Dilemma in the Desert: Showdown in Daggett



The Columbia Borax Mill in Daggett, owned by the American Borax Company.


Ed Silver was an angry man in 1907.  He was a new arrival in Daggett, California, and, like many unskilled laborers, he drifted in and out of work when and where he could find it.  Ed’s plight was compounded by being a Black man in a world still resistant to the practice of equality.    Ed sometimes worked on the track crews for the Santa Fe, and at other times in the local mines, all hard work with long hours, little pay and constant danger.  For now, Ed Silver was working for the American Borax Company.


San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy, town constable and sometimes Santa Fe Special Agent William, “Will” Frances Smithson was a familiar face in this small Mojave Desert town, and on more than one occasion had met up with miners and railroad workers who, after a long day, were known to pass the time by drinking themselves to a better or worse state of mind.  Even so, Will was a well liked and respected lawman of 29 years of age who dreamed of one day becoming a lawyer.



 No photos of William Smithson have been found.  Shown here is his mother, Jane Cadd Smithson, originally  from Australia, and his father, John Bartley Bart Smithson,  Sr.


Alabama born John Bartley Bart Smithson,  Sr.    The family, all devout Mormons, were among the original settlers in the San Bernardino area.


Deputy Will Smithson and men like Ed Silver lived in Daggett at a time when the west was supposed to have been tamed, when it had become civilized, you might say.   Unfortunately, the news of civilization seemed to have bypassed Daggett, and to locals and drifters alike, the Wild West was doing just fine the way it was, thank you.


Based on news articles from the early 1900s, Will Smithson appeared to be a busy man.  Keeping law and order was a full-time job that left little time for much else.  Despite the demands of his job, Deputy Smithson, a well-liked descendant of the early Mormon pioneers who settled the area, was a family man with a loving wife and adoring daughter.


On Saturday afternoon, October 19, 1907, Deputy Smithson was home.  Even a lawman gets a day off.  Sometimes.  Just down the road, Ed Silver was at work at the Columbia Borax Mine, part of the American Borax Company operation in Daggett.  The two men knew each other on sight and, this evening, Will and Ed would encounter each other one last time in a most deadly way.


Before finding work at the Columbia Mine, Ed Silver, like many in his situation, took any job that he could find.  It was still a time in history when a ‘man of color’ was not welcome in most places, and even Ed, a veteran of the much respected United States 10th Cavalry, “The Buffalo Soldiers,” made do, even if it meant taking matters into his own hands from time to time.  Oh, and by the way, like many former soldiers, Ed enjoyed whiskey to excess.



Ed Silver 1907


On this day, Ed Silver was in a heated argument over wages with the borax mine supervisor, Newt Millet.   The argument became physical, and Newt hit Ed upside his head with a wrench.  Ed Silver responded in kind with a shovel.  “I’ll fix you,” supervisor Millet said, as he headed for the office, where he kept his gun.


Believing that Newton Millet was going to take the feud  to the next level, what we now call an “escalation of force,” Ed Silver went home to get his own .32 caliber automatic.  Known to have a short temper when he was drunk, which he was, and known to be an expert shot with a pistol, which he now carried, Ed suddenly became the most dangerous man in the west, at least for this moment in time.


Thinking better of taking after his now former employee with a gun, Newton Millet telephoned Deputy William Smithson at home.  Like law enforcement folk tend to do, Will said good by to his wife, Sharon, and his seven year old daughter, Vivian, and immediately responded to the danger.  Along the way he enlisted the aid of Daggett citizen Johnny “Shortie” Williams, and the three men went in search of Ed Silver.





William Smithson and the other two men encountered Ed Silver near the home of another worker who had come afoul of the armed ex-cavalryman, and was reportedly the cause of the fight with the mine superintendent.    Just moments before the arrival of Deputy Smithson , Ed tried to call out the other man and challenge him to shootout in the street.   The fortunate mine worker wasn’t home, and avoided an almost certain death.


Several accounts exist from the time, most from over-zealous newspapermen, but it is generally agreed that as the sun was setting behind the San Gabriel Mountains, Deputy Will Smithson faced Ed Silver and said to him in a friendly tone, “What’s the matter, Ed?”   The request was met with three bullets to the torso.   Shorty Williams returned fire and hit Ed Silver, but not enough to stop him.


Ed Silver ran off into the desert night and disappeared among the Joshua Trees and sand banks.  Several hours later, with his wife at his side, while being treated on a local billiard table in Daggett, the sun set forever on William Frances Smithson.   With the nearest hospital 120 miles away, the deputy had no chance for survival, and died within hours.


By the time news reached the County Sheriff, John C. Ralphs, Ed Silver was gone, and local anger was rising at an alarming rate.   An informal and unauthorized posse was forming, with every man who owned a horse volunteering to hunt down the fugitive.   Justice was going to be meted out in the tradition of the west if the mob caught up with Silver.  A rope and a tree waited for Ed, unless the sheriff could catch him first.




     San Bernardino County Sheriff John Charles Ralphs, 1852 – 1931.                       Like Deputy Smithson, John Ralphs descended from early Mormon pioneers.


Although there was no way for him to know it yet, two years later Sheriff J. C. Ralphs would lead the posse that hunted down the famous Indian outlaw, “Willie Boy.”  A feat which would become famous in the 1969 film, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here,” which starred Robert Blake, Robert Redford and Katherine Ross.


Mob hysteria was about to break loose over the desert, and justice by tree was no longer acceptable.  Time was of the essence.   Within days, every company between the Arizona Border and the town of Mojave fired all of their African-American workers in retaliation for the killing.    Sheriff Ralphs formed a legal posse of twelve men, and the chase was on, both to arrest Ed Silver for murder, and to protect him from the growing move to hang him at the hands of angry citizens.


After spending several nights on the run, Ed Silver was caught while hiding in the Cajon Pass, along the Santa Fe tracks near Devore.   Ed Silver told his captors that he was able to make it to Barstow on foot, where he then hid on the coal tender of a locomotive, on its way to San Bernardino.



Typical San Bernardino County Sheriff’s posse in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


Ed Silver was convicted of first degree murder within a month of killing Deputy Smithson and was sentenced to death by hanging.  A year later, after an appeal, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.  Ed Silver died while incarcerated at San Quintin Prison in 1912.   To his dying day he showed no remorse for his actions, and held fast that it was a fair fight, and that he was just quicker on the draw.



Prison booking photo of Ed Silver, a native of New York.



Ed Silver is buried in an unmarked grave at the now defunct San Quentin cemetery along San Francisco Bay.





Deputy William Frances Smithson was laid to rest at the Pioneer Cemetery in San Bernardino in a ceremony attended by his parents and siblings.  Next time you’re in town, drop by and pay a visit.


Remember, the west was finally settled by men and women like Will.   Pause and say thanks if you’re so inclined.  I’m sure he’d appreciate the gesture.





Please read our other articles about Daggett for its fascinating history and much more.



One thought on “Dilemma in the Desert: Showdown in Daggett

  1. Great in-deth article I really enjoyed it. I like the picture of the Borax Mill – I’m 99% sure where it is but I’ll use those mountain peaks (or hills) in the background to confirm.

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