Brown County Historical Scrapbook: Deputy Sheriff James D. Burns

Ronnie and Donnie Lappe
Special to the Bulletin
Ronnie and Donnie Lappe

James D. Burns, or “Jim” as the family called him, was a son of Col. Simon Pierce Burns and wife, Sarah. Jim was with his mother in Missouri when Col. Burns was fighting in the Civil War. He hid the family milk cow in the woods to keep her from being taken by the Union soldiers.

He began working as a deputy sheriff in Brown County as soon as he turned eighteen. When Jim was about twenty four, he left Brown County and moved to Silver City, New Mexico. He became a deputy sheriff and worked in nearby Paschal, New Mexico.

When he was only 26, Jim Burns was killed in Silver City. He was a sheriff’s deputy there. His brothers, Simon Pierce Jr. and William Nelson, tried years later to find his grave, but they were not successful.

Col. Burns’ son, Simon Pierce Burns, Jr., took a bar of silver that he kept in his dresser drawer and showed it when he described what happened to James Burns. The bar had the initials S.P.B. stamped on it. Jim had it made at one of the silver mines near his home and sent it back home to his father. Col. Burns passed it on to his son, Simon Pierce Burns, Jr., since he was given the name. When he was an old man, with his good hand, hehanded the small, heavy object wrapped in a wool rag to his grandson and said that he wanted him to have it because he was named after Simon Pierce Burns, Jr. and both were named after the Colonel.”

It was the silver bar about three inches long, with rounded edges and the initials S.P.B. stamped on it.

The family did not know the details of the shooting. Research in old newspaper records in the Silver City, New Mexico Museum gave two different versions of the death.

By 1882, the new mining town of Paschal, New Mexico, about ten miles southwest of Silver City, had grown to about a thousand people. James D. Burns was hired to serve as the town’s deputy sheriff. He was popular in the mining town, and had made many friends there.

The initial account of the shooting on August 26, 1882, in the newspaper, The New Southwest, reported that James had come to Silver City while drunk and that he, “flourished a gun around and defied anyone to take it from him.” The newspaper reported that several times the town marshal and another deputy sheriff asked him to give up his gun, but he refused. Later, it said that Marshal Moore and Deputy Sheriff McClellan confronted him in the saloon in the Centennial Building. They claimed that James drew and fired first, and then they shot him six times, killing him.

On September 2, 1882, The New Southwest published a different slant on the story. In this article, James was called “one of the bravest, most efficient and judicious officers of the territory.” They said that he was well respected and liked in both Paschal, New Mexico and in Clio, Texas. The town marshal and the deputy sheriff who killed James were charged with first degree murder. The newspaper also reported that after the killing, a number of miners met in Paschal for the purpose of forming a group to lynch the men that killed James Burns, but that a gentleman arrived and persuaded them to gather money to pay for the prosecution of the men instead. Sheriff Whitehill of Silver City said that he was going to take the peace officer commission away from one of the killers, Deputy Sheriff William McClellan. The prosecution said that the killing had been a deliberate murder because James Burns was scheduled to testify against McClellan in a horse stealing case.

At the trial, testimony revealed that McClellan and Moore entered the saloon with their revolvers drawn and cocked and shot James before he had a chance to defend himself. One witness said that McClellan placed the gun in James Burns’ hand after he was dead. However, the men were acquitted of the crime and McClellan was also later acquitted of horse stealing.

The newspaper said that a simple wooden slab was placed on the grave of James D. Burns, reading, “James D. Burns, Brownwood, Texas, age 22 years, died at Silver City, August 25, 1882.

The Southwest Sentinel reported on May 19, 1883, that Billy McClellan was very drunk and when he rode his horse into town and that he fell from the horse and died the next morning from a fractured skull.

It seems unusual that the person accused of killing James Burns died in an accident a year later. James D. Burns had a lot of friends who would have felt that justice had not been served. It seems strange that McClellan fell off of his horse and was killed so soon after the shooting.

Taken from A Few Good Horses, a story of the Burns family, written by Pierce Burns, which can be purchased at the Brown County Museum of History.