Jesse James wasn’t your typical western bank robber.
Jesse James’ legacy included being considered an outlaw hero, beloved by the public. Stories about him seemed to make him out as a hero, rather than a criminal (which he was).
Carl Sandberg, the noted author of several biographies including President Abraham Lincoln, referred to James as the “American Robin Hood,” stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
James was born and raised primarily in Missouri, a few miles from Kansas City. The family farm is located in Kearney, Mo. James was born on the farm and originally buried there. He was killed by Robert Ford at his home in St. Joseph, about 30 miles north of Kansas City.
The family farm is now owned and operated by the Clay County government.
We checked out the farm during a recent visit to the area.
It was an interesting look into the history of America’s true outlaw hero. The American frontier days created a lot of heroes, both good and bad. Fortunately, for people in the Midwest, a lot of them were located here or played major roles in our history.
A walk about the farmstead led us to a tour of the house.
The original farm house was a small three-room cabin. An addition was build following Jesse’s death. The original part of the house can be noted by the porch roof.
The James, being southern sympathizers, owned slaves. A small slave house stood about 200 feet from the main house.
James’ father was a minister. While he was young, James’ father, Robert, traveled to California to preach to the miners. He died soon afterward from disease.
The James family was forced off the farm to settle debts. His mother, Zerelda, took the three children (older brother Frank, Jesse and a younger sister) to live with relatives in southeast Nebraska, near Rulo.
Later, his mother married to the first step-father. That man did not care for the kids, so they were trucked off again.
Later, when the couple decided to divorce, the step-dad died in an “accident,” when he was thrown from his horse. Mommy James inherited his estate.
Mama James again married. This time, the marriage lasted more than 52 years. The step-dad liked the kids. The gang was reunited.
Flash forward a few years, the United States of America is torn because of the Civil War. The James clan was originally from the deeper south, so they supported the Confederate cause. Frank fought with a guerilla group, called Quantrill’s Raiders.
Missourians loyal to the Union came to the farm looking for Frank and the other fighters. When the family refused to cooperate, the men became rough. They hanged the step-father (obviously, he survived).
Young Jesse (about 16 years old) was beaten by the men. He used that beating as a reason to join his brother in the resistance group.
After the Civil War ended, the James brothers apparently could not get the adrenaline of the fight or action out of their systems. Farm life was not for them at that time. They joined up with others to start their lives of crime.
The James brothers may have taken part in the first daylight peace-time bank robbery in American history when a bank was robbed in Liberty, Mo. Apparently, it’s unclear if they actually took part in the robbery.
Their crime spree covered 1866-76 9for the most part). They joined forces with Cole and Bob Younger and the gang was often referred to as the James-Younger Gang.
Their gang life ended in the fall of 1876, when an attempted bank robbery went awry in Northfield, Minnesota. The Youngers were captured. Others were killed. Jesse and Frank were the only ones to escape.
They made it back to the farm.
During their crime spree, the Pinkerton Detective Agency chased after the gang. They allegedly started a fire in one corner of the cabin. But, it was extinguished and no one was injured.
The detectives came back another time and tossed a homemade explosive device in the kitchen. It was lit and burning, so Dr. Samuel (the step-dad) grabbed it with a shovel and threw in the fireplace. It exploded and shot shrapnel throughout the kitchen. Archie Samuel, the young half-brother of the James’. Their mom ended up losing her right arm due to injury.
No one knows for sure if the Jesse and Frank were at the farm the night of the last attack.
In 1882, Frank grew tired of the criminal life and surrendered. He was then acquitted of all crimes he was charged with. Some charges were dropped without trial.
He later moved east, before returning to the family farm later in life. He had married Annie Ralston in Omaha in 1875.
Jesse kept up the gang. But, he, too, was growing weary and wanted a “normal” life. He had married his first cousin, Zee (she had the same name as his mom, but they called her Zee). They had four children, but two died in infancy.
He supposedly planned to settle down after one more robbery.
In order to pull it off, he had to recruit new gang members. Unbeknownst to him, the Missouri governor had offered a reward and immunity to Robert Ford and his brother if they would kill Jesse.
Jesse was out recruiting his new team. he met Robert Ford. Oops!
So, while relaxing at the James family home in St. Joseph, the Fords plotted their shooting of Jesse. They knew he could outdraw them, so they did not want him to be armed. He was rarely unarmed.
But one day, while not wearing his holster, Jesse decided to step on a stool and adjust a painting in the parlor. Oh, Jesse. The one day he listens to the wife about taking care of housework.
With his back turned, Ford took his shot. He fired his gun and a bullet sailed through Jesse’s back and chest. It lodged in the wall. The bullet hole can be seen today in the room.
Jesse died from his wounds. Robert Ford was labeled a coward, because he couldn’t look Jesse James in the eyes while he shot him.
Jesse was buried on the family farm. His grave stone said, among other things, he “was killed by a coward not worthy of being mentioned by name.”
Mama James had her bed positioned at an angle, so she could keep her eye on the gravesite and prevent people from stealing the body or other grave items, our tour guide told us.
Later, the body was moved to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney.
Mama James would give public tours of the farm for 25 cents. Frank took over after her death. Frank passed in 1915 at the age of 72.
The legacy of Jesse James offers people a lot of opportunities to visit sites where he may have lived, stayed, robbed or died. Almost 30 movies have been made involving Jesse.
Just visiting both his first home and his last home have me interested in seeing more, including the Liberty bank, any hideouts along the way, and the Northfield, MN, bank robbery site. Apparently, Northfield has a festival focused around the bank robbery.
If your interest has been piqued, enjoy your travels in learning more about Jesse James. I know I will.
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