The outlaw Jesse James had parents of strong vintage, yet with troubles in their own lives. Jesse James was born September 5, 1847.1 His parents then resided in Centerville Missouri (now named Kearney), Clay County.2
Jesse's father was a well educated, Baptist preacher named Robert Sallee. He also farmed hemp, using slave labor. The mother of Jesse James, Zerelda Cole lost her father as a youngster, afterwards going to live with her grandfather. She attended a girls' Catholic school there.2 Zerelda married Robert when she was only 16.1
Zerelda and Robert had son Frank, in 1843. Then Jesse came along. Another son born in 1845, died in infancy. Then Zerelda had a girl they named Susan Lavenia in November 1849.1
The next year, the children's father traveled West for the Gold Rush. Not to mine, but to preach to miners.1 His youngest an infant, his sons were very young, and not many years since suffering the grief of losing a child. Yet he left his family, going West to California. Did that event affect young Jesse and Frank?
Robert wrote letters home, expressing he missed the family.1 But arriving to California, in two weeks, he contracted a fever and died.2 Cholera was a common feverish death in those days. Possibly the reason for his demise.
Zerelda had young children to raise, plus the farm responsibilities. She met a substantially older, eligible bachelor. She married Benjamin Simms, remained living at her farm. But it only lasted a few months! They parted ways, separating. Soon thereafter Simms died.1
The James family story passed along that Simms didn't like Zerelda's children. He was particularly mean to Frank and Jesse, not taking them in as his own. Some say in retaliation for the boys' harassment of Simms.1
Next Zerelda met a physican, Reuben Samuel. They wed in 1855.3 He maintained the farm, and submitted to Zerelda's strong will. Plus he got along with her boys, so their marriage worked. Together they had four children1: Sarah Ellen in 1858, John in 1861, Fannie Quantrill in 1863, and Archie in 1866.
Some books promote theories that Jesse and his brother were evil children, showing cruelty to animals and other kids. There's no foundation substantiating this.1 Others say as a youngster Jesse was religious, with the early influence of his father. That he was well liked by towns-folk.3
Others claiming to have known him say he was fun-loving, usually smiling. He also had a curiosity about things.5 He had a personality very much in contrast to older brother Frank. Frank was dour and calm, no outward emotion.4
The family was surrounded by the influences of pre-civil war agitation. Their farm was in Missouri, near the border of Kansas. On a dividing area between slave-owning mentality and anti-slavery sentiments. No doubt Jesse heard of abolitionist John Brown. His mother Zerelda was a Southerner and a slave owner. His childhood play likely reflected the inclinations of the adults in his life.1
Events in Missouri were leading up to secession. Zerelda James Samuel held allegiance with the Southern way of life. Circumstances influenced creation of a state militia: the Home Guard. Frank, the eldest at age 18, signed up as a Private nearby.1 His first fight was the Battle of Wilson's Creek, a rough encounter with heavy losses. The Missouri Home Guard, with Arkansas, defeated Federal troops.1-3
In November 1861, Missouri Southern sympathizers illegally voted to enter the Confederacy. Since the official state government still held for the Union.1 Now a fully divided state! From late 1861 until early 1865 Confederate guerrilla fighters and certain Federal units wreaked brutal havoc on the people of Missouri. These "vicious skirmishes started by both Union militia and Confederate raiders....struck brutally, harming civilians and crippling the economy."3
William C. Quantrill led one group of Confederate raiders, relishing tactics of deceit and brutality. Jesse's older brother Frank joined this group. Likely for vengeance at the viciousness of the Union's misdeeds.1 Zerelda James Samuel did what she could to help the Southern cause. She kept watch, kept her ears open to inform raiders of their options. Young Jesse was her helpful aide in this, roaming local fields and woods, sending messages around.2
This family undercover work didn't escape Union notice. A Northern militia group entered the James/Samuel farm in 1863. Questioning how they were helping Confederate raiders. They wanted information about where and who they were, where Frank was, etc.2-3
At 15 years old, Jesse was in the fields working when Union troops appeared. When Jesse wouldn't talk, they assaulted him. They also intimidated the family, hanging his father from a tree for hours to get him talking. Reuben Samuel eventually led them to the raiders' camp nearby. They imprisoned Samuel, until he was finally paroled, June 1863.2
This marked Jesse's turning point, now going on the offensive. He tried joining up with a guerrilla group, but they rejected him. Maybe he was too young, or they felt he wasn't good with fire-arms. In 1862 he'd lost his left-hand middle finger tip while cleaning his gun (his family's account). Anyway, he was well-needed at home to help with the children, work the fields, and do farm chores. His family was very busy with the cause.2
Almost two years later, 1864 springtime, he joined up with "Bloody Bill" Anderson's guerrillas.2-3
In late summer 1864, Jesse was severely injured during an incident that demonstrated his penchant for taking what he needed. His company was traveling through a Ray County Missouri Dutch settlement. He saw a saddle on a house's fence rail. Deciding he needed it, Jesse picked it up. A man came from the house, shot Jesse in the chest, then ran into his farm field.2
Jesse was brought over the Missouri River into Kansas where his Uncle John Mimms lived. They called a doctor to see him. His cousin Zee nursed him over the next month. As soon as he was able to sit on his horse that September, he went back with Bloody Bill's men.2
A week later he was in Missouri, active in the Centralia Massacre. Their guerrilla band slaughtered more than 100 Thirty-ninth Missouri U.S. Infantry soldiers, desecrating their bodies. Jesse was credited with the killing blow to commander Major Andrew Johnston.3
Jesse didn't fight alongside his brother, Frank. Instead he was with Archie Clement's bushwhacker band. Clement was Bloody Bill's most trusted Lieutenant. In the Spring of 1865 they began raiding in Missouri.
One stop was avenging Clement's brother's death. Then May 7, early a.m., it's likely their group raided Holden Missouri, attacking homes and robbing two stores. It's confirmed they went another ten miles to Kingsville, a town where Union troops and their families now resided. They attacked throughout town, burning homes and killing.2
Clement's force got word of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but refused to believe it. But soon it became obvious. They discussed surrender vs. carrying on - even heading down to Mexico. It's said Jesse James agreed with his leader, Arch Clement - refuse surrender. At least, at first. There are varying versions of what subsequently happened.2
It was May 15, 1865. The location was Southeast of Lexington, Missouri. The day prior, Clement had sent a letter to the Union forces' area commander. He proposed sending five of his men to meet with five from the Union. To discuss how to properly handle their troop's surrender.2
But was it a diversionary tactic? Some versions say Clement's men never intended to surrender. They were looking for unguarded areas to make their way South. Union Major, B.K. Davis, said his troops were fired on when expecting men to show for surrender.2
Jesse James claimed he was with some of his men on the way to the appointed place for surrender. Some drunk Union soldiers came at them, shooting. Jesse's horse took a fatal shot, and Jesse himself took a bullet to the chest. He ran through the woods evading capture. He hid in creekside waters until a farmer saw him and got him help. They delivered him to the Bradley home.2
From there he went to the Virginia Hotel, where there is documentation of his surrender. Taking the required allegiance oath on May 21, 1865. Listed on the surrender roster as James, J.M.2
Legends still abound that he never surrendered, that he never came in to authorities.2 But there's plenty of documentation and eyewitness accounts verifying that he did. Legends can certainly get out of hand. Especially if it means selling novels, alleged biographies, or propping up nefarious theories!
By June 18 Jesse was still recuperating, but strong enough to travel. A friend assisted him in getting transportation to his uncle's home. The same Mimm's house as before, where he'd healed up from a similar, previous wound.2
There again recovering with the help of cousin Zee. Also two local physicians visited him regularly. Jesse stayed there until mid July, when he traveled to his parents' new residence in Nebraska.2
He still was weak and ill from his wound. His step-father had reopened his medical practice, and put it to use for Jesse. But his cousin Zee came in August to assist in nursing him. While there, she and Jesse became secretly engaged. By October's end he was finally better, and Zee returned home.2
In his own words, Jesse tells how his chest wound was still serious enough in 1867. In fact the bullet had never been removed, but was still lodged within. He said, "Being recommended to consult the celebrated Confederate surgeon, Dr. Paul Eve, of Nashville, Tennessee, I went there in June, 1867 and remained under his care for three weeks" (2000, p922). Dr. Paul Eve was well respected. Read More>
The doctor didn't give him good news. He essentially said his lung was damaged and deteriorating, couldn't support his life much longer. He suggested he be with his loved ones. Jesse felt confounded, not believing this medical advice. But he did go to Kentucky, to relations' home there.2
Toward the end of March 1868, Jesse met up with Frank and traveled to California. It's said his route was via ocean voyage from New York. Through the Panama Canal and to a California port. Bound for his uncle's ranch at Paso Robles, which had mineral springs with health benefits. Although his lung function didn't recover, Jesse's overall health benefited from those mineral springs.2
He stayed until the autumn. Then he returned to Missouri, back to the family homestead, where he grew up.
Cole Younger and his brothers grew up in circumstances somewhat similar to the James brothers. Cole had also fought for a time with Confederate bushwhackers. The Younger brothers and Jesse and Frank started aligning their raids on banking institutions. Becoming known as the James-Younger gang.
They raided through Iowa, Texas, Kansas, West Virginia, and all states in between! Centering on their perceived grievances from the Civil War. Primarily robbing banks and stage coaches.3
The Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to chase down the brothers' gang: James-Youngers in 1871.3
In 1873 they started including train robberies on their resume.3 One thing possibly leading to their Robin Hood aura legend was during robberies they didn't single out individuals. The strong boxes and safes were their targets.
Jesse finally married Zerelda (Zee) Mimms, his long-time engaged-to cousin, on April 24, 1874.3
They had four children. A son, Jesse Edward, born in 1875. As an adult he became a "well respected lawyer in Kansas City, MO. and Los Angeles" according to his grandson.5 Twin boys were born, named Gould and Montgomery. But they died as infants. Their daughter, Mary Susan was born in 1879.3
Despite him now having a home-life, the Pinkerton agency was on outlaw Jesse James's case. Their first tactic was to send someone to befriend the family. It didn't work, as the agent was found dead. Two Pinkerton agents then went directly after the James-Younger gang. A gunfight occurred on March 17, 1874. Agent Lull delivered a fatal wound to John Younger, but Lull was also killed in the shoot-out.2,4
Then the Pinkertons planned an attack on the James homestead to get the James brothers. A Pinkerton threw a fire-bomb through a window, exploding inside. Jesse's younger half-brother Archie was killed. His mother, Zerelda Samuels' arm was blown off. The Pinkertons claimed they didn't intend arson, but a letter was found showing that was the intent.2 Local James family supporters were outraged by this incident.
A bank robbery was planned for September 7, 1876. The James brothers and Younger brothers were in Northfield Minnesota. Their eye was on the First National Bank. They believed a prime stockholder was the Mississippi governor during reconstruction.4 This time it all went wrong for them. Bank employees wouldn't cooperate. Local folk noted the James-Younger gang in town, up to no good. They got together firing their weapons at them.
The Youngers were captured and arrested, the James brothers managed to get away. That ended the James-Younger Gang. The Youngers went to prison. But Jesse and Frank ended up in Nashville Tennessee. They took alias names. Frank took on the name of B.J. Woodson.
Jesse continued roving, looking for other options in this way of life he'd developed. Alias was Thomas Howard. In 1879 Jesse James began recruiting another gang. Frank was pressured by Jesse to be there.3 The men in this new gang were mostly misfits who didn't get along. Not the well-oiled machine he'd had before. Their first job was a train robbery in Independence MO.6
Then two more robberies in Mississippi. A posse chased them down, killing two gang members, the rest got away. They hid out in Louisiana and in Texas. They started feeling the effects of lawman pressure and infighting amongst gang members. Some quit, some were mysteriously killed, and Jesse kicked some of them out. Frank and Jesse figured to start laying low. In 1881, they went back to Missouri, near the family home.2,4
Frank considered stopping the criminal life. Jesse decided that may be the best also. He took his family farther from the old homestead, moving to St. Joseph, MO.2,4 The James Gang, it seemed, was no more. But apparently crime was a difficult life to get away from.
In 1881 Missouri Governor T.H. Crittendon had offered a reward (via railroad funds) for the capture of the James brothers. Robert Ford consulted the governor with a plan, negotiating with him to get the reward.7
Bob Ford sent a telegram to Governor Crittendon informing him of the deed. He asked for the reward. But both brothers were charged with First Degree Murder. They received swift justice! In the space of 24 hours:
This brought criticism to the Governor. It appeared as if he plotted to have a citizen murdered, rather than just apprehended.1,2,4
Jesse's mother Zerelda James Samuel had Jesse buried on the family grounds. She authored his headstone epitaph: "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here."7
With the publicity of her son's murder, people began coming by the family home to see where it took place. Zerelda decided to earn a living by it. She gave guided, personal tours, with a view of his grave.
Jesse's wife, Zee Mimms James, found creditors moving in on her, to collect. But no funds remained at his death. Zee auctioned off what little was left.10,14 She was depressed, and stated "I am not in good circumstances and a little money would greatly assist me."
She moved to Kansas City to live with her brother. It was there she died on November 13, 1900. Her burial was in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney MO.10
After Jesse's wife Zee died, his mother Zerelda moved Jesse's body to the Kearney cemetery. Jesse was re-interred next to Zee, and given a new headstone there.
The next year Jesse's mother was traveling to San Francisco by train. She suffered a heart attack and died, at age 86. They brought her to the same cemetery, burying her in the family plot in Kearney, Missouri.7
Jesse James is a name that continues to live in history. As an outlaw to some, a daring hero to others, a romantic robin-hood type figure to still others. He's celebrated today in areas where he left a mark. There are museums and festivals. His boyhood home, Kearney Missouri, has a museum for him, plus a festival every year. Robbery reenactments, other festivals involving his name, taverns named for him, rodeos and parades that involve dedications to him.
Many plays were written documenting his story, not necessarily accurate. Many Movies as well. Video games include him, too.
There have been many books about this outlaw, Jesse James. Some are written with primary documentation. You can pretty rely on their accuracy. One was written during the time he lived. Or I should say, at the time of his death. It's available online, and you can download it. Pretty amazing, as it contains a hand-written letter from Jesse James.
It has drawings done directly from photographs of the day. 522 pages document accounts of his life, along with his gang. It's called: Illustrated Lives and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James and the Younger Brothers, the Noted Western Outlaws. Its copyright is 1882, but currently expired. See it, download it if you wish, by CLICKING HERE>
What's amusing are "historical" dime novels. Written mostly in the 1880s, usually romanticizing events of the "Wild West" to those who lived in the cities, and back East. They featured swashbuckling types of heroes, and they created Jesse James as one of these.
For those looking to Jesse James as the robin-hood romantic rather than an outlaw, it's really a fanciful view. There's no evidence that he or any of his gang shared anything with unfortunates. They just didn't specifically target individuals who weren't part of their agenda. But they had no qualms killing anyone who got in the way of their goals. And of course, in defending their own lives.
He's a figure who has an infamous legacy that continues.
1 Settle Jr., W.A. (1977). Jesse James was his name. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.
2 Yeatman, T.P. (2000). Frank and Jesse James: The story behind the legend. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House.
3 Trout, C. (n.d.) Jesse Woodson James. The State Historical Society of Missouri: Historic Missourians. Retrieved from shsmo.org/historicmissourians/name/j/jamesj/
4 Stiles, T.J. (2002). Jesse James: The last rebel of the Civil War. New York: First Vintage Books.
5 Ross, J.R. (2001, Aug. 25). Jess James: The myths. Los Angeles Times. Orange County Edition, p. F2. Retrieved from ericjames.org/AmericanOutlaws/page2.html
6 NY Times (1882, March 19) Skillfull detective work; Another of the James gang captured in Missouri. p. 1.
7 King, S. (2007, Sept. 17). One more shot at the legend of Jesse James. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from articles.latimes.com/2007/sep/17/entertainment/et-weekmovie17
8 Haygood, W. (2007, Sept. 17). A story of myth, fame, Jesse James. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from seattletimes.nwsource.com:80/html/living/2003885037_jessejames17.html
9 Ries, J. (1994). Ed O'Kelley: The man who murdered Jesse James's murderer. Patches Publications.
10 Weiser, K. (Sept. 2017). Zee James – Jesse's "poor" wife. Legends of America. Retrieved from legendsofamerica.com/we-zeejames/
11 NY Times (1915, Feb. 19). Frank James dies at 74. Former outlaw was one of last survivors of notorious band. Retrieved from timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1915/02/19/100142201.pdf
12 Stone, A. C., Starrs, J. E. & Stoneking, M. (2001). Mitochondrial DNA analysis of the presumptive remains of Jesse James. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 46,1, pp.173–6. PMID 11210907.
13 Dill, L.B. (1949). Is Jesse James still alive? Evidence supports story that Jesse James is alive. Herald-Journal of Spartanburg. South Carolina, p. 3.
14 Patee House Museum & Jesse James Home (2001-2017) The Patee House: About us, our history. Retrieved from ponyexpressjessejames.com/our-history/