Jesse James: The Real Story

To most people, the story of Jesse James is a part of the story of the Old West, of outlaws and gunslingers and saloons. But the real story of Jesse James is the story of the Civil War.

Jesse Woodson James was born on a farmhouse in Clay County, Missouri, in September 1847. His father Robert was a Baptist preacher who had moved to Missouri from Kentucky, where he soon owned a 100-acre commercial hemp farm and six slaves. In 1849, Robert James went to California to preach in one of the gold-rush towns, but died there a year later, leaving his widow Zerelda with their sons Frank and Jesse and their daughter Susan. In 1852, Zerelda married a wealthy local farmer named Benjamin Simms, but he didn’t get along with Jesse or Frank, and Zerelda left him in 1853–he died shortly afterwards when he was thrown from a horse. In 1855, Zerelda re-married again, this time to a doctor named Reuben Samuel.

But it was politics, both local and national, that would have the greatest impact on young Jesse James. The issue was slavery. In 1818, the Territory of Missouri had applied for US statehood, but was refused because the northern states did not want to admit another slave state. When Maine applied for statehood in 1819, the slavery issue came to the fore again. In 1820, the “Missouri Compromise” was reached–Maine would be admitted as a free state, Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, and a line was set at latitude 36′ 30″, above which any future US states would be free states, and below which they would be slave states.

The Missouri Compromise ended the political contention over the slavery issue, but only for a while. In 1854, Nebraska Territory applied for statehood. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, it would be admitted as a free state. But then Senator Stephen A Douglas of Illinois (who would soon become famous as Abraham Lincoln’s campaign debate opponent) introduced a bill to fund a transcontinental railroad which, coincidentally, would pass through Chicago. To pass his railroad bill, Douglas needed support from Southern Senators, and he got it by introducing a bill to split the Nebraska Territory into two separate states (Nebraska and Kansas), and allow each of them to vote whether they wanted slavery or not. This effectively ended the Missouri Compromise (which was soon legally ended too, when the Supreme Court ruled, in the 1857 Dredd Scott decision, that any limits on the spread of slavery were unconstitutional).

The Nebraska-Kansas Act, coupled with the Dredd Scott decision, brought the sectarian conflict between North and South to the boiling point, and set the US on the path to Civil War. In “Bloody Kansas”, pro-slavery militias known as “bushwhackers” and anti-slavery militias known as “jayhawkers” fought each other in pitched gun battles, and the fighting spilled over into neighboring Missouri. The Whig Party, one of the two major political parties in the US, split over the slavery issue and quickly disappeared–southern pro-slavery Whigs joined the Democratic Party, and northern anti-slavery Whigs joined the new Republican Party. In 1860, Republican Senator Abraham Lincoln was elected President on an anti-slavery platform. Even before Lincoln had assumed office, South Carolina announced its secession. The Civil War was on.

There was little doubt which side the James family in Missouri would support. The family farm had always had at least half a dozen slaves, and Clay County had so many Southern sympathizers that it was known as “Little Dixie”. Frank James quickly joined the local secessionist militia; Jesse, just 13, was too young to go. On August 10, 1861, Frank James fought for the Confederates at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Missouri–the first major battle of the Civil War. After that, Missouri became the site of a bloody irregular war, in which roving bands of guerrillas attacked each other and both sides shot prisoners, executed civilians, and mutilated their bodies. In 1863, Union troops came to the James farm looking for Frank, who was known to be a member of “Quantrill’s Raiders”, a guerrilla group that carried out raids and massacres in Missouri and Kansas. The Federals tortured Reuben Samuel for information and, according to later stories, also whipped young Jesse. When Jesse James turned 16 in 1864, he joined his brother Frank in the Confederate guerrilla band led by “Bloody Bill” Anderson. In one action, Anderson’s group killed 22 unarmed Union prisoners; in another, they shot over 100 Federal troops who were attempting to surrender. According to later legend, it was Jesse James himself who had killed the Union commander Major A.V.E. Johnson. In October 1864, Jesse was shot and seriously wounded when his band was surrounded by a Union patrol, putting him out of action for the rest of the war.

The Civil War ended in 1865, but the tensions in Missouri did not. Confederate officer Archie Clement, Jesse’s commander, kept his band of guerrillas together and made plans to attack the new Republican state government. In February 1866 Clement’s gang robbed a bank in Liberty, Missouri, that was owned by local Republicans. It is not known whether Frank or Jesse James were involved, but most historians have concluded that both brothers participated in the raid on a Missouri jail in June which freed several Confederate prisoners. After Clement was killed by militia troops, the gang continued to rob banks. The James Brothers remained relatively unknown, however, until December 1869, when they robbed a bank in Gallatin, Missouri, and James executed the bank teller, mistakenly believing him to have been one of the militia troopers who had killed Clement. The Missouri Governor set a price on Jesse James’ head.

After this, Frank and Jesse James joined forces with another former Confederate guerrilla, Cole Younger, and carried out a string of robberies ranging from Iowa to West Virginia. Jesse began sending a long series of published letters to the pro-Confederate editor of the Kansas City Times. As his fame grew, Jesse’s letters turned into political manifestos, condemning the Republicans and supporting the secessionist cause. To diehard Confederates in Missouri, the James Gang became heroes who were defying the oppressive Northern occupiers.

In July 1873, however, the James Gang turned to a new target, when they robbed a train in Adair, Iowa. More train robberies followed. The Populist Party was at the time winning support in the West by condemning the railroads as rapacious plutocrats, and the James Gang now gained a new image as Robin Hoods who were robbing the rich (though they never gave any of the stolen money to the poor). They were targeted by police throughout the midwest. In January 1875, the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency launched a raid on the James family farm, which was burned to the ground.

In September 1876, the James Gang robbed a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, but while they were inside, the local citizens surrounded them and opened fire. In the ensuing gunfight, two gang members were killed. Jesse and Frank fled to Missouri; the rest of the gang was killed or arrested in Minnesota.

For a time, the James brothers laid low in Virginia. But in 1879, Jesse formed a new gang and carried out a number of robberies. Unlike the ideology-united guerrillas of his earlier days, however, this new gang was fractious, and several arguments broke out. James himself is believed to have killed at least one of them as a suspected informer. By December 1881, Jesse had returned to Missouri, and rented a house in St Joseph. He was accompanied by two trusted members of the gang, brothers named Charley and Robert Ford.

James may have been hoping to lay low for a while again. But unknown to him, the Ford brothers had already made an agreement with the Governor of Missouri to bring Jesse in, dead or alive, in exchange for clemency and the $10,000 reward money. On April 3, 1882, as Jesse James stood on a chair to straighten a picture on the wall, Robert Ford pulled his gun and shot him once in the back of the head. James was killed instantly.

In an odd postcript to the Jesse James legend, in May 1948, an elderly Texan named J Frank Dalton went to the press with a sworn affidavit claiming that he was actually the 101-year-old Jesse James. According to Dalton’s story, the person who was actually killed by Robert Ford was a lookalike named Bigelow, and the James family had staged the whole thing so that Jesse would be declared dead and be free to live out his life. Dalton was pronounced an imposter by people who had known James, but his claims continued to be supported by various crackpots even after he died in 1951. To put the matter to rest, a team of investigators exhumed James’ body in 1995, and DNA testing showed conclusively that it was the body of Jesse James.

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