By Dale Cox
Jackson Blue Spring – A state historical marker near the entrance to Jackson County’s Blue Springs Recreational Area points out that the property was once part of Sylvania, the plantation of Governor John Milton. He served as Florida’s governor in 1861-1865 before dying from an accidental gunshot wound.
The writer of the marker text overlooked one important fact. Sylvania was also the birthplace of Jefferson Davis Milton, a lawman who faced down the “fastest gun in the West” and lived to tell about.” He also left behind a legacy that is much better known today than that of his father, the Governor.
Jeff Milton was born at Sylvania on November 7, 1861, and was three years old when his father died from a gun blast on April 1, 1865. The tragedy must of been difficult for the young boy to understand, taking place as it did so early in his turbulent yet highly successful life.
The Reconstruction era followed the war and the governor’s son grew up in a time of violence and strife. Like many young Southern men of his era, Milton turned his back on his home state and headed west for Texas as soon as he was old enough to do so. He arrived in Texas at the age of 15 and worked as a cowboy for a time before embarking on career that brought lasting fame.
At the age of 17, Jeff Milton lied about his age and became a Texas Ranger. The Rangers were already one of the nation’s most elite law enforcement forces. He cut his teeth riding with the Texas Rangers, facing down outlaws and bringing law and order to a state that had been devastated by Civil War and Reconstruction. Four years later he moved west to New Mexico where he spent the 1880s and 1890s working as a deputy U.S. marshal, sheriff’s deputy and police chief.
Milton became known as one of the fastest guns in the West. He was a gunfighter in the true sense of the word, but only drew his weapon in the service of law and order. His most famous quote – “I never killed a man who didn’t need killing” – is still remembered today. Among those he shot in gunfights were the outlaws “Bronco Bill” Walters, “Three Fingered Jack” Dunlop and “Bravo Juan” Yoas.
Perhaps his most remarkable moment as an Old West lawman, however, came in 1894 when he faced down the deadliest gunfighter of them all, John Wesley Hardin.
No accurate total of the number of men killed by Hardin has ever been assembled because no one but Hardin ever knew the truth. He claimed in 1877 that he had killed 42 by that point. He has been called the “Dark Angel” of Texas for a reason. Jeff Milton definitely knew of him by reputation and Hardin unquestionably knew of Milton. So far as is known, however, the two gunfighters never met face to face until Milton signed on as the head of the police department in El Paso, Texas.
Milton was a seasoned law enforcement when he accepted the position in 1894. El Paso was a boisterous frontier town, plagued by violence and crime. He vowed to bring law and order to the city and his most noteworthy opportunity came almost at once when he learned that the infamous John Wesley Hardin was on his way to El Paso, heavily armed and accompanied by several men. The news turned all eyes in the town on Milton, because El Paso ordinance prohibited the open carry of firearms.
Hardin arrived in town as expected and Jeff Milton was waiting. The two men faced each other in the street in a scene that could have been taken from a modern Western film. Milton told Hardin that the display of firearms was prohibited in El Paso and that he must surrender his weapons.
Hardin contemplated the odds but decided not to test the resolve of the well-known lawman. He turned over his weapons and submitted to Milton’s orders.
John Wesley Hardin died not long after the confrontation with Jeff Milton. He was shot in the back of the head by El Paso Constable John Selman, Sr. who walked up behind the gunman as he was shooting dice in an El Paso saloon. Selman himself was later killed in a gunfight that erupted over a card game.
Jeff Milton’s star, however, was still on the rise. He accepted a new classification of job with the Immigration Service in 1904 and became the first law enforcement agent specifically assigned to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico. He remained on the job until he was 72 years old.
Jefferson Davis Milton died in Tucson, Arizona on 1947. His remains were cremated and his ashes sprinkled over the deserts that he grew to love, far away from the lush green woods of his birthplace in Jackson County, Florida. He never thought of himself as a “Western gunman” and always pointed out that he was an officer of the law who used his gun only when he had no other choice.
He is remembered today by officers of the U.S. Border Patrol as “America’s First Border Patrolman.”
Late in his life he bought breakfast for a young wanderer and gave him a ride to Tucson in his Model T Ford. The wanderer was Louis L’Amour, who became the world’s most recognized writer of Westerns.
It must have been a remarkable meeting.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published in 2008.