Sunday, December 14, 2008

Jeff Milton - Faster than the Fastest Gun in the West

By Dale Cox

Blue Spring – On Blue Springs Road a few miles east of Marianna, a state marker points out the site of “Sylvania,” the home of Governor John Milton. The marker provides the basic story of Governor Milton, Florida’s Confederate leader.

An important fact overlooked by the writer of the marker text, however, is that “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 it.
Jeff Milton was born at Sylvania in November of 1861 and was just four years old when his father died from a gun blast in one of the bedrooms. It was the beginning of a remarkably turbulent and yet highly successful life.
Like many young Southern men of his era, Milton turned his back on his home state and headed west for Texas. Only fifteen years old, he worked as a cowboy for a time but soon embarked on a career in which he achieved lasting fame.
In 1878, when he was just seventeen years old, Jeff Milton lied about his age and became a Texas Ranger. Four years later he moved west to New Mexico and spent the 1880s and 1890s working as a deputy U.S. marshal, sheriff’s deputy, police chief and in other law enforcement roles.
One thing is for certain, Jeff Milton had one of the fastest draws of any gunfighter in the Old West. He was responsible over the years for the gunfight shootings of such desperadoes as “Bronco Bill” Walters, “Three Fingered Jack” Dunlop and “Bravo Juan” Yoas. His famous quote, “I never killed a man who didn’t need killing,” is among the best known attributed to any gunfighter.
Milton’s most remarkable accomplishment, however, may well have been the stand he made as Police Chief of El Paso, Texas, against the man some believe was the deadliest gunfighter of them all, John Wesley Hardin. Often described as “the fastest gun in the West,” Hardin killed between 30 and 60 men over the years – many of them lawmen.
Jeff Milton had signed on as the head of El Paso’s police force in 1894 and vowed to bring law and order to the boisterous frontier town. Almost immediately he heard that the infamous Hardin was on his way to town, heavily armed and accompanied by several others. Despite Hardin’s fearsome reputation, Milton met him face to face in the streets of El Paso where he informed the gunfighter that he would not be allowed to carry weapons in the city. It was a remarkable scene, the man called by his biographer “a good man with a gun” facing down the “Dark Angel” of Texas. In the end, not a shot was fired. For one of a very few times in his life, Hardin calculated his odds and decided against a gunfight with Jeff Milton. He meekly turned over his weapons and submitted to Milton’s orders.
John Wesley Hardin died not long after, shot in the back of the head by an adversary while he rolled dice in an El Paso saloon. Jeff Milton, however, went on to live a long and productive life. In 1904 he accepted employment with the Immigration Service and continued with the agency until he was 72 years old.
Jefferson Davis Milton died in Tucson, Arizona, on May 7, 1947. His ashes were sprinkled over the deserts that he came to love, far away from his birthplace in Jackson County. He is remembered today by officers of the U.S. Border Patrol as “America’s First Border Patrolman.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Andrew Jackson and the Natural Bridge - Part Three

We continue today with our series of excerpts from my new book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. We are detailing the story of Andrew Jackson and the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River at Florida Caverns State Park:


The army continued forward on the morning of May 11, 1818. Crossing the hills between Blue Spring and the Chipola River, they arrived by around midday at the natural bridge. It was here that the supposed incident involving Andrew Jackson took place, but Captain Young did not record it in his journal. Instead, he wrote that the men were well aware that they were crossing a natural bridge and even offered a theory as to how it had been formed:

The Natural Bridge is in the center of a large swamp and appears to be a deposit of earth on a raft or some similar obstruction. The passage is narrow and the creek, with a rapid current is visible both above and below.

Young, of course, was mistaken about the formation of the bridge. It is actually created by the sudden disappearance of the Chipola River into a series of limestone passages. It flows underground through these for a short distance, before rising back to the surface. Nineteenth century loggers cut a canal across the top of the feature to allow them to float timber across to a downstream mill, taking away some of the unique appearance of the natural bridge, but it can still be seen today.

The absence of any mention of the legendary natural bridge incident in Young’s account is curious. A careful examination of his memoir, however, provides an explanation.
There was an incident involving a natural bridge during Jackson’s invasion, but according to Young it took place between St. Marks and Suwannee Old Town at the Natural Bridge of the Econfina. Jackson and the main body crossed over that bridge, but had to wait for a second column to catch up. When the soldiers arrived, they explained that it had been necessary for them to build rafts to cross a river.
Somehow, over time, the real incident at the Econfina Natural Bridge was claimed by the early settlers of Jackson County and relocated to the Natural Bridge of the Chipola. A number of the soldiers in Jackson’s army came back to settle Jackson County and it is possible that in later years their descendents remembered their story about the natural bridge incident and assumed they were talking about the one at today’s Florida Caverns.
A second legend about Jackson’s passage through Jackson County, however, appears to have more of a basis in truth. According to local tradition, as the army made its way through the area of Florida Caverns State Park, they were carefully watched by alarmed Native Americans who hid in caves and rock shelters as the soldiers marched past. A visit to the park in May, the month during which the expedition took place, reveals that this was clearly possible. The heavy spring growth of the forest obscures many rock bluffs and caves that look out on the route followed by the soldiers.
Native American families still living in Jackson County preserve strong oral tradition about this incident. A representative of one family indicated in 2007 that for many years, older members of the family would take younger members to the area of the natural bridge and point out caves in which their grandparents said they had hidden while the soldiers marched past.
After crossing the natural bridge, Jackson’s soldiers continued on past Blue Hole Spring and the Rock Arch Cave before turning to the northwest again and marching out of what is now Jackson County near present-day Graceville. The trail they followed took them through some of the fine farmlands between the Chipola River and Holmes Creek. The country was impressive and they knew that once the Seminole War was over, would likely be wide open for settlement.
Jackson’s topographer, Captain Hugh Young, clearly had the future settlement of the area in mind as he recorded his observations of the country through which the army passed. Describing the area below and around present-day Grand Ridge, for example, he noted that it was “good pine land with reddish soil.” With regard to the land west of the Chipola River through which the army marched, he wrote that it was “excellent land” with a “mixed growth of oak, pine and hickory with several sinks affording abundance of excellent water.”
(End of Excerpt)

If you are interested in learning more about the history of Jackson County, please consider my new book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. The book can be purchased online by simply clicking the title. It is also available at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna. They are located on the same block as the Gazebo Restaurant and are directly across from the Battle of Marianna monument.