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Missouri's Jesse James — Bandit or Folk Hero?

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

The log cabin part of the house is where Jesse James was born in Kearney, Missouri.

The log cabin part of the house is where Jesse James was born in Kearney, Missouri.

Kearney, Missouri

Jesse James and his brother Frank were born during the Civil War's strife in American history, and circumstances helped shape their lives. Were they folk heroes as some thought, or were they merely robbers and bandits who had gone astray? The legends about these two brothers are widespread and persist despite facts.

The log cabin part of the home in Kearney, Missouri, was where Jesse was born in 1847 to Zerelda and Robert James. Robert James was a Baptist preacher who owned a 275-acre farm with some sheep and cattle. They also had seven slaves who assisted with the farm labor.

Family History

Robert left his family consisting of three children and wife behind to join in the California gold rush in 1850, where he died at age 32 of some gold camp plague. Although his family was left rather well off for that day and time, it left his children fatherless.

Zerelda was a strong-willed woman from all accounts, and her boys could do no wrong in her opinion. Zerelda married a local farmer, Benjamin Simms, but apparently, he was not a good father figure, and a divorce would have ensued, but he died before that occurrence.

Her third marriage was more successful. Dr. Reuben Samuel was a physician who preferred to be engaged in farming. This marriage suited Zerelda as she liked her husband to stay closer to home than her first minister husband had been able to do.

The Samuel's proceeded to have four children together. At the time of the first birth, a girl named Sarah, Jesse was already 11 years of age, and his brother Frank was almost 16.

Jesse and Frank were hearty farm boys, and they quite naturally learned how to hunt and became proficient at handling guns and knives. The James boys had also grown up knowing how to ride horses. But circumstances were about to change their everyday rural farming existence. The ensuing Civil War would not only leave scars all across the American landscape, but it forever changed this family.

Jesse James Portrait

Jesse James Portrait

The Civil War and Missouri

Missouri was a so-called border state leading up to the Civil War. Anti-slavery states were surrounding them on three sides. In Clay County, where Jesse and his family lived, 25% of the population were slaves. So this was a well-developed way of life for these farmers, and they weren't about to be ordered and told that they would have to change their means of making a living.

Pro and anti-slavery militias sprung up, and much guerrilla warfare ensued between the border states with civilians killed, and homes being ransacked and looted. Emotions were high, and one horrific act gave reason for another to start.

Missouri ultimately sided with the north and the Union, but families split apart deciding which side to take on this issue. The slaves were well treated on the James farm and even stayed there by choice after the Civil War came to an end, and they became free.


The James Brothers

Frank James (Jesse's older brother) had joined the secessionist Frank Drew Lobbs Army and fought on the Confederate side. He fought at the Battle of Wilson's Creek but soon became ill and went home to recover.

Frank was not at home when soldiers from the Union army tried to capture him. They supposedly whipped Jesse, abused his mother, and hung his step-father twice to gain information about Frank's whereabouts, all to no avail. This treatment certainly spurred Jesse's hatred of the Union side, and he soon joined guerrillas fighting for the Confederates.

His step-father did not die at that time. Jesse's mother nursed him back to health, but he was never mentally the same after the attempted hangings.

Jesse did his part to fight against the Union soldiers and almost died with a severe chest wound in the process. A cousin of his helped nurse him back to health, and that cousin Zerelda eventually became his wife bearing him two children.

After the Civil War, the brothers joined in with other disgruntled young men and formed gangs who started robbing banks, stagecoaches, and trains.

The Legend

Jesse and his gang were outlaws and became well known for their escapades of bank hold-ups and other robberies. Unfortunately, some bank clerks died during the commission of their crimes.

John Newman Edwards, who was the editor and founder of the Kansas City Times newspaper, had agreed to publish letters from Jesse James stating his being innocent of charges. Jesse laid out the case that he was not responsible for all of the crimes, which may have been correct in many instances.

The public who read these newspapers started to identify with Jesse James and his brother Frank. The brothers repeated many times that they would turn themselves in to the authorities except that they feared instant retribution and felt they would never get a fair trial.

As the legend grew of the James Gang and the James - Younger Gang (which Frank and Jesse had also joined at one time), they were blamed for robberies from Iowa to Texas and Kansas to West Virginia. Eyewitness accounts could place them at each robbery, yet it was improbable to have been in all those places simultaneously. Thus, their reputations kept growing.


Rewards for Their Capture

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was enlisted to capture Jesse James and other gang members. He had escaped often, and at one point, Allan Pinkerton took on the assignment almost as if it was a personal vendetta. Large rewards were placed upon their heads for their capture.

At one point, the Pinkerton Agency got word that Jesse was in his home, and an explosive incendiary device was thrown into the house. As was the case in so many instances, the tip was wrong, and Jesse was not there. But the explosion killed his half-brother Archie and damage to his mother's arm caused it to be amputated to save her life.

Of course, the newspapers picked up this account, and the public outcry resulted in rewards ultimately reduced when posting wanted fliers. In the meantime, stories flourished, most of them fictional, regarding the James brothers and their escapades. Some of the accounts portrayed them as good guys who only robbed the rich, giving to the poor. That was speculation but never proven.

After both brothers had married, they tried to settle down, living under assumed names. They each had families and children at this point in their lives. Jesse used the name of Thomas Howard. Frank, his brother, became known as B.J. Woodson.
But the lure of doing occasional robberies was in Jesse's blood. Many of his other gang members had been captured through the years or killed. He had taken up with a couple of brothers by the names of Robert and Charley Ford. Unbeknown to Jesse, Robert collaborated with the Governor of Missouri to claim the reward for capturing Jesse James.

Jesse's Death

When Jesse and the Ford brothers were making preparations for another robbery, Jesse supposedly stopped to dust a picture frame inside his home. Bob Ford took the opportunity to shoot Jesse in the back of his head, and Jesse died. Identified by his Civil War wounds and the tip of a missing finger, the public was incensed at this cowardly act. The Ford brothers were charged with murder but acquitted in the end.

His mother Zerelda Samuel, had his body buried on the James Farm, where she could keep watch over it. She was afraid because of the notoriety people might have tried to snatch Jesse's body. Crowds of people did come to visit Jesse's grave. Zerelda was there telling everyone the story of her good son, who was forced to become a person living outside the law due to circumstances beyond his control.

An interesting side note! The average coffin in those days cost $25. Jesse's coffin cost $250 and was paid for by the State of Missouri as Jesse was considered somewhat of a hero.

Frank James, who lived quietly, finally gave himself up to the law and, with the help of a brilliant legal team, was acquitted of all charges. He ended up his life hosting thousands of visitors to the farm where he and his famous brother had grown up.

Final Resting Place

Jesse's body was finally moved into Kearney's town to rest beside his wife upon her death and was interred in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in 1902. He has a Confederate gravestone marking the head of his grave and that of his wife.

My mother, niece, and I visited his grave and those of his half-brother, Archie, and his mother and step-father when we stopped in Kearney to learn more about Jesse James and see his birthplace.

Because of so many romanticized versions of stories told and the Robin Hood image portrayed, Jesse James and his brother Frank will continue to live. His story is forever intertwined with the Civil War and its aftermath.

Claybrook House

This is the Claybrook House in Kearney, Missouri.  Restored pre-Civil War mansion built in 1858.  It is a fine example of antebellum Missouri architecture, and at one time was the home of Jesse James' daughter, Mary James Barr.

This is the Claybrook House in Kearney, Missouri. Restored pre-Civil War mansion built in 1858. It is a fine example of antebellum Missouri architecture, and at one time was the home of Jesse James' daughter, Mary James Barr.

Jesse James (movie) trailer

Source and References for Further Reading

Much of this historical information came from reading posted signs inside the home in which Jesse James was born. The information about his coffin, the photo he was dusting when shot, and more.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

Comments are welcomed.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on September 05, 2012:

Hi Mary,

We learned more about him also than we had previously known by visiting these sites and taking a tour. Jesse James and his gang are almost legendary...but much of what people credit to him and his gang is not based on fact. In fact many more robberies were attributed to him than humanly possible from what we were told. Such is the stuff of legends! Thanks for your interest, comment, vote and share.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on September 05, 2012:

Well, Peggy, this is a very interesting Hub about Jesse James. I never read much about him. I probably have learned more about him on this Hub than I ever knew. I did see a movie once about Jessie James, but not the same movie on your video. Yours has Brad Pitt. I love Brad Pitt. I'll see if I can get that on NetFlix.

I voted this UP, and will share, Mary

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on February 28, 2012:

Hi Elsie,

I surely can't argue with that. Innocent people were killed in the course of the James brothers and their gang robbing banks, etc. All of the circumstances combined have made this into a fairy-tale of sorts, although it was certainly all too real. Thanks for your comment.

Elsie on February 27, 2012:

They killed innocent people. End of story

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 14, 2011:

Hi Billy,

Was that a movie or real life...Jesse James marrying Sandra Bullock? From the sound of what you wrote, it sounds factual. Obviously I haven't kept up with Sandra Bullock's life, if so.

The Jesse James who robbed banks, etc., was blamed for far more than he and his gang could possibly have accomplished. That story seemed to become enlarged and embellished with time.

billyaustindillon on June 14, 2011:

Seems like he was a bad guy just like his supposed relative Jesse James the mechanic who found fame marrying Sandra Bullock and then cheating and being a worm there - the apple never fell far from that tree even generations on it seems.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 26, 2009:

Hi again dahoglund,

Will see what you have written about Jesse James and others. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 26, 2009:

Thank you for the compliment on my writing.

If you want my own take on Jesse James you might want to look at my hub "Heroes, Outlaws and Other Folk."

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on November 26, 2009:

Hi dahoglund,

Glad you liked this hub about Jesse James and the times in which he and his siblings grew up. So...you like the subject outlaws. How do you feel about inlaws? Haha!

You are a very good writer so I take your comment as a great compliment. Thanks!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 26, 2009:

Outlaws are one of my favorite subjects. You are a great writer and historian.

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 30, 2009:


Love the Hub!  Filled with fascinating information that I did not know.  I really enjoyed it.  Thanks for the hard work. It was worth it.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 28, 2009:

Hello RedElf,

You said it...Jesse James was certainly a "colorful outlaw." Glad that you found this interesting. Thanks for leaving a comment.

RedElf from Canada on June 28, 2009:

WOW - lots of great info here! I have always been fascinated by some of your more colorful "outlaws". Thanks for all the interesting background, and your slant on the topic.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 25, 2009:

Hi Kiran, Being in a different part of the world, you undoubtedly would not have grown up hearing the story about the James boys like we did. Very romaticized stories! So happy that I could share this with you. Thanks for reading and leaving your comment.

kiran8 from Mangalore, India on June 25, 2009:

Great hub peggy ! very informative esp for me...

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2009:

Thanks for reading and leaving your comment, shamlabboush.

shamelabboush on June 24, 2009:

I heard a lot of this man and honestly, I have big respect for him. Nice Hub Peggy.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2009:

Hi William,

You are indeed the wordsmith. The "unfortunate" thing about clerks being killed in bank robberies was that anyone was killed, period.

As to their slaves being "treated well" I was just referring to the conditions in which they supposedly lived and worked. The fact that they elected to stay on the James farm after the Civil War says something. Now...does this mean that slavery of any kind was "good" in any sense of the word? Of course not!

My original title was simply Jesse James but for people that had no idea of who he was, I thought I would add the rest to lure them into reading the article. Think I'll go tweak it a bit right now so that people don't misunderstand.

Thanks for your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2009:

Hi Tom, Glad you liked it. Thanks for the comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2009:

Hi Candie,

I fully agree with you as to their having had a choice. I am beginning to think that people are inferring from my title that I personally thought that these "good boys" were forced into becoming bandits. Of course not! I just meant for the title to show the effect that the James brothers had on people not affected by their crimes. They were romanticized and thus, many people thought of them as folk heros. Many people profited by portraying them as such. Thanks for leaving your comment.

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2009:

Hi Pete,

Naturally I come from a part of the country and from people who would have abhorred slavery, but that being said, the reasons why some people entered the Confederacy was a mixture of reasons. It was not solely the slave issue.

From what I read, these early skirmishes became similar to the famous "Hatfields and McCoys" in many cases. Jesse was not fighting but the Union soldiers that came to his house looking for his brother did some pretty horrific things. This alone could have turned him to begin fighting on the other side.

Yes, I agree with you that they were both criminals who should have been brought to justice. The legends of these two are exaggerated and they gained some sympathy from many readers because of many things...included of which was the treatment their family suffered.

Thanks for reading as always and leaving your comment. I can't wait to read the next episode of your science fiction fantasy!

Peggy Woods (author) from Houston, Texas on June 23, 2009:

Hello RKHenry, Glad you liked this bit of history. Some of it was told to us when we toured the house and other bits of it was gleaned from reading other accounts. Thanks for commenting.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 23, 2009:

Good history, Peggy W, but I'll always believe that Jesse and Frank were simply bad guys, although there's little doubt that the Civil War and other circumstances affected their behavior. I don't think their crimes are mitigated by the view that it was "unfortunate" some bank clerks were killed while they were robbing banks -- or that their slaves were "well treated"? But they certainly were fascinating men and, deservedly or not, have made their mark as legendary Americans.

Tom rubenoff from United States on June 23, 2009:

Well written article about a fascinating time in American History. Thanks for writing it.

Candie V from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure! on June 23, 2009:

History is a tough subject to cover. There's no way to know how they felt, we just have the tale of their actions. They were products of their time, to be sure. They did have a choice, I believe, we all do. We only know of the way they went.

Pete Maida on June 23, 2009:

The James boys were criminals. They were also traitors when they turned their back on their country to join the armed rebellion against it. When the issue came to keep slaves or change their ways it was more important to fight to enslave people than it was to find another way to farm. That is more criminal than the banks they robbed.

RKHenry from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA on June 23, 2009:

I love history. I also love the fact that I can count of your delightful hubs as a new found source to knowledge. Great writing. Excellent HUB!

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