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Barton was born in Howard County, Missouri, emigrated to Mexico in 1841 and moved to Los Angeles in 1843. He served in the Mexican-American War. A carpenter, he was the first treasurer of Masonic Lodge 42 in Los Angeles. He was elected to four one-year terms as the Sheriff of Los Angeles County from September 1851 to October 1855. He was elected again in 1856.
Barton and three of his deputies were killed in a shootout with bandits led by Juan Flores and Pancho Daniel January 23, 1857. The site of the shooting is marked by California State Historical Landmark No. 218, Barton Mound, with this inscription:
Juan Flores, who had escaped from San Quentin, was being sought by James Barton with a posse of five men. Near this mound, Flores surprised Barton and three of his men; all four were killed. When Los Angeles learned of the slaughter, posses were formed, and Flores and his men were captured.
While the Flores Daniel Gang was being pursued, the bodies of the Sheriff and his posse were recovered by a special party sent out on horseback, escorting several wagons filled with coffins for the purpose and the bodies returned to the city. Harris Newmark described the reception of the bodies and the funeral:
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