Jesse James – Outlaw or Something Else?

Jesse James portrait at 17 years old

Jesse James, outlaw marauder, 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. Jesse’s mother, 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 preacher Robert when she was only 16.1

Jesse James portrait at 17 years old
Jesse James – Outlaw Leanings at Age 17

Jesse James Outlaw Contents

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Jesse James’s Youth

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 named Susan Lavenia in November 1849.1

Next year, the children’s father traveled West for the Gold Rush. Only to preach to miners.1 His youngest an infant, his sons very young, plus not many years since suffering a child’s death. Yet he left his family, leaving for California. Did that circumstance affect young Jesse and Frank?

Robert wrote letters home, expressing he missed the family.1 But two weeks after arriving in California, he contracted a fever, dying.2  Possibly from cholera, a common feverish death back then.

Zerelda had young children to raise, plus farm responsibilities. She married a substantially older  bachelor, Benjamin Simms. They lived at her farm. Only lasting a few months, they separated. Soon thereafter Simms died.1

James family lore says 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

Zerelda James Drawing
Zerelda James Samuel, the Mother of Jesse & Frank

Next Zerelda met physican, Reuben Samuel. They wed in 1855.3 He maintained the farm, aligning with 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 promote theories that Jesse and his brother were evil children, showing cruelty to animals and other kids. Nothing substantiates this.Others say young Jesse was religious, from early fatherly influence. That he was well liked by towns-folk.3

Others claiming to have known him say he was fun-loving, usually smiling. With curiosity about things.5 His personality contrasted to older brother Frank.  Frank was dour and calm, no outward emotion.4

The family was surrounded by influences of pre-civil war agitation. Their farm was in Missouri, near the Kansas border. 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 slave owner. His childhood play likely reflected the inclinations of adults in his life.1

Reuben Samuel
Jesse’s Stepfather – Reuben Samuel

War’s Influence
On Jesse James’s Outlaw Underlying Motivation

the farm where Jesse James outlaw lived
Zerelda James Samuel’s Family’s Homestead in Kearney Missouri

Missouri events were leading to secession. Zerelda James Samuel held allegiance with Southerner’s way of life. Circumstances influenced creation of a state militia: the Home Guard. Frank, aged 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 Missouri residents. These “vicious skirmishes started by both Union militia and Confederate raiders….struck brutally, harming civilians and crippling the economy.”3 

Young Jesse James

William C. Quantrill led one group of Confederate raiders, relishing tactics of deceit and brutality. Jesse’s older brother Frank joined them. Likely for vengeance at the Union’s heartless misdeeds.Zerelda James Samuel did what she could to help the Southern cause. She kept watch, kept her ears open, informing raiders of options. Young Jesse was her helpful aide, roaming fields and woods, sending messages around.2

Youthful Portrait of Jesse James
Jesse James Portrait in His Youth

Their family’s 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

When 15 years old, Jesse was working in the fields, when Union troops appeared. Jesse wouldn’t talk, so they assaulted him. Then intimidated the family, hanging his father from a tree for hours to get cooperation. Reuben Samuel finally led them to the raiders’ camp. Samuel was imprisoned until paroled, June 1863.2

Marking Jesse’s turning point, he went on the offensive. He tried joining 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 

Jesse James Joins up – Shot

Jesse James saw a saddle on a fence rail
Jesse was Shot When He Stole a Saddle

Almost two years later, 1864 springtime, Jesse joined up with “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s guerrillas.2-3 

In late summer 1864, Jesse was severely injured during an incident demonstrating 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 taken across the Missouri River into Kansas to his Uncle John Mimm’s. They called a doctor for him. Jesse’s cousin Zee nursed him for a month. When able to sit on his horse by 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

James Family Banished

The Headquarters of the Department of Missouri issued an order January 9, 1865. Special Orders No. 9 was directed at Reuben Samuel. Item 12 stated: “named persons have forfeited their rights as citizens by flagrant acts of disloyalty…. are hereby with their families banished from the Depmt.”2

Specifying they couldn’t return while the war was ongoing, under penalty of death. Zerelda and Reuben Samuel relocated to Richardson County, Nebraska, where Zerelda had Cole family relations.It’s in the Southeastern part of the state.

Nebraska map locating Richardson County
Zeralda moved her family to this highlighted area of Nebraska to stay with family.

Outlaw Jesse James
Continues With Confederate Raiders

Jesse James was with a Bushwacker Band of “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s Guerrilla Fighters

Jesse didn’t fight alongside 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, where Union troops and families resided. They attacked throughout town: burning homes, killing.2

Clement’s force got word of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but didn’t believe it. Soon it became obvious. They discussed surrender vs. carrying on; even heading down to Mexico. It’s said Jesse James agreed with leader, Arch Clement: refuse surrender. At least, initially. Versions vary for what subsequently happened.2

Surrender While Being Shot

Now May 15, 1865, the location was Southeast of Lexington, Missouri. The day prior, Clement sent a letter to Union forces’ area commander. He proposed sending five of his men to meet with five from the Union. To discuss properly handling their troop’s surrender.2

But was it a diversionary tactic? Some versions say Clement’s men never intended surrendering. Were actually looking for unguarded areas to make their way South.

Vintage Newspaper article describing Clement's guerrilla forces possibly surrendering
From The Howard Union of Glasgow MO – Thursday, June 15, 1865 Page 3

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 his men, headed to the appointed place for surrender. Some drunk Union soldiers came at them, shooting. Jesse’s horse took a fatal shot, and Jesse took a bullet to the chest. He ran, evading capture. Hiding in creekside waters, a farmer saw him and got him help. They delivered him to the Bradley home.2

He went then to the Virginia Hotel, where there is documentation of his surrender. Taking the required allegiance oath on May 21, 1865. Listed on surrendering roster as James, J.M.2

Legends continue that he never surrendered, never came in to authorities.2 But there’s plenty of documentation and eyewitness accounts verifying that he did. Legends can get out of hand. Especially if it means selling novels, alleged biographies, or propping up nefarious theories!

Post War Recovery

Still recuperating by June 18, Jesse was strong enough to travel. A friend assisted him to get 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 cousin Zee’s help. Two local physicians visited him regularly. Jesse stayed there until mid July, when he traveled to his parents’ in Nebraska.2

He still was weak and ill from his wound. His step-father reopened his medical practice, using it for Jesse. But his cousin Zee came in August assisting to nurse him. While there, she and Jesse became secretly engaged. By October’s end he recovered, so Zee returned home.2

Jesse James Outlaw Bank Robberies Begin

The Clay County Savings Association Bank’s deposit funds mostly were from those favoring the Union during the Civil War. The bank’s president had worked with the Federal provost marshal.2

In Liberty Missouri approximately 13 men rode on horseback, February 13, 1866. Their intent was robbing this bank. Most were stationed as look-outs. Two entered the bank. At gunpoint they robbed the safe, taking $57,000. One witness was shot. Some funds taken were traced to former fighters of Bloody Bill’s rebels.2

Its claim to fame was: “the first daylight bank robbery committed in peacetime in American history” (2000, p862). Certain culprits could be determined with fair certainty. But in succeeding years, others were added, with less certain documentation. Like Frank and Jesse James! It’s that Jesse was unlikely, as he was still too weak from his injury the prior year.2

But Jesse James was an infamous figure from the time of his involvement with the Younger Brothers. Read more about the Infamous Legacy of Jesse James>

Bank Robbery Plaque attributed to Jesse James
This Site is Historic – But was Jesse James Really a Culprit in the Robbery? What Do YOU Think?

Health Still Troublesome

Vintage news article talks about Dr. Paul Eve, physician who treated Jesse James
From the Nashville Union and American – Thursday, April 11, 1867 – Page 3 – Under the Heading: Tennessee Medical Society

In his own words, Jesse tells how his chest wound was still serious enough in 1867. 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’s news wasn’t great. He essentially said his lung was damaged and deteriorating, not life-supporting much longer. He suggested being 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, traveled to California. It’s said his route was via ocean voyage from New York, 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 springs.2

Jesse stayed until autumn. Then he returned to Missouri, back to the family homestead, where he grew up.

Turning Point for Jesse James as An Outlaw

People noted Jesse around town, wearing clothes described as fancy and dandy! He arrived to the church where he’d been a youthful member. But requested his name removed from their roles, officially ceasing as a member of their congregation. His purpose: he didn’t feel worthy of membership in Mount Olive Baptist Church.2 Was this his way of saving them embarrassment for the direction he was now set upon?

Jesse’s return to Missouri reminded him there was a new state constitution at war’s end. First off, it freed slaves. Also, significantly, it put a damper on rights of those who supported the Confederacy. For a time they couldn’t vote, serve on corporate boards, serve on juries, or become religious preachers.That type of treatment might test a person’s sensibilities.

His method of fighting back was not through any legal system: courts, legislature, etc. Instead he sought pressure via monetary redress and vengeance of his own choosing. 

In December 1869, Jesse James was with two other men, going to Gallatin Missouri’s Davies County Savings Association. They took $700, killing John W. Sheets. Motivation appeared as  cash plus retribution for “Bloody Bill” Anderson’s wartime killing. As they intended to, and thought they’d killed Major S.P. Cox!2-3

If anything, the perpetrators were identified by their horses. They escaped, even though a posse came after them. Jesse defended himself via letters to the local newspaper!2  The Kansas City Times editor happily published his letters, editorializing on his behalf. With Confederate sympathies, he portrayed Jesse as a Robin-hood like figure.3 This view gained steam through the years, with no facts backing it up.

William T Anderson Death Photo
William T. Anderson aka: Bloody Bill – Died in the Civil War October 27, 1864. In those days photos were taken after preparing the person for burial – this is his photo soon after death.

Jesse James – Outlaw Life

the pistol of Jesse James
Jesse James’s 44 Hopkins & Allen Pistol 1873 Model

Cole Younger and his brothers grew up in circumstances somewhat similar to the James brothers. Cole also fought for a time with Confederate bushwhackers. The Younger brothers and Jesse and Frank started aligning raids on banking institutions. Becoming known as the James-Younger gang.

Raiding 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.

Jesse & Franks James Jesse portrait in 1872
Jesse & Frank James Portrait Taken in 1872

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. Strong boxes and safes were their targets.

Jesse’s Marriage

Zerelda Mimms James
Zerelda “Zee” Mimms became Zerelda James. Photo from January 1, 1898

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 

The son of Jesse James
Jesse Edward James, 1st Child of Zee & Jesse. Wasn’t an outlaw – became very successful.

Twin boys were born, named Gould and Montgomery. But they died as infants. Their daughter, Mary Susan was born in 1879.3

mary jane james
Mary Susan

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

The Pinkertons planned attacking 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.Local James family supporters were outraged by this incident.

Beginning of the End for Jesse James Outlaw

A bank robbery was planned for September 7, 1876. The James 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

Jesse James Hideout
A Texas Hideout Memorialized – Archer City

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.

Jesse James the Outlaw Dies – But Lives Still!


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

1881 Offer by Missouri Governor Crittendon for capture of James brothers
1881 Missouri Governor Crittendon's reward offer

Robert Ford’s brother, Charley joined up with James and Frank earlier on their raids. Bob (Robert) Ford had been a late comer, but eager. When Frank and Jesse returned to Missouri, they felt the Fords were trustworthy enough to ask them to come along.7 Jesse thought they’d help with protection.

On April 3, 1882 the Fords were at Jesse’s home, eating breakfast with him. Planning a later robbery in Platte City, Missouri. Jesse was reading the newspaper, discovering a former gang member confessed to murder.2,4 He was surprised the Fords didn’t mention this. They should’ve known! Was he feeling suspicious then?

Jesse James walked into the living room, putting down his pistols. He turned around, his back to the Ford brothers. Noting a dusty picture on the wall, he stood on a chair wiping and straightening it. With that, Bob Ford took out his own gun. He aimed at Jesse James, killing him with a bullet to the back of his head, behind his right ear.2,4,14 

woodcut of Jesse James killing
Woodcut Made Between 1882 and 1892 showing Robert Ford Shooting Jesse James – widely circulated
Jesse James the outlaw prepared for funeral viewing
Jesse James Outlaw – Viewing Prepared
Jesse James dead in coffin
Jesse’s Body Awaits Funeral Preparation

News of his murder spread throughout the country! Public opinion was about evenly split about the Ford action.

Some tired of their crime-spree. While others bought into their “robin-hood” fantasy and retribution for Civil-War/reconstruction injustices.9

The Jesse James funeral
Jesse James Funeral – Frank & his Wife Ann Attended Photo credit: Dale Collection. Micky and Marian Osmond

Death’s Aftermath

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:

  1. They were indicted
  2. They plead guilty
  3. They were sentenced to hang until dead
  4. Then quickly were fully pardoned by Governor Crittendon

This brought criticism to the Governor. It appeared as if he plotted to have a citizen murdered, rather than just apprehended.1,2,4

Where is Jesse James Buried?

Jesse’s mother Zerelda James Samuel had Jesse buried on 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.”

With the publicity of her son’s murder, people began coming by the family home to see where it happened. 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 

Frank gave himself up to Governor Crittendon five months after Jesse was killed. Then tried for only two robberies and murders. He was acquitted. Other charges came up, but never went to trial. His only jail time, was while awaiting trial without bail.11

After that he worked assorted jobs in Missouri, Texas, Louisiana and Washington State. Finally he returned to the family homestead, giving tours his mother began.12 It was 1915 when he died, age 72.11

Frank James 1898
Frank James Photo from 1898

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.

The next year Jesse’s mother was traveling to San Francisco by train. Suffering a heart attack, she died, age 86. Interred in the same cemetery, in the family plot in Kearney, Missouri.7

After their pardon, the Fords left Missouri. They started earning money sourced from their Old West notoriety. They created a traveling Wild West Show.9 See how their Lives Turned Out>

Jesse James – The Outlaw’s Heritage

Jesse James is a name continuing 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 places 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.

Many books written about this outlaw, Jesse James. Some have primary documentation. You can 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, you can download it. Pretty amazing, as it contains a hand-written letter from Jesse James.

With 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 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 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

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

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

8 Haygood, W. (2007, Sept. 17). A story of myth, fame, Jesse James. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from

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

11 NY Times (1915, Feb. 19). Frank James dies at 74. Former outlaw was one of last survivors of notorious band. Retrieved from

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

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