The name “Jesse James” conjures up the quintessential images of the Wild West—dusty towns, saloons with creaky floorboards, gun fights, and a sheriff’s posse chasing outlaws across the rugged landscape. As one of the most infamous outlaws of all time, the story of Jesse James and his gang is quite the colorful tale.
Jesse James’ story begins on September 5, 1847 in Clay County, Missouri. He was born on a hemp farm and lived there with his parents, older brother, and younger sister. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Jesse and his brother Frank sided with the Confederates and joined a group of guerillas known as Quantrill’s Raiders, led by Charles Quantrill. Quantrill was dubbed “the bloodiest man in American history.”
After the war, the facts around Jesse and Frank get a little fuzzy. Although they allegedly helped rob banks in multiple Missouri towns over the next few years, there is no concrete evidence for this. The first robbery that the James brothers are definitively tied to occurred in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1869. The news coverage from this robbery marked Jesse as an outlaw.
Following this robbery, Jesse and his brother Frank formed a gang with the Younger brothers and other former Confederates. Together, the James-Younger gang robbed banks and stagecoaches all over the country. There is even anecdotal evidence for the gang committing crimes as far west as Wyoming. The stories place the James brothers near Big Horn, Wyoming, and the infamous Hole-in-the-Wall hideout.
On July 21, 1873 near Adair, Iowa, the James-Younger gang staged the world’s first robbery of a moving train. The gang derailed the train by prying the spikes out of the rails and collected roughly $3,000 from the train’s safe and passengers. In today’s money, that’s roughly $65,000. In their 17 years, the gang’s robberies netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Although Jesse James is often portrayed as a sort of Robin Hood, there is no evidence that the James-Younger gang ever shared any money they stole outside of their gang.
The James-Younger gang continued their outlaw ways until a robbery went wrong in September, 1876, in Northfield, Minnesota. After the failed robbery attempt, members of the gang started to slowly drop out until it was only Frank and Jesse again. The brothers decided to give up crime and move back to Missouri.
In January of 1882, Robert and Charles Ford, two brothers who had been newer members of Jesse James’ gang, were arrested in their home in Clay County, Missouri. The Ford brothers made a deal with the Kansas City Chief of Police that if they could capture Frank or Jesse James dead or alive, they would receive a full pardon. If not, they were to be hanged.
In April 1882, The Ford brothers travelled to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse was living and asked to have dinner with him. Since they were trusted friends, Jesse readily agreed. While examining a painting after dinner, Jesse was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford. His tombstone reads “Jesse W. James, Died April 3, 1882, Aged 34 years, 6 months, 28 days. Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”
Five months after his brother’s death, Frank gave himself up at a prearranged appointment with Missouri Governor Thomas Crittenden, reportedly saying to the governor, “I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil.” He ended his statement with, “Governor, I haven’t let another man touch my gun since 1861.” He was later acquitted after only being tried for two of his alleged crimes. He went on to live thirty more years, performing odd jobs. He died at age 72 on February 18, 1915, at the James Farm in Missouri leaving behind a wife and a son.
The American Heritage Center holds collections pertaining to Jesse James as a figure in history as well as in popular culture, including the papers of Samuel A. Peeples, George Hart, and Henry King as well as the Larry C. Bradley Jesse James film collection and the National Outlaw & Lawman Association records.
Post contributed by Sarah Kesterson, Archives Aide, AHC Reference Department.