By Jim Pettengill
Many lawmen in the old west had short careers. Some served for a couple of years, or a few months. One southwestern Colorado lawman served his communities for more than 30 years, mostly in Ouray. He was fearless, a superb marksman, and steadfast in was also a successful businessman and a 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 Bainbridge, New York, William Jasper Benton was the ninth of ten children. Everyone called him 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 in September, 1861. During his military service he saw action at the battles of Glorieta Pass and Peralta in New Mexico Territory in 1862, recruited for the 3rd Colorado Volunteer Cavalry and fought at the Controversial Sand Creek Battle in 1864.
Mustered out in December, 1864, Benton served as a policeman in Denver from 1867 -1875. In 1876 he moved to Ouray, which would become his home for more than 30 years. Here he began a dual life as both a successful businessman and as a trusted lawman who was tough on crime. For the next two years he dealt in real estate, built the first frame building in the city, opened a saloon that also hosted the city’s first church services, was on the board of directors of the first bank, and owned 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 new mining town of Silver Cliff, Colorado. Less than a week after leaving Ouray, he faced his first test. A Silver Cliff newspaper reported:
“Last Saturday (Nov. 25,1878) 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.”
Benton was immediately upgraded to deputy sheriff of Custer County. In mid-1879 he joined the police force in West Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory to help control violence linked to a group of outlaws called the Dodge City Gang who 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 position as Captain of Colorado Militia Company D, the “Ouray Sharpshooters”, in the wake of the killing of Ute Indian agent Nathan Meeker in northern Colorado and widespread fear of possible Indian attacks. By the time Benton arrived in Ouray in mid-October, the Ute situation had stabilized, the militia stood down, and he resumed as city marshal.
Like many mining towns, law enforcement in Ouray in the late 1800s was dictated by two factions. Many businessmen preferred loose enforcement of vice laws, while upstanding citizens wanted strict adherence to the law. Jesse was a law-and-order man, and served as city marshal for most of the next 15 years, whenever the enforcement faction was in control. Elections were often contentious, none more than 1887, which required 121 ballots by the city council before deciding on a permissive candidate. During his times in office, Benton faced down vigilante mobs, forced prostitutes to remain in the red-light district, and encouraged unsavory characters to leave town.
In November 1886 Marshal Benton was tested again. He was called to the aid of a Mrs. Spillers. She was the mistress of Luther Harris, who had preceded Jesse as city marshal the previous term. Benton and County Sheriff C. W. Rawles went to Mrs. Spillers’ house, where she told them that Harris had been abusing her. Harris arrived and threatened them with a pistol and ordered them to leave. Harris followed Benton and Rawles into the alley and became more and more belligerent. Harris fired at Benton - always a mistake - who returned fire, killing Harris instantly.
1886 also brought happiness to Jesse. In April he married Elton Ramsay, a widow with a young son, Henry Earl Ramsey. He was 52, she was 24. The couple were devoted to each other, and remained happy together for many years, despite Elton’s frail health. Jesse adopted Elton’s son, who became known as Jesse Earl Benton, or most often, Earl.
After several more years as city marshal in the early 1890s, Jesse was elected to a two-year term as Ouray County Sheriff in 1896. He retired from law enforcement in 1900 at the age of 66 after a final term as Ouray night marshal, ending a long and distinguished career. In an 1897 newspaper interview he stated “I have had 21 bullets fired at me at very close range by badmen in my time, 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, returning often to Ouray to visit. After moving to El Paso, Texas to be near Earl, who was a banker, they later moved to Sawtelle, California, where Jesse Benton died November 25, 1917 at the age of 85. Elton followed him in death four years later.