and form their own county, and it came as no surprise that Fresno County Sheriff John M. Hensley joined the agitation for division. His decision, however, cost him any chance for a third term as sheriff. Fresno County would not elect a sheriff who lived north of the river and who worked for county division.

So in 1893, Madera County was created, and John M. Hensley was out of a job. He left Madera for awhile to return to sheep raising — this time in Wyoming and Montana. By 1902, however, he was back in Madera, ready for another try at sheriff — this time of Madera County.

Perhaps it was his absence of several years that cooled the voters to his quest for Madera County’s top job in law enforcement. The people denied Hensley the sheriff’s office, but in recognition of his contributions to Madera County and his considerable experience as a lawman, they made him Undersheriff.

John Murray Hensley lived out his life in Madera, passing away in March 1925. His widow, Harriet continued to live in their North B Street home until her death in 1940. Both are buried in Madera’s Arbor Vitae Cemetery.

In 1972, when the erection of Hidden Dam created a lake on the Fresno River it also created an opportunity to honor the Hensley family. The lake is now known as Hensley Lake.

Each year hundreds of visitors find recreation at Hensley Lake, many not knowing that beneath those waters behind Hidden Dam lies the playground of John M. Hensley, the lawman that Madera County loaned to Fresno.


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