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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jeff Milton: An Odoriferous Legend

Jeff Milton’s story is an extraordinary one.  One of the most famous lawmen of the west, he was the subject of J. Evetts Haley’s  A Good Man With A Gun.  Born the son of the Governor of Florida, Jeff Milton became a Texas Ranger and served in various capacities throughout the American West, his legend stretching over three states. But like many mythic figures of our past, that legend was carefully crafted by his biographer and is in bad need of an overhaul. I did not arrive at the conclusion which I would have preferred, that of hailing another famous ranger from Navasota. I'm far from convinced that Jeff Milton was a "good" man, although he may have been a man good with a gun. After tackling his biography by Haley, I can't get a bothersome smell out of my nostrils...

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.

Jeff’s sisters had migrated to Texas after the war and Fannie Milton had married Colonel James Quincy Yarborough, a Texas merchant who was building a small retail empire in Grimes County.  As a partner in Wilson and Yarborough, he had established several mercantiles in Grimes County. So it was the hope and prosperity there, and the promise of change which lured Jeff halfway across the country. He would join the Yarboroughs in Grimes County and hopefully see some “greener pastures” and live the life of a westerner.

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.

Colonel Yarborough eventually co-owned four stores, including one in Anderson, the County Seat , and one in Navasota, the largest store in town. There was plenty of excitement in the gambling halls and saloons down the street, but there was also plenty of work to do, and Jeff was not allowed to go there.  And there was a predictability and jadedness that repulsed him in such places, as they reminded him too much of Florida. Overall, these towns were all fairly civilized places and Jeff was seeking a proving ground… and vindication of sorts.

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.
Then one day two bookkeepers, Billy Barry and Ben Calhoun left the employ of Colonel Yarborough. According to Haley, Billy’s "Uncle Buck" (Lt. Col. Buck Barry, CSA?) had made a name for himself as a ranger and  Indian fighter during the Civil War, and Billy felt some kind of itch that only northwest Texas could scratch. They took their earnings and headed west, to join a fellow accountant,  "Pete" ("Pink") Hatchett ( a newcomer to Grimes County, Captain Pinkney Gilliard Hatchett of Georgia, who had recently taken a job as a schoolteacher in Anderson) in starting up a ranch on the “Clear Fork” of the Brazos, wherever that was. Hatchett planned to raise Texas cattle there and drive them north to Abilene, Kansas to sell them.  Maybe someday if Jeff got bored around Navasota, he would come up and join them… For Jeff, this development became the proverbial seed of discontent. These three Grimes County men abandoned their desk jobs and did what he dreamed of. They put on their boots and hats and headed west and named their outfit the “Saw-Horned Cattle Company.”  Veritable geniuses, it was obvious they planned to simplify a step in cattle management, by just nipping the horns of their long-horned cattle, rather than branding them. 

 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.
Then one day Parham Yarborough gave Jeff something hotter than a cigar. It was a Winchester 44.40 lever-action rifle. Like all young men, as soon as he held it, he hungered for a place to shoot it and a chance to use it to right the world! And that Winchester told him right where he needed to go. After considerable deliberation, he and a buddy, Allen Morrison, decided to head west. They would go hire out at the Saw-Horn ranch in west Texas, where men still lived free and even a little wild; where the name Milton would be whatever he made it to be.

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.

Jeff had already come all the way from Florida. An old muddy river did not sound that intimidating. Finally they were on their way, rarely to return to the pastoral life in East Texas. And mile by mile, the West began to unfold. And Jeff Milton began to set things right... Or so he intended.

The two tenderfoots made the long trip in 1879 following the deep sluggish Brazos, until it narrowed and ran pristine between wide open prairies, teeming with wildlife. And sure enough they found their Navasota associates on the High Plains where streams ran clear and nights were cool. It felt like heaven.  So far from home, it was easy to play on the sympathy of the cattlemen who hired them on. Captain Hatchett ran a tight ship, as if he was still in the Civil War, and every cowboy was treated like a soldier. The ranch was situated a day’s ride from the old Fort Phantom Hill. It was the nearest remnant of civilization, and it was abandoned and in ruins. The ranch house was really more like a badger hole. Literally a “dugout” made of logs and mud. But the west was changing fast. The buffalo were being decimated, and the antelope were skittish. Sometimes ranch hands had to eat turkey, or jack rabbits or prairie dogs, or even snakes. But Jeff was determined to stick it out.

"Creekbed Christening"
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

Come that winter, it got even worse. Captain Hatchett bunked him in a tent, all by himself, way off in the wilderness to watch his sizable remuda of horses, which were left to run wild.  His job was to keep the “broke” horses from amalgamating with the mustangs, which ran around tauntingly like kings of the plains. If he was not yet a prince of the West, never-the-less he got to watch or even match wits with some. And it was as grand as he ever imagined. THIS was Texas!
 Two young cowboys met on the high plains of Texas and became fast friends. Jeff Milton and George Scarborough would work more together handling outlaws rather than cattle.

When Jeff got to go into Fort Griffin for supplies, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Army scouts, trail drivers, buffalo skinners, suspicious looking gunslingers and Texas Rangers. This had been the proving ground for Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy Dixon and many others. He saw the outlaw John Selman. He met the dashing young George Scarborough, a future legend in law enforcement whom he would often team up with. He witnessed a shootout between two buffalo hunters, so close that when one shot the other’s brains out, Jeff caught the explosion of body fluids as he tried to stop them. THIS was Texas. Here he was Jeff Milton, man among men, even if he was only seventeen. Here life was measured by each breath, and your reputation was as infinite as the Llano Estacado. 

 It was early to bed and early to rise for this son of privilege... but he adapted to it with amazing determination.

In the spring after round-up, he and Allen Morrison decided to mosey back home to Grimes County and enjoy a few creature comforts. But they had blown their earnings before they ever got home.  So Jeff took a job as a guard on a prison farm near Huntsville… maybe he would get a shot at John Wesley Hardin, the famous Texas gunslinger who now resided inside the walls. But the Huntsville Prison cotton plantation was in practice and principle everything he hated about Florida. All Jeff could think about was what he might be missing out west. He made himself a modest “grubstake” and quit his life as a “straw boss.” He had to do better than this.

When Jeff finally came home to Navasota, his pocket was full of money and his heart was won over. Cowboying was tough. But the West was his first love. He put his money in the bank one Saturday in Navasota and began to stroll around like a man with a purpose. He just had not identified it yet. It is no doubt that he began to think about the gallant yet unpretentious Rangers he saw on patrol in west Texas. They seemed to embody everything he wanted to be. But he had never thought about being a lawman… at least not until his choices were made clearer.

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.

Then that next mundane Monday morning came along. Jeff could never know how important the next few moments would be in his life. He went to go cash a check… just to see how it all worked.  You put your money in the bank, and then you draw it out as you need it. This sounded fairly uncomplicated. But when he got to the bank, he ran into a wall more arresting than one of those cold “blue northers” he had endured on the plains. A sign announced, quite matter-of-factly, the bank was closed. Forever.  Nobody could make a withdrawal.  Ever.

Jeff stood devastated and angry. He had never trusted anyone with so much money. His money.  Suddenly the sheriff came by and Jeff told him his problem. Sheriff Dan Wood was sympathetic to the young man and gave him some unofficial advice.  The sheriff knew which entrance the bankers used, and suggested that Jeff hide under the rear stairway and wait for them with his check in hand, and demand satisfaction when they opened their doors.  Sheriff Woods then made himself scarce and stood back to watch the fireworks, kind of like something Andy Griffith would do.  This was the way the Law operated in Navasota in those days.

And Jeff was game. He did just as suggested. The bankers probably saw him as a person of no consequence, just old Colonel Yarborough’s young brother-in-law. Certainly no threat to them, whatever his claims. They had much bigger problems on their minds… as they unlocked the back doors. Jeff presented his check, and his intention of getting his money out.  The bankers shook their heads and shrugged, as they heard his request. It was impossible. If they paid him they would have to pay everybody...

 But Jeff made a telltale move at that point. He pulled out his six-shooter and demanded all of his money. Technically, at this point he was robbing the bank. But quickly, amazingly, Sheriff Wood sauntered in and backed him up. Jeff explained nonchalantly that the men were cashing a check for him… which was true, albeit by gunpoint.  Sheriff Wood must have reasoned that a man had a right to demand his own money, using a gun or not. The bankers saw they would get no help from Wood so they somehow satisfied Jeff, probably out of their own pockets. Jeff got his money and, soon to become the toast at every bar, he soon got out of town.

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.
Yarborough and Boone probably sensed the urgency more than Jeff, and did their part and Jeff lied to Major Jones about his age. Even though he was obviously not old enough, Major Jones hired him on sight. Law enforcement often requires the talents of a poker-faced negotiator. And Jeff Milton would become infamous for his creative deceptions. Soon he would end the romance of one of his fellow rangers by telling his infatuated lover that the man was a convict! Jeff  Milton lived most of his life with his impish tongue in his cheek.

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.

Jeff Milton only served on the Texas Ranger Force for around three years.  Within his first year, he had to kill a violent, belligerent, drunken troublemaker in Colorado City. A popular cattleman, the victim had been enraged over being chained to a tree during a previous altercation. Three Rangers tried to disarm two mad drunks and when one of them fired at one of them, Jeff immediately plugged him. This was an explainable shooting in the line-of-duty, but Jeff was prosecuted for it.  The townspeople insisted that Jeff had killed the man unnecessarily. Once again Jeff called upon the powerful services of his friend in Navasota, H. H. Boone, who got him off but managed to get the whole Frontier Ranger Battalion dismissed in a cloud of legal questions in the process. Even more ominously, if not downright smelly, the star witness for the State, Ab J. Adair, who had repeatedly demonstrated his fear to appear in court to testify, was found shot dead the morning he was supposed to testify. All this trouble, and Jeff was still not old enough to even be a Texas Ranger.

After acquittal in 1883, it is not surprising that Jeff left the Force and returned to store keeping in Ft. Davis, and later Murphyville, far southwest Texas. In a short time he had gone into the saloon business and almost immediately pulled his gun on a customer with intent to kill, over the wanton destruction... of a shot glass. Worse than that, his target was a member of the famous Kokernot ranching dynasty. He quickly divested himself of that tempting situation, but then ended up shooting at and hog-tying his barber one day during a haircut, after he became suspicious of the barber's razor. He thought the barber was crazy... Haley wrote that young Milton had the man committed to an institution... But this sounds like the beginning of Milton's larger than life self-aggrandizement, which Haley respectfully treated as the gospel.
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.
Jeff Milton would return to the Brazos Valley of Texas many years later around 1900, still recovering from a shoot-out he had with train robbers. In a suspicious coincidence, Milton found himself waiting inside a Wells Fargo express car, right as some dull-witted robbers tried to hijack the contents. He prevented the robbery and plugged some of the outlaws, but paid a terrible price for his stand. He was shot and left for dead by the gang who left him and the money, and he lost the use of his arm.

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...
Simultaneously, (coincidentally?) the White Man's Union of Grimes County initiated the most successful, violent drive against the racial and social reorganization of Reconstruction ever seen, using terrorism, racial cleansing, and assassination. As a result, as many as ten black officials were dead, and the Populist County Sheriff Garrett Scott had been shot and escorted out, never to return. And at about the same time, Jeff Milton rode out with a beautiful, brand new saddle from Rodes and Owen, of Navasota, Texas (see photo above).

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."

And after reading Haley's account, I understand why Jeff Milton left the Texas Rangers so quickly. Navasota's beloved H. H. Boone not only conspired to get an under-aged trigger-happy youth into the much-maligned organization, but after his herculean defense at the murder trial, the State of Texas did not even know what or who the Rangers were! The law was as clear as mud as to responsibility, and the whole ranger organization had to be codified and reorganized. That would leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth... and that, to his credit, was Jeff Milton's legacy, especially for those outside the law. Statutory, Natural, Moral, whichever Law Jeff felt strongly about at the time...

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.


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