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Jeff Davis Milton ... The First Border Patrolman
published August 2016

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. This is the legacy of the "First Border Patrolman", Jeff Davis Milton.

On November 7, 1861 Caroline, the wife of the governor of Florida Confederate General John Milton, gave birth to a son. They named him Jeff Davis Milton. Jeff grew up on the family estate in Sylvania, Florida which fell into hard times following the end of the Civil War. At the age of 15, a grown man by the standards of the times, he moved to Texas where he worked in a relative's mercantile store and tried his hand at cowboying.

Seeking more excitement in life, on July 27, 1880, Jeff applied to become a Texas Ranger at their headquarters in Austin, Texas. Only 18 years old at the time, he lied about his age to meet the requirement age of 21 and was sworn in as a Ranger private.

In those days Rangers had to furnish their own firearms, Jeff chose a Colt .45 single action and an 1873 .44 Winchester carbine. The .45 single action was his weapon of choice for his entire life. During his later years, he carried a second gun, a cut-down .45 in a shoulder holster under his shirt. This second gun was destined to get him out of many tight places.

Traveling thousands of horseback miles in his three years with the Rangers, Jeff came to know the sprawling state of Texas like the back of his hand. Much of his time was spent in the Trans Pecos and Big Bend areas as the Southern Pacific railroad laid new track into El Paso.

There was no shortage of gamblers, outlaws, and prostitutes following the construction work keeping things interesting for a teenage Ranger. Milton was arrested in Mitchell County following an incident when 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 a lynch mob atmosphere fueled by threats from the rancher's friends. 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. Milton and his partners were eventually acquitted.

Desiring a change, Jeff left the Texas Rangers and headed to New Mexico. He homesteaded a small ranch and soon 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 gained him many New Mexico friends.

In 1887, Collector of Customs Joseph Magoffin of El Paso hired Milton to ride from Nogales across the desert clear to the Gulf of California. His job was to prevent smuggling, one man and a packhorse covering hundreds of miles.

Jeff's reputation as marksman and an efficient lawman grew as his 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.

While recovering from a broken ankle, Milton took up the unlikely position of conductor of a Pullman car on a Southern Pacific run from El Paso to Mexico City. Otherwise rowdy passengers were inclined to tone it down a bit when they discovered the identity of their well-known host, who always had his .45 in his waistband. El Paso had become a wide-open town. The railroad brought with it an anything-goes gambler's paradise. Booze, bunco, bordellos, and just plain murder and robbery were the order of the day. El Paso's city councilmen offered Jeff the position of Chief of Police. He gladly accepted, having become bored with the mundane task of collecting fares.

El Paso was about to be reformed. With a new local ordinance against gambling behind him, and his trusty sixhooter, Jeff started a mass transport of gamblers out of El Paso. Milton's well known, and well deserved, reputation came in handy when the infamous John Wesley Hardin came to town. Hardin had recently been released after serving 15 years at the state pen at Huntsville for one of his many murders. Having studied law while in prison, he planned to hang out his barrister's shingle in the wild border town of El Paso. Armed with sixguns and rifles, Hardin and his cohorts were confronted by Milton as they entered town.

Jeff informed the stone-faced Hardin and his group that he wouldn't permit the carrying of arms on the streets of El Paso. There was a brief silence and then Hardin made the wise choice to surrender their guns to the nearest bartender.

In a questionable election, the El Paso reform party was voted out and Jeff was fired by the new politicos who wanted no part of his brand of law. He got work as a deputy U.S. Marshal which he found less than lucrative. Jeff hired on as a Wells Fargo express messenger on the Southern Pacific run from Benson, Arizona, to Guaymas, Mexico. Armed with food, sixgun, shotgun, and rifle, he escorted many valuable shipments of gold and silver bullion while interspersing railway trips with horseback forays in search of border outlaws.

The bones in Jeff's left upper arm were shattered in a gun battle that occurred when lawman, turned outlaw, Burt Alvord and five others raided the express car at Fairbank, Arizona. Shooting one handed with his shotgun, Jeff dropped two of his antagonists. Rapidly weakening from loss of blood, he shut the door, concealed the keys in the safe, improvised a tourniquet, and passed out. Alvord and his gang searched the unconscious Milton for the keys to the loot. Failing to find the keys, they gave up the raid. After a long recuperation, Jeff emerged with a crippled left arm. Even with this handicap, his efforts were later largely responsible for the capture or death of the Alvord gang.

In 1904, Jeff was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to the position of Mounted Chinese Inspector. Large numbers of Chinese were being smuggled out of Mexico into the U.S., which prohibited their entry as per the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. Milton's job was much the same as it had been with customs, as he covered much of the same area of southern Arizona. A healthy life on horseback kept him energetic and young. He raised a little harmless hell from time to time and was said to "cover the ground he stood on". Catching Chinese illegals proved rather mundane to the veteran lawman, so he made the most of it by filling 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. Five years later, at the age of 62, Jeff Milton became the first officer appointed to the newly established U.S. Immigration Service Border Patrol in 1924.

The Economy Act of 1932 forced the still active Milton into retirement at age 70. The Sector Chief at El Paso wrote in praise of him: You have come to be regarded "as an institution rather than an individual. No other immigration officer has your value in cultivating for the Service the good will and friendship we must have for effective enforcement of the law."

Among U.S. Border Patrolmen today, Jeff Milton remains known as the first Border Patrolman.

Milton's final years were spent in Tucson where he passed away on May 7, 1947. As he wished, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered over his beloved Arizona desert.



Jeff Davis Milton born 1861 - died 1947


This factory engraved Colt SAA Sheriff's Model built for Jeff Davis Milton in 1916 recently sold at auction for $201,125