Many lawmen in the Old West had short careers. Some served for a couple of years, others for mere months. One southwest Colorado lawman served his communities for more than 30 years. He was fearless, a superb marksman and steadfast in enforcing the law. He was also a successful businessman and devoted family man. In his time and place he was a legend; today he is largely forgotten. His name was Jesse Benton.
Born March 21, 1834, in Chenango County, N.Y., William Jasper Benton was the ninth of 10 children. He was going by Jesse by the time he arrived in Colorado Territory during the Pikes Peak gold rush. He opened a quartz mill in Black Hawk in 1860. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, on Sept. 27, 1861. During his military service, he saw action at the Battles of Glorieta Pass and Peralta in New Mexico Territory in 1862 and fought under Colonel John Chivington at Sand Creek in eastern Colorado Territory in 1864.
Mustered out on Dec. 19, 1864, Benton served as a policeman in Denver between 1867 and 1875. In 1876, he moved to the newly minted silver camp of Ouray in southwest Colorado, which became his home for more than 30 years. There, he began a dual life as both a successful businessman and a trusted lawman tough on crime. Within two years the perpetually busy Benton had become a real estate dealer, built the first frame building in the city, opened a saloon that also hosted the city’s first church services, joined the board of directors of the first bank and opened several other businesses, including a billiard hall and a butcher shop.
He was also chosen as the city’s first marshal, an office he held until mid-November 1878. By then he had earned a reputation as an honest, fearless lawman and was in demand to bring order to other towns with serious problems. The first was the boomtown of Silver Cliff, Colorado Territory. Less than a week after leaving Ouray, he faced his first test. A Silver Cliff newspaper reported:
Last Saturday [Nov. 24, 1878] our city was the scene of another shooting affair. A man named W. Riley Fisher, who had come up from Arizona with a mule team, became intoxicated and disorderly. He went into Howard & Kratzer’s saloon and, flourishing a knife and pistol, became quite noisy. Marshal Benton was called and endeavored to arrest him, when Fisher caught him by the throat, and a tussle ensued in which Benton struck him twice with his billy, and Fisher staggered against some barrels in the room. Recovering himself, he ran out the door, drew his revolver, came to the door and was told by Benton to put up his weapon. Fisher and the marshal fired at the same instant, Fisher being struck in the breast. Benton’s small pocket revolver now refused to revolve, he having left his large one to be repaired a few minutes before. With his left hand, he managed to turn the chambers, while Fisher was perforating his clothes with shots from his gun. At last Fisher, being hit twice, raised his left hand to his weapon to take good aim, when a bullet crashed through it, breaking both bones of the wrist. He started to run when policeman Tipton, who had just arrived, fired two shots, neither of which hit him. Benton got off another shot, which produced the wound in his side. Fisher said, “Don’t shoot—I’m killed now,” and put down his revolver. He walked back in charge of the officers but died about 12 o’clock. Three bullet holes were found in Benton’s coat, but his skin was not touched. Mr. Benton has shown himself to be the right man in the right place.
Authorities immediately promoted Benton to deputy sheriff of Custer County. In the summer of 1879, desperate town fathers in West Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, summoned his help to address the violence linked to the Dodge City Gang, which had taken control of East Las Vegas after the arrival of the railroad that July. He served until late September, when he was recalled to Ouray to assume his role as captain of Colorado Militia Company D, the “Ouray sharpshooters,” in the wake of the killing of Ute Indian agent Nathan Meeker and employees in northern Colorado and widespread fear of further Indian attacks. By the time Benton arrived in Ouray in mid-October, the Ute situation had stabilized, the militia stood down, and he resumed his post as city marshal.
In many Western boomtowns in the late 19th century, competing interests sought to sway the actions of their lawmen—upstanding citizens who demanded strict enforcement of the law, and those businessmen who preferred a looser interpretation of vice laws. Benton was a law-and-order man and served as city marshal over the next 15 years whenever the enforcement faction was in control. Elections were often contentious, none more so than the 1887 contest, in which the city council went through the pretense of counting ballots before ultimately selecting a permissive candidate. During his times in office, Benton kept busy facing down vigilante mobs, corralling prostitutes in the red-light district and encouraging unsavory characters to leave town.
In November 1886, Marshal Benton faced off against one of his own. He’d been called to the aid of a Mrs. Spillers. She was the mistress of former Marshal Luther Harris, who had preceded Jesse the previous term. Benton and Ouray County Sheriff Charles H. Rawles went to Spillers’ house, where she told them Harris had been abusing her. Then Harris showed up. Brandishing a pistol, he ordered the officers to leave, and they complied. But Harris followed them into the alley and became increasingly belligerent. He ultimately opened fire on Benton, who returned fire, killing Harris instantly.
But that year also brought happiness into Jesse’s life. In April, he married Elton Ramsay, a widow of frail disposition with a young son. He was 52, she 24, and they remained devoted to one another.
After serving several more years as city marshal in the early 1890s, Jesse was elected to a two-year term as Ouray County sheriff in 1896. By then he was in his mid-60s and physically worn down. After a term as Ouray night marshal, he finally retired from law enforcement in 1900, ending a long and distinguished career. “I have had 21 bullets fired at me at very close range by badmen in my time,” he once told a reporter, “but I don’t carry a single lead mark to show.” Subsisting on his military pension, he and Elton moved to a lower elevation for her health, often returning to Ouray to visit. They later moved to be near family in El Paso, Texas. In the spring of 1917 they moved once more to Sawtelle, Calif., where Jesse Benton died with his boots off that November 25. He was 85. Elton followed him in death four years later.