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Colorady Gunsmoke: Outlaws and Lawmen, by Ken Jessen

Review by Ed Quillen

Colorado History – July 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Colorado Gunsmoke – True Stories of Outlaws and Lawmen on the Colorado Frontier
by Ken Jessen
Published in 1986 by J.V. Publications
ISBN 0961166258

We seem to be of two minds about violence, specifically violence from young men wandering around with lethal weapons. If it happens today, we want stricter laws and more police to enforce them. If it happened a century ago, we often find it romantic, sometimes even profitable, as with the “Old West gunfights” staged hourly at tourist attractions like Buckskin Joe at the Royal Gorge.

In Colorado Gunsmoke, Ken Jessen strips away much of the romance to lay out rather dispassionate accounts of segments of Colorado’s violent history of raiders, guerrillas, hard-cases, armed robberies, and lynchings.

Each episode gets a chapter, which generally has photos of participants and scenes, and always has a map for clarity. Some incidents are fairly well known, such as the shooting of Bob Ford (the man who killed Jesse James) in Creede, or the escapades of Jack Slade along the Overland Stagecoach Line in the 1860s.

Many aren’t as fabled, but they’re all interesting, and Central Colorado provides its share, and maybe more, to this collection of the state’s lore.

Foremost, perhaps, is the Lake County War of 1874, which left at least half a dozen men dead, among them a judge, Elias F. Dyer (son of the famous Methodist preacher, John L. Dyer), who was murdered in his courtroom at Granite (Lake County then included Chaffee County).

As for tough lawmen, Mart Duggan of Leadville used his skills with pistol and fists to bring some order to early Leadville, and Cyrus “Doc” Shores of Gunnison braved an ambush to settle a strike in Crested Butte.

Cañon City lynched George Witherill, who took in business partners for freighting enterprises, then killed those unwary partners and took off with their teams and wagons.

During the Civil War, a gang of eight raiders led by Jim Reynolds rampaged through South Park, supposedly to advance the Confederate cause. José and Vivian Espinosa, angry at the loss of their land after the Mexican War, took to a guerrilla campaign that terrorized southern and Central Colorado in 1863.

All these accounts — and many more from other parts of the state, making about two dozen in all — show solid research, with source notes and when necessary, some explanation of differing versions and why the author made his main selection.

The stories flow well, and yet remain compact — even an affair as complex as the Lake County War takes only ten pages.

Colorado Gunsmoke is solid and readable, and it provides, in one handy collection which can be read in convenient short chunks, convincing evidence that the “good old days” weren’t always that good.

— Ed Quillen