Winchester Miller and his wife, Melinda Young, started married life as farmers in Van Buren County, southeast Iowa, in 1857.  Melinda bore two sons, and Winchester eyed the lingering California Gold Rush.

The North-South conflict heated up, and voters elected Lincoln president.  Winchester and Melinda said goodbye to both sets of their parents and left for California.

Heading South

The Millers took the southern route through Texas.  When Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, authorities didn’t let the young family proceed further.

Winchester and Melinda settled in Texas.  A daughter was born in 1862.  Later that year, 27-year-old Winchester enlisted as a private in the 17th Texas Infantry.

Winchester Miller, a well-armed man (Tempe Daily News)

He moved through the ranks, rising to 3rd Lieutenant and then 2nd Jr. Lieutenant.  In 1864, Melinda became pregnant again.  Nine months later, she died in childbirth, leaving three young children.

Kayaks to Iowa

The war ended, and Winchester returned home.  He couldn’t care for his children alone.

Winchester saddled up a horse and a mule for a 700+ mile journey to Iowa.  He rode the horse with his small daughter in his arms.  His young sons rode in “kayaks” — tough rawhide boxes draped over both sides of a mule.

Once they arrived in Iowa, he divided up the children between his in-laws and his parents.  Winchester then headed to California, again through Texas.

“Nerve of Iron”

Discovering that the Gold Rush was over, Winchester moved to Arizona.  He became Maricopa County Sheriff.

(Tempe Historical Society)

Winchester later told a friend that “it was necessary” for him to hang two American Indians.  Some 250 fellow tribe members wanted to avenge their death, so they came looking for Sheriff Miller.

Winchester’s friend shared the following tale with an Arizona historian:

One day not long after he had given the two Indians their quietus, as Miller was standing in the yard near his house, his quick eye noted rising in the distance a great cloud of dust rapidly approaching … Stepping into his house … [he] took his rifle from its peg, buckled on two cartridge belts, stuck in a couple of six shooters and a knife, and returned to the yard.

Winchester claimed to have single-handedly held off the warriors for two days. Reportedly, “Ever afterwards, both Indians and Mexicans held Winchester Miller in great respect.”[1]

End of days

Winchester married a local woman, farmed, and had more children.  One of his Iowa sons, at age 15, rejoined his father in Arizona.

Winchester was active in Democratic Party politics.  He also helped found Tempe, where he died on November 29, 1893.

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I want to thank Jared Smith, curator at the Tempe History Museum, for generously sharing photos and information about Winchester Miller.

 

 

 

[1] Thomas Edwin Farish, History of Arizona, Vol. VI (Phoenix:  1918). 104-108.