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