Jesse James, the outlaw, 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, respected 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
They bore a son, Frank in 1843. Then Jesse came along. Another son was born in 1845, but he 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 seek mining himself, but to preach to miners.1 His youngest was an infant, his sons were very young, and it wasn't many years since they'd suffered 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 that 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. That could have been the reason for his demise.
Zerelda had young children to raise, plus the farm responsibilities. She found an eligible bachelor, substantially older than she was. She married Benjamin Simms, remained living at her farm. But it only lasted a few months! They parted ways, just separating. But soon thereafter Simms died.1
The story passed down in the James family 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 it was 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 he was religious, with the early influence of his father. That he was well liked by towns-folk.3
But 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 that was very much in contrast to Frank, his older brother. Frank was dour and calm, not given to emotion.4
However the family was surrounded by the influences of pre-civil war agitation taking place at their location. Their farm was in Missouri, near the border of Kansas. It was 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 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, went not far from their farm to sign up as a Private.1 His first fight was the Battle of Wilson's Creek, a rough encounter with heavy losses. The Missouri Home Guard, with Arkansas, defeated the 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
One group of Confederate raiders was led by William C. Quantrill, who had a penchant for deceit and violence. Jesse's older brother Frank joined this group. Likely from a desire for vengeance at the brutality 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 the 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. They asked how they were helping the Confederate raiders. They wanted information on where they were, who they were, where Frank was, etc.2-3
Jesse was then 15 years old. He was in the fields working when these 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 to talk. Reuben Samuel eventually led them to the raiders' camp nearby. They imprisoned Samuel, until he was finally paroled, June 1863.2
This marked a turning point for Jesse, who now went on the offensive. He tried joining up with a guerrilla group, but they rejected him. It may have been he was too young, or they felt he wasn't good with fire-arms. In 1862 he'd lost the tip of his left-hand middle finger 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, the spring of 1864, he was able to join 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 Ray County Missouri. Going through a Dutch outpost, he saw a saddle on a house's front fence rail. He decided he needed it, and picked it up. A man came from the house, shot Jesse in the chest and 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, about September 20th, 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, and desecrated their bodies. Jesse was credited with the killing blow to commander Major Andrew Johnston.3
The Headquarters of the Department of Missouri issued an order on January 9, 1865. Special Orders No. 9 was directed at Reuben Samuel. It stated in item number 12: "named persons have forfeited their rights as citizens by flagrant acts of disloyalty.... are hereby with their families banished from the Depmt."2
They were told they couldn't return while the war was ongoing, under penalty of death. So Zerelda and Reuben Samuel made their way to Richardson County, Nebraska, where Zerelda had Cole family relations.2 It's located in the most Southeastern part of the state.
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 to avenge Clement's brother's death. Then in the early a.m. of May 7, it's likely their group made a raid on 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 a number of people.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, typically, varying versions of what happened after that.2
It was May 15, 1865. The location was Southeast of Lexington, Missouri. The day before Clement had sent a letter to the commander of the Union forces in the area. He proposed sending five of his men to meet with five from the Union. The purpose was 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. The 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 had to run through the woods to evade 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. He took the required oath of allegiance on May 21, 1865, is listed on the surrender roster as James, J.M.2
Legends still abound that he never surrendered, that he never came in to the authorities.2 But there is plenty of documentation and eyewitness accounts to verify that he did. Legends can certainly get out of hand - especially if it means selling novels or alleged biographies!
By June 18 Jesse was still recuperating, but strong enough to travel. A friend assisted him in getting steamboat passage and transport to his uncle's home. The Mimm's house was the same as before, where he healed up from a similar, previous wound.2
He was there again to recover with the help of his cousin Zee. He also had two local physicians visiting him regularly. He stayed there until mid July, when he left to go to his parents' new residence in Nebraska.2
He still was weak and ill from his wound. His step-father had again taken up his medical practice, and put it to use for Jesse. But his cousin Zee came to him in August to assist in nursing him. While there, she and Jesse were engaged to be married - in secret. By October's end he was finally better, and Zee returned home.2
The Clay County Savings Association Bank's overwhelming proportion of deposits came from those favoring the Union during the Civil War. The bank's president had worked with the Federal provost marshal.2
It's February 13, 1866 in Liberty Missouri. Approximately 13 men rode into Liberty that day on horseback. Their intent was to rob this bank. Most were stationed about as look-outs. Two entered the bank. At gunpoint they robbed the safe for a take of $57,000. One witness was shot. Some of the funds taken were traced in the hands of former fighters of Bloody Bill's rebels.2
Its claim to fame was that it was "the first daylight bank robbery committed in peacetime in American history" (2000, p862). Certain culprits could be determined with fair certainty. But as years went by, others began to be added, with less certain documentation, such as Frank and Jesse James. Jesse was highly unlikely to have been in on this, 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>
In his own words, Jesse tells how the wound he took to his right chest was still serious enough in 1867. In fact the bullet had never even 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 told him his lung was well damaged and deteriorating, so that it wouldn't support his life too much longer. He suggested he go to be with his loved ones. Jesse felt confounded, and didn't believe this medical advice. But he did go to Kentucky then, to a home of relatives there.2
Toward the end of March 1868, Jesse met up with Frank and traveled to California. It's said the route he took was to go by ocean voyage out from New York. Then through the Panama Canal and up to a California port. He went to 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 the mineral springs here.2
He stayed until the autumn of the year. Then he returned to Missouri, back to the family homestead and the area where he grew up.
People noted Jesse around town, wearing clothes described as fancy and dandy! He also went to the local church at which he'd been a member since youth. He requested his name be removed from their roles, so that he was officially no longer a member of their congregation. He stated his purpose for removal: he did not feel worthy to be a member of the Mount Olive Baptist Church.2 Was this his way of saving them embarrassment for what he knew was the direction he was now set upon?
Jesse's move back to Missouri now reminded him about the new state constitution in place at the war's end. First of all it freed the slaves. But more than that, it put a damper on the rights of those who supported the Confederacy. For a time they couldn't vote, serve on a corporate board, serve on a jury, or become a religious preacher.4 That type of treatment would test anyone's sensibilities.
His method of fighting back was not through any legal system - the courts, the legislature, etc. He was with those who sought pressure via their own monetary redress and vengeance.
In December 1869, Jesse James was with two other men who went to Gallatin Missouri's Davies County Savings Association. They took $700 and killed John W. Sheets. The motive appeared to be the cash, plus retribution for killing "Bloody Bill" Anderson during the war. But it was a mistake. Because they intended to, and thought they'd killed Major S.P. Cox.2-3
If anything, the perpetrators were identified by their horses. But they escaped, even though a posse came after them. Jesse defended himself via letters to the local newspaper!2 The Kansas City Times editor was happy to publish his letters. The editor also editorialized 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 to back it up. But it did have many local supporters.
Cole Younger and his other brothers grew up in somewhat similar circumstances to the James brothers. Cole had also fought for a time with Confederate bushwhackers. The Younger brothers and Jesse and Frank began to align for their raids on banking institutions. They became known as the James-Younger gang.
Their raids took them through Iowa, Texas, Kansas, West Virginia - and all states in between! They centered on what they saw as grievances from the Civil War. They primarily robbed 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 to include train robbery on their resume.3 One thing that possibly led to the Robin Hood type of legend was in their 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, was 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 were then sent 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 at the James brothers. A Pinkerton threw a fire-bomb through a window. It exploded inside the home. Jesse's younger half-brother Archie was killed. His mother, Zerelda Samuels had her arm blown off. The Pinkertons claimed they didn't intend arson, but a letter was found showing that was the actual intent.2 Locals who supported the James family 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 But this time it all went wrong for them. The bank employees wouldn't cooperate. The local folk noted the James-Younger gang int 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 was the end of 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. He lived under the name Thomas Howard. In 1879 Jesse began recruiting a new gang. Frank was still with him, pressured by Jesse to be there.3 But the men in his new gang were mostly various misfits who didn't get along. So it wasn't the well-oiled machine he'd had before. Their first job was a train robbery in Independence MO.6
Then two more robberies over in Mississippi. A posse chased them down, killing two of the gang, but 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 James were beginning to think of laying low. They went back to Missouri, near the family home in 1881.2,4
Frank considered stopping the crime life. Jesse decided that may be the best thing to do 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 way of 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
Robert Ford's brother, Charley had joined up with James and Frank earlier on their raids. Bob (Robert) Ford had been a very late comer - but quite eager. When Frank and Jesse decided on returning to Missouri, they felt the Fords were trustworthy enough to ask them to come with them.7 Jesse thought they'd help with protection.
On April 3, 1882 the Fords were at the home of Jesse James eating breakfast with him. They planned a robbery for later in Platte City, MO. Jesse was reading the newspaper to find a former gang member had confessed to a murder.2,4 He was surprised the Fords didn't mention this. They should've known! He surely felt suspicious then.
Jesse James walked into the living room, to the sofa where he put down his pistols. He turned around, with his back to the Ford brothers. Noting a dusty picture on the wall, he stood on a chair to wipe it off and straighten it. When that happened, Bob Ford took out his own gun. He aimed at Jesse, killing him with a bullet to the back of his head, behind his right ear.2,4,14
News of his murder spread throughout the country! Public opinion was about evenly split about the Ford action.
Some were tired of their crime-spree. While others bought into their "robin-hood" fantasy and retribution for Civil-War injustices. Both during the war, and with reconstruction.9
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 was in on the plot 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. Upon his headstone she authored this epitaph: "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here."7
With all the publicity of her son's murder, people began coming by the family home to see where it all 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
Frank gave himself up to Governor Crittendon five months after Jesse was killed. He was 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 the tours his mother began.12 It was 1915 when he died at age 72.11
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, as a daring hero to others, as 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 a dedication to him.
Many plays have been written documenting his story, some not very accurate. Many Movies as well. Video games include him, too.
There has been lots of books about this outlaw, Jesse James. Many are written in a documented manner. You can pretty much 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 the 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 as one of these.
For those who look to Jesse James as the robin-hood romantic rather than an outlaw, it's more of 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/