Adventure Out West

(Jeff Milton)


by Tom S. Coke 2001

February 15, 1900

It would be hard to find someone who fit the role as a tough lawman in the Wild West better than Jefferson Davis Milton. This cowboy, saloonkeeper, rancher, express messenger, and above all, lawman, lived the life others could only talk about.

At the turn of the century, 38-year-old Milton had been in the middle of gunfire off and on for two decades. On February 15, 1900, his toughness would be tested like never before.

Milton was working as an express car guard on a train. As evening approached, the train pulled into Fairbank, Arizona. Outside, a dangerous band of outlaws jumped on the train as it slowed. The five bandits were Three-Fingered Jack Dunlap, George and Louis Owens, Bravo Juan Yoas, and Bob Brown. They were members of the Burt Alvord gang.

Alvord was one of those frontier characters who worked proficiently on both sides of the law. Then 34, Alvord had already served four years as a deputy under John Slaughter starting at age 20. He had witnessed the shootout near OK Corral in Tombstone and the lynching of John Heath. With Slaughter, he had tracked down a number of outlaws. Alvord was still a lawman, a constable, when he masterminded his gang on this February day.

Jeff Milton had no idea of developments outside as he stood guard. His first clue came with a flurry of gunshots. Some of the flying fusillade shattered his left arm. It happened so fast Milton was separated from his shotgun. Struggling to recover, he scurried to the gun and blasted away. He hit Dunlap with 11 buckshot. Another slug caught Yoas in the seat of his pants.

Milton's arm was bleeding profusely. He knew his lifeblood was leaking on the floor. His only chance was to stop the flow. He quickly rigged up a tourniquet, applied it, then noticed the car's open door. He forced his way over to it and slammed it shut just in time to block shots as the outlaws sent another volley his direction.

He was still thinking of his duties as the train's guard as he grew weak from the loss of blood. He figured the outlaws still might break into the car for the money, so he hid the key. Then he passed out.

He had figured right. The remaining three outlaws forced the engineer to open the express door. But they couldn't open the safe. Enraged and frustrated, they left penniless.

Though seriously wounded, Jeff Milton recovered after several months in a hospital. But he never regained the use of his arm.

Most others who had gone through such an experience would have rested on their laurels. Milton didn't though he had plenty to rest on.

Youngest of 10 children reared on a Florida plantation, Jeff Milton faced life at an early age. His father, governor of the state, died during the Civil War. The family lost all their wealth after the war. At 16, in 1877, Jeff moved to Texas and lived with his sister and worked at her husband's general store. The next year he moved further west and worked on a cattle ranch.

In 1880 he joined the Texas Rangers for three years. He ended up a corporal. During that time a grizzly attacked him, but he was able to stick a six-gun in its mouth and kill it. On May 16, 1881 he along with Rangers J.M. Sedberry and L.B. Wells were on duty in Colorado City when they hurried toward the Nip and Tuck Saloon after hearing gunfire.

They ran into cattlemen W.P. Patterson and Ab Adair. They asked about the gunfire. Patterson claimed ignorance. Sedberry asked to look at his gun. "Damn you, you will have to go examine somebody else's pistol," said the cattleman. They began to tussle. Patterson drew his gun and fired, leaving powder burns on Sedberry. Milton had had enough. He shot Patterson with his .45. Wells shot Patterson again. The cattleman soon died.

Later Milton became a deputy sheriff and worked out of Murphyville (now Alpine). He opened a saloon there for awhile. In 1884 he worked on a ranch in New Mexico and soon became a deputy sheriff of Socorro County. That year he was riding by the Gila River with Jim Hammil, a cowboy, when they were ambushed. One bullet killed Milton's horse and tore through Milton's leg. Milton blasted away with his Winchester. He along with Hammil kept shooting till three Mexicans lay dead. Milton poured turpentine on his leg and he and Hammil left.

In 1887 Milton became a mounted inspector along the Arizona-Mexico border. Two years later he operated a horse ranch near Tucson. In 1890 he worked as a Southern Pacific Railroad fireman and was promoted to conductor.

In 1894 he became El Paso's chief of police for a short time, then became an express messenger and security guard for Wells Fargo. On June 29, 1895, he helped track down outlaw Martin Morose (or McRose). He and Texas Ranger Frank McMahon, his brother-in-law, hid on the Texas side of the Mexican Central Railroad bridge waiting for Morose. Morose was scheduled to meet with George Scarborough.

At 11:30 the men showed up. Milton and McMahon stepped out of hiding and ordered Morose to surrender. He didn't. Milton shot him out of his saddle with a .45. Morose stood back up shooting. Scarborough finished him off.

In July 1898 Milton got in a gunfight with three outlaws near Solomonville, Arizona. He and partner George Scarborough ended up wounding one and killing another. The third escaped.

All this preceded Milton's escapade with the Burt Alvord gang. Yet even after being permanently disabled in 1900, Milton refused to quit.

In 1904 he became an agent for the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act of that year. He was assigned to stop others from smuggling Chinese aliens through Arizona and California. He continued as an agent till 1932.

As late as 1917 he still used his gun. On November 3rd of that year he puttered into Tombstone, Arizona in a Ford right when a bank robbery was happening. Banker T.R. Brandt was killed. Milton steered the Ford after the culprit Fred Koch. Two miles later Milton and his partner Guy Welch caught up. Milton jumped out of the car and shot Koch in the arm with a .38.

Jeff Milton proved how tough he was by a lifetime of danger. He died in 1947 at the age of 85 in Tombstone.


J. Evetts Haley, Jeff Milton (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948).

Vertical Files, Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas at Austin.

"MILTON, JEFFERSON DAVIS." The Handbook of Texas Online.

James. D. Horan & Paul Sann, Pictorial History of the Wild West (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954).

Bill O'Neal, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).