Everyone has heard of Hickok, Earp, Masterson, Tilghman, and others who gained fame as Western peace officers, but not as well known is the name of perhaps the most efficient, most successful, and longest-lived officer of them all, Jeff Davis Milton. He was a fearless officer and a master of firearms whose long and colorful career as a lawman spanned more than half a century in the troubled times of the Southwest.
Milton was born in Sylvania, Florida, November 7, 1861, the son of the Confederate governor of the state, General John Milton. After the end of the Civil War, he grew up on the remnant of the once-proud family estate, then under the thumb of an oppressive carpetbagger government.
At age 15, he moved to Texas, working for a while in a relative’s mercantile store and trying his hand at cowboying in the old Fort Griffin buffalo country. On July 27, 1880, he appeared at the Texas Ranger headquarters in Austin, armed with a couple of letters of recommendation from prominent citizens. By adding three years to his real age, he became the requisite 21 and was sworn in as a Ranger private.
Rangers in those days were required to furnish their own firearms, usually choosing a Colt .45 single action and an 1873 .44 Winchester carbine. The state magnanimously supplied them with 100 cartridges, adding 12 rifle and six revolver cartridges per month, which was considered ample.
Jeff was quite proud of a then-new nickel Colt Frontier model in .44-40 caliber, the same as his rifle. But in its first firing, the cylinder jammed tight and the young Ranger found this happened with every shot, due to the primers flowing back and tying up the firing pin. He promptly swapped it to a gambler for an ornate .45.
The .45 single action was his handgun for the rest of his life, and during most of his later years, he carried a second gun, a cut-down .45 (probably a rare Sheriff’s Model) in a shoulder holster under his shirt. This second gun was destined to get him out of many tight places.
Jeff spent three years in the Rangers, and after thousands of horseback miles, he came to know the sprawling state like the back of his hand. Much of his duty was discharged in the desolate Trans Pecos and Big Bend areas as the Southern Pacific railroad laid new track into El Paso, always with boisterous tent cities of gamblers, outlaws, and soiled doves following the construction work to keep things interesting for a teenage Ranger.
In Mitchell County, a belligerent cowman shot up the town and drew on Milton and two fellow officers when they arrested him. The cowman was shot down, and the three young lawmen were charged with homicide in an atmosphere highly heated by threats from the rancher’s friends.
At the examining trial, the three unarmed defendants were escorted before the Justice of the Peace, each “guarded” by a brother Ranger wearing not one but two revolvers – one convenient to the gun hand of the accused. The would-be lynching party sized up the situation and retreated to the nearest bar for some beer-muttering. After a long, three-year legal process, Milton and his partners were acquitted. During the wait, they continued to serve as Rangers.
But change is a young man’s lifeblood, and Jeff left the service, heading for New Mexico, where he homesteaded a small ranch. His reputation led him to deputy sheriff’s jobs in various counties, as well as to positions as a cattle detective. For a while, he carried a special commission from the governor of New Mexico. His efficiency at rounding up cattle thieves, as well as his mild and friendly manner) except when crossed), gained him many New Mexico friends. He worked briefly as a deputy to the long-haired mankiller, Commodore Owens, in the mountain settlement of St. Johns, Arizona. This alliance didn’t last long, and in early 1877, he was employed by Collector of Customs Joseph Magoffin of El Paso. His new duties were to ride alone with a packhorse from Nogales across the desert wastes clear to the Gulf of California. His job was to prevent smuggling – one man covering hundreds of miles.
At the time Jeff entered this strenuous service, the almost waterless stretch from El Paso to the Gulf of California was patrolled by a company of only 11 men. And men they had to be, facing the unrelenting desert, catching often-dangerous smugglers, and collecting U.S. Customs duties. Jeff’s guns came into play more than once during his comparatively long tenure with Customs, which ended when political forces caused the discharge of the entire service in 1889.
For a while, Milton reverted to deputy sheriffing, horsetrading, and prospecting. During his Customs patrolling and subsequent batting about southern Arizona, Jeff made lifelong friends among the Papago Indians, friends who more than once aided him with difficult arrests and dangerous passages through the desert.
Horsetrading waned, and Milton recovering from a broken ankle, took up the unlikely position of conductor of a Pullman car on a Southern Pacific run from El Paso to Mexico City. Passengers on this route sometimes were inclined to be a bit rowdy until they discovered the identity of their well-known host, who always carried his sixshooter in his waistband. On one occasion, after being falsely accused of throwing a passenger to his death from the observation platform, Jeff was forced to disguise himself as a Mexican, stash his .45 out of sight, and make his way back to the U.S. incognito.
In the meantime, El Paso had become a wide-open town. It was a railroad town and an anything-goes gambler’s paradise. Booze, bunco, bordellos, and just plain murder and robbery were the order of the day. Distraught city councilmen racked their brains for a lawdog who could cool off the hotbed of their city. They decided on Jeff Milton. To Jeff, whose job of collecting fares was becoming a bit mundane, the idea of being El Paso’s Chief of Police was interesting. He signed on in August 1894. Whether they wanted it or not, El Paso was about to be reformed.
Jeff started by crossing John Selman, the crooked constable and well know outlaw. After some blustering, Selman backed down in fear. With a new local ordinance against gambling behind him, Jeff started a mass transport of gamblers out of El Paso. This system was not without its confrontations, but Jeff’s quick sixhooter stopped trouble before it started.
During this period, the infamous John Wesley Hardin made an appearance. He had only shortly before been released after serving 15 years at the state pen at Huntsville for one of his innumberable murders. Having studied law in the joint, he planned to hang out his barrister’s shingle in the woolly border town.
Jeff met Hardin and his party as they hit town, armed with sixguns and rifles. Milton had prepared for war by leaving several automatic shotguns hidden in strategic places, but they weren’t needed. When the Chief located and informed the stone-faced Hardin that he wouldn’t permit the carrying of arms on the streets of El Paso, there was a brief silence, then the guns were surrendered to the nearest bartender.
El Paso’s affairs got even more peppery with the arrival of Hardin. Hardin was retained by the paramour of Martin M’Rose, a cattle thief hiding across the river in Juarez, to get U.S. charges dropped so the rustler could return to U.S. soil.
During the conduct of this business, Hardin and the M’Rose woman formed a romantic alliance of their own. At this juncture, George Scarborough, a fine officer and cattle detective and an old friend of Jeff’s, came to town. He wanted M’Rose. Several meetings of all parties involved were held in Juarez. On one occasion, Hardin slapped of a M’Rose cohort and had a gun at his breast in the same movement. Jeff Milton was present and grappled with Hardin, saving the rustler’s life.
This affair was ended when Milton and Scarborough, armed with an arrest warrant, persuaded M’Rose to cross to the Texas side of the railroad bridge. Upon seeing the lawmen, he opened fire, and Jeff shot him through the heart. M’Rose fell, rose, and fired. It required a second hit from Scarborough to stop him.
At about this time, in a questionable election, the El Paso reform party was voted out. The new politicos wanted no part of Jeff’s brand of law, and he was dismissed. He left to work as a deputy U.S. Marshal. Shortly after, old John Selman murdered Hardin by shooting him in the back of the head. Somewhat later, George Scarborough killed Selman when the old constable tried to set him up in a murder trap.
Finding the marshal’s job less than lucrative, Jeff hired on as a Wells Fargo express messenger on the Southern Pacific run from Benson, Arizona, to Guaymas, Mexico, many of its cargos being comprised of gold and silver bullion. Armed with food, sixgun, shotgun, and rifle, he escorted many valuable shipments, interspersing railway trips with horseback forays in search of border badmen. In the course of one of these posses, Jeff and his friend Scarborough, in a desperate gunfight, shot noted desperado Bronco Bill Walters and scattered his band from a mountain camp.
Lawman-turned-outlaw Burt Alvord and five confederates planned to raid the richly laden express car at Fairbank, Arizona, but took painful precautions that Jeff would be diverted and not guarding the car that day. Through chance, their ruse failed, and it was Milton who opened the car door and started passing out packages to the agent. Seeing whom they were faced with, the outlaws opened fire with high-powered rifles, shattering the bones in Jeff’s left upper arm.
Shooting one-handed with his shotgun, Jeff dropped two of his antagonists, and rapidly weakening from loss of blood, he shut the door, concealed the keys in the safe, improvised a tourniquet, and passed out. Although the holdup men continued to shoot into the car and finally searched Milton for the keys, they were foiled.
After a long recuperation, Jeff emerged with a crippled left arm. Still dead game, his efforts were later largely responsible for the capture or death of the Alvord gang.
In 1904, Jeff was appointed to the unique position of Mounted Chinese Inspector. This was a job under the Immigration Service, then part of the Department of Commerce and Labor. The Border Patrol had not yet been organized, and Milton’s commission came directly from President Theodore Roosevelt. Hordes of Chinese were being smuggled out of an antagonistic Mexico into the U.S., which prohibited their entry. Milton’s riding job was much the same as it had been with Customs, and he covered over the many ensuing years much of the same area of southern Arizona. A healthy, horseback life kept him zestful and young. Still single, he raised a little harmless hell from time to time and “covered the ground he stood on.”
Though catching Chinese was somewhat less challenging to the veteran, he made the most of it, seasoning his days with personal combats, guiding, and prospecting. In 1919, Milton married Mildred Taitt of New York and at least went through the motions of settling down. That same year, he was assigned to assist in guarding a boatload of Russian radicals comprised of Emma Goldman and her followers on their deportation to Russia. Jeff lusted for trouble and stocked up on extra ammunition, but to his disappointment, the crossing was tranquil.
Jeff’s life in the desert with his scores of friends continued. When he turned 70, his services were still considered so valuable that he was asked to continue for two years. And a last, in 1932, a government economy move forced him into retirement at Tombstone, Arizona.
Among U.S. Border Patrolmen today, Jeff Milton remains known as “the first Border Patrolman.” He moved to Tucson, where his old comrades of the Border Patrol surreptitiously watched over him, although he needed little of that until the end, which came May 7, 1947.
Jeff was Cremated, and his ashes were scattered over his beloved desert.
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