The American Frontier was overrun with outlaws of all sorts and descriptions but thankfully there were lawmen like Jeff Milton to stem the tide.
“When I die, I hope they have something better to say about me than to tell how many men I killed.” Jeff made the comment while listening to his wife read the obituary of a close friend.
Jeff (Nov. 7, 1861 – May 7, 1947) was born Jefferson Davis Milton at the beginning of the Civil War. His father was governor of Florida and quite a powerful Confederate supporter. But as the war began to wind down and it was apparent the South would lose, his father committed suicide, leaving his wife to raise their son and several daughters.
That one act of cowardice followed Jeff all his life. Unable to come to grips with it, he set out for Texas in 1878 at 14 years old, lied about his age and joined the Texas Rangers. He spent the next four years chasing outlaws.
By 18, he was lean, hard, a good judge and caretaker of horses, and as good a shot as you can get with a Colt .45.
In 1884 at 23, he moved through West Texas into New Mexico and became a Deputy U.S. Marshal. He teamed up with Sheriff John Slaughter in Cochise County, Arizona. Together they rid the country of the Jack Taylor Gang.
Courtesy University of Oklahoma libraries
But nothing satisfied his restless spirit. He resigned his commission as a marshal and took a job in Fort Davis, TX as a clerk in a mercantile. It wasn’t long though before an old friend in the Texas Rangers came calling. Jeff was deputized and sent to keep the peace in a railroad town called Murphyville that eventually became Alpine.
The first thing he did was start arresting the rambunctious cowboys. Seeing as there was no jail, he put them in a boxcar. It didn’t take long to have the cowboys singing a different tune. But he found peaceful surroundings boring.
He bought a saloon and kept it for a whole two hours before selling it. He couldn’t put up with the drunks. He cowboyed for a while, managed a ranch, and homesteaded his own place. Still, adventure called.
In 1895, he partnered with lawman George Scarborough and sent each member of a rustling gang either to a grave or jail.
His favorite job of all was one he took watching the entire border of Arizona and Mexico for outlaws and contraband goods. There he had an encounter with Black Jack Ketchum and wounded him before he escaped. Also in this job, Jeff developed a deep spiritual kinship with the desert and found some measure of peace.
The desert town of El Paso called to him and he became Chief of Police in 1894. In the performance of his duties, he went up against one of the most notorious gunmen—John Selman. The man had over twenty notches on his gun. That didn’t impress or scare Jeff Milton. He arrested and put him in jail. Then he set about cleaning up the town. He made a list of all the shady, downright crooked gamblers and gave them notice to leave town or die. All left.
But fate dealt a bad hand in Feb. 1900 while Jeff was working as an express agent on a train. A group of bandits led by Burt Alvord held up the train and a gunfight ensued. Jeff killed several before a bullet ripped into his left arm and hit an artery. Using his sleeve, he made a tourniquet to stop the squirting blood. The train engineer managed to get him to a doctor who tied the shattered bone together with piano wire. When the wound wouldn’t heal, it seemed the only recourse was amputation, which Jeff absolutely refused. He quickly went to a doctor friend of his who cleaned and treated the wound but the doctor told him that he’d be unable to ever use his arm (left two inches shorter) again.
In 1904, Jeff Milton settled down to a steady job—that of what we call a border patrol agent along the Arizona border. He was tasked with stopping the flow of illegal Chinese immigrants. And he did.
copyright K&B Books
On June 30, 1919, he married a woman named Mildred Tait. He was 58 years old.
At age 71, he retired. He’d spent over 50 years as a lawman. The government gave him a small pension and he lived out his life peacefully in the desert he so loved.
He died on May 7, 1947 at 85 ½ years old. Mildred had him cremated and she spread his ashes in the desert.
Jefferson Davis Milton lived a life of adventure few would ever match. Still….I’m wondering if he outlived the dishonor and the ghost of his father. I’d like to think so.
Do you think a horrible legacy such as he had would stain someone like him for the rest of his life?
My father tried all his life but I don’t think he ever got the approval he wanted and needed from his father. He seemed to be haunted by the fact that he was never good enough. And I’m fairly certain my grandpa never told my dad he was proud of him.