Jefferson Davis Milton was born at the outbreak of the Civil War, the son of privilege on a Southern plantation. His father, Governor John Milton, refused to accept the failure of the Confederate States of America and took his own life. Little Jeff was raised by his mother and doting big sisters, and it is easy to imagine his character traits given these circumstances. By the time he was fifteen, he was spoiled, arrogant and restless, with a great deal to prove to himself. His mother could not handle him, and one of his sisters thought she could, given a better environment in Texas.
He came to Texas in 1877 as a teenager, eager to see and experience all the wild and woolly West he had read about in dime novels. This was the land Davy Crockett had died for at the Alamo, and where Texas Ranger Bigfoot Wallace had fought the Comanches; Where buffalo still ran wild and cowboys lived free on the American plains.
The Wilson & Yarborough Mercantile in Anderson, Texas.
Just sixteen, Jeff Milton entered Texas like a blank canvas with visions of grandeur. He was pleased when Colonel Yarborough handed him his first cigar and loved what it symbolized. He was being accepted as a man. He could not have asked for a better situation, a fresher start, or a more thrilling prospect. But soon Jeff would realize that it was not a home or retail business which made him feel complete. Hauling sacks of corn or sweeping out one of his brother-in-law’s stores seemed too mundane for the son of a governor. Jeff had always heard about Texas, but this was not it.
Just a baby during the war, he had missed out on “forging his own mettle” during the War Between the States, and his father had died shamefully. Every young man needed a way to establish his manhood, and establish his own name. He thought he would not be satisfied until he was a cowboy, living on the range, facing adventure or Indians out west, or some kind of adversary where he could display his Southern fire.
Georgian "Pink" Hatchett was a schoolteacher in Grimes County after the Civil War, before heading west to start a cattle operation called the Saw-Horned Cattle Company. He drove several herds up the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas before returning to Navasota and selling kerosene around town from a wagon.
[Note: I can find no close kinship between William "Billy" Barry of Grimes County and Buck Barry, the famous Texas Ranger, and the son of Bryant Buckner and Mary Murill Barry. He apparently arrived Texas in 1841 and originally settled outside of Corsicana. Billy Barry, the friend of Milton's, was the son of Confederate veteran W. E. Barry and Martha Meachum Barry. W. E. was the son of Lewis Dickson Barry who came to Grimes County in 1849.]
The magnet of the west for young Jeff was suddenly magnified to an irresistible strength. He began to save back his money to buy himself an "outfit." He would need a good horse, saddle and tack, spurs, lariat and weapons and the leather to hold them.
It turns out this ingenious cattle operation on the Brazos River was in far northwest Texas, 500 miles from home. Comanches and outlaws still ran amok there and dangerous adventure was not just a possibility, it was guaranteed. Soon Jeff bought himself a horse and he and Allen left with little fanfare, and much against his sister’s advice.
The cowboy life was lonely and challenging. Often a cowhand was stationed completely in the wilderness, with only his wits and gun to feed himself. And in the midst of this battle for survival he had to put the herd's needs before his own... painting by Russell Cushman
It was early to bed and early to rise for this son of privilege... but he adapted to it with amazing determination.
A (good?) man with a gun: Jeff Milton went through several Colt revolvers and had this one custom made at the very end of his career.
This was not the kind of reputation he had wanted. It was obvious to him and anyone paying attention that his six-shooter had become an extension of his temper. Jeff suddenly knew he had to find a legitimate expression for this propensity, or things could get ugly. About this time he heard that Major John B. Jones in Austin was recruiting good men with shooting skills to join the Texas Rangers. Jeff knew exactly what he had to do. He was too young to join... but he might be able to swing it if he played his cards right. He asked one last favor of his brother-in-law. For his plan to work, he had to let somebody else do his bidding for him. He convinced Colonel Yarborough to write him a letter of recommendation, and his friend, the former Attorney General of Texas, and Civil War hero, H. H. Boone, as well. Even young and naïve, Jeff still understood the world of his father, of politics and influence, and he used it shamelessly. After all, he did not want to go down in Navasota, robbing his own bank. Next time things might not go his way.
Young Jeff Milton about the time he left Navasota and joined the Texas Rangers... considerably under-aged. It was probably an endorsement from fellow Navasotan and former Attorney General of Texas, H. H. Boone which tipped the scales for him.
Suddenly within a few weeks, Jeff had gone from taking a few bucks at gunpoint from unsuspecting bankers, to swearing an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Texas. You gotta love this country! Where else could men find their hearts and shape their destinies and carve out their legacies in such amazing twists and turns of events?
Acquired in Navasota from Rodes and Owen, this A fork, high-back saddle, circa 1890-1900, belonged to Jeff Milton, and was acquired by J. Evetts Haley for the immense saddle collection at the Panhandle - Plains Museum. Thanks to the late Marcus Mallard, who told me about it, I went to Canyon, Texas and arranged to photograph it.
Unfortunately, I have found so many discrepancies in names and relationships in just the launching of this legend, that I have learned to treat Haley's biography with a grain of salt.
Not surprisingly, once again Jeff Milton felt the "call of the horizon," which had lured him from Florida, Navasota, and his budding law enforcement career. Jeff, born to be wild Milton was quickly becoming a fugitive from society and himself, and would be on the run the rest of his life, trying to find that legitimate expression of his trigger finger. He soon struck out for New Mexico, and another fresh start... and he was only 22 years old.
Middle-aged and badly crippled, Jeff decided to look for an easier gig. Uncharacteristically, he headed east, back home to Grimes County and the loving care of his family. After recovering from the shooting, he showed up in Navasota with a surprising scheme, his one good arm toting a briefcase full of cash from the Wells Fargo reward and a block of land leases in Walker County. Although disinformation placed it elsewhere, records showed that drilling began in 1901 in "Macedonia," known today as Mustang Prairie. Dead-eyed and dry as an uprooted prickly pear, Jeff Milton was no longer the bright-eyed gent looking for adventure. He was in fact an over-the-hill hired gunman who had faced loaded guns and death too many times to count. And rarely had he enjoyed the appreciation of the local population. He had to have become a bit cynical about lofty ideals such as Justice or the "Rule of Law." He was now just hunting cold hard cash.
Jeff Milton suddenly appeared in Navasota as an oilfield investor and driller, coming to harvest oil reserves he once suspected in nearby Walker County... A place not famous as an oilfield. Being from the area, this return and its suspicious explanation made me begin to wonder what he was really doing back home, except trying to recover from his injuries and take advantage of his sister's hospitality. The hair-brained drilling scheme turned out much like one would expect, and after a year of drilling, his well ended at 800 feet. It was assumed the reward for his famous Wells Fargo robbery intervention had gone down an endless hole... but surely this old desert fox had not suddenly become a rainbow chaser... spending his hard earned cash reward on a lark...
After travelling all over the southwest, and his ranging days over, it seems strange that he would acquire such a saddle in Navasota, at the time when he was rarely on a horse. It has every appearance of being a token of someone's esteem... perhaps a bonus, if you will, for unspoken favors.
Hundreds of defendants, the most prominent businessmen in the county, were named as accomplices to Sheriff Scott's assassination attempt, in a sham trial in Galveston, including the sons of Milton's benefactors in Navasota, but the "good man with the gun" was not one of them. We will never know the details... but I suspect that he might have thrown his weight into family interests and paid off some old debts with in-kind services. And this would not be a surprise given the thinly disguised racial views expressed in his biography.
Still, Milton was once quoted as saying, "I never killed a man that didn't need killing; I never shot an animal except for meat."
You can read the rest of the legend in Haley’s book, a standard of Western Literature, if you can find it. Haley was the curator at the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas and got to know Milton in his later years. Although I think his book is somewhat of a whitewash of Milton and his career, with a generous layer of gloss, it is worth the read. As the early bank episode suggests, Jeff Milton was not quite the Southern cavalier that Haley created in his biography, but he was a bigger-than-life, one of kind Western legend, who once called Navasota Home.
Jeff Milton was known to use a cut-down version of the 1887 Winchester lever action Shotgun... one of the most ominous firearms ever used to bust up rowdy crowds, or in his case, several train robbers in Fairbank, Arizona Territory trying to heist a Wells Fargo express car... He took several of them out and severely wounded, put a tourniquet on his fractured arm and tossed the keys to the Wells Fargo safe out of reach, before passing out. The outlaws took him for dead and only stole a small amount.
Post Script: Captain "Pink" Hatchett gave up on the cattle business in a few years and returned to Navasota, married Mary Stone of Yarboro, a girl he had met during his previous stay, and went into the kerosene business.
Walter Prescott Webb, in his exhaustive volume on the Texas Rangers... skirted the personalities and issues associated with the disbandment of the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion in 1883 quite deftly... but his ire was obvious:
"The Rangers, after they became primarily an interior force, were often subject to just critcism because of their own bad conduct and indiscretion. The organization has throughout its history, with the exception of comparitively brief periods, had exceptionally good men in it. Unfortunately, it has also had men who reflected no credit on it. If a man is inclined to be a rowdy or a braggart, overbearing or malicious, he has no business with the commission, the prestige, and the arms of a Texas Ranger. If a little liquor is mixed with any of these bad qualities, it is certain to expose them to view and to subject the individual and the organization to general criticism. On the whole, however, the men were of exceptional character...
It was after the Frontier Battalion had performed this great service that some shrewd lawyer took occassion to read the law creating the force in 1874 and discovered a way to paralyze the effectiveness of the Rangers. "
I have no doubt that Webb had certain individuals from Navasota in mind when he wrote those words!
To read about the other Texas Rangers from Navasota, click on the LINK below.