Jesse James—Robin Hood or Rogue Criminal?

The History Channel recently reported the anniversary of Jesse James’s birth in Clay County, Missouri, where I now live. Jesse was born on September 5, 1847. I’ve done a lot of research about 1847 for my novels, examining locations from Missouri to Oregon, but I hadn’t encountered any reference to Jesse’s birth before.

Of course, as an infant Jesse James didn’t have any impact on the Oregon Trail emigrants. But as an adult, he had a huge impact on history in Missouri and Kansas, and indeed throughout the United States.

I’d heard of Jesse James growing up, but I thought of him as an outlaw. I had no idea he had a cult following until I moved to Missouri. About thirty years ago, not too long after my husband and I moved to Clay County, we toured the Jesse James farm. It was like touring Mount Vernon or Monticello—the tour guides raved about how wonderful Jesse was.

Come on! This guy robbed banks. He killed people. He was the 19th Century equivalent of a Mafia gangster.

Modern day psychologists and social workers might excuse Jesse because his father abandoned the family when he was two. Or because his stepfather abused him. Or because while still a teenager, he joined the Missouri guerrillas during the early years of the Civil War, becoming one of the pro-Confederate bushwhackers in the Little Dixie region of Missouri.

But in my opinion, his difficult upbringing does not excuse Jesse’s adult history. In the years after the Civil War, Jesse and his gang robbed many banks and also held up stagecoaches and trains. These crimes not only deprived honest citizens of their hard-earned cash but also maimed and killed many innocent bystanders.

Jesse died as violently as he lived. In April 1882, when he was only 34, Jesse was shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford, another member of his gang, while Jesse was living in St. Joseph, Missouri. After his death, his mother put a tombstone marking Jesse’s grave that read: “In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here.”

Jesse may have been murdered by a traitor and coward, but his life did not merit the exalted praise I heard during my tour of his farm many years ago. He was no Robin Hood, as many Hollywood screenwriters and dime novelists depicted him. This hero worship began while he was still alive and continues to this day.

Jesse’s family’s farm has been owned by Clay County, Missouri, since 1974, and the County now operates it as a historical site. The farm is still open for tours, much as it was when my husband and I went there about thirty years ago. A non-profit organization called Friends of the James Farm raises funds to preserve the farm and to promote the study of the Border War in the Civil War era. There is also an annual Jesse James Festival in Kearney, Missouri.

In addition, the house where Jesse was killed in St. Joseph, Missouri, is open for tours. I’ve been there also, and the tour guides recount the details of Jesse’s death, to the point of showing the picture he was straightening at the moment he was shot.

But people opposed to the hero worship of Jesse James have their own festival also. Each September since 1948, the town of Northfield, Minnesota, has sponsored “Defeat of Jesse James Days” to honor their citizens who overcame the James-Younger gang in September 1876.

What heroes or anti-heroes of history surprise you?

The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

Jade Earrings and Other Bequests

My husband’s maternal grandmother put tags and notes on many of her possessions, stating who she wanted to get what after her death. Most of her notes bequeathed her property to her daughters or to her four grandchildren, but there were a few things that had my name on them. She lived for several years after my husband and I were married, and we had visited them in Southern California at their lovely home near the beach.

Among the items with my name on them were her Catholic paraphernalia—prayer books and the like. I don’t know why she even owned these. She wasn’t Catholic, and as far as I know, she never attended a Catholic school. But as the only Catholic affiliated with the family at the time of her death, I suppose she thought I would appreciate them. So I took them and put them aside. They were all pre-Vatican II, and of little relevance to a modern Catholic.

Jade earrings from my husband’s grandmother

She also bequeathed me a pair of jade earrings. Once when I visited her home, I think I admired a little jade Buddha figure. From my stray comment, perhaps she deduced that I like jade.

Two pairs of my older jade earrings

I do like jade. In fact, by the time his grandmother died, my husband had given me at least three pairs of jade earrings, and I wore all of them often during my working days.

After his grandmother’s death, I had four pairs.

The earrings she left me are beautiful. I think she acquired them during her travels in Asia. They’re a brighter green than most jade made into jewelry, almost a kelly green. I knew jade could range widely in color, from the traditional dark green to white and black and even lavender and red. Still, this green surprised me when I first saw the earrings—more suitable for St. Patrick’s Day than most jade. (And, indeed, I’ve worn them on many a St. Patrick’s Day.)

The earrings when I received them were clip-ons, because his grandmother did not have pierced ears. I did have pierced ears, and they hurt, so I didn’t wear them. A couple of years later, my husband had them converted into pierced earrings, so I could wear them.

Since then, I have worn them often, when the brighter green suits my clothing more than darker jade would.

Butterfly pins from my husband’s grandmother

In addition to the jade earrings, my husband’s grandmother also left me two butterfly pins of the same color. They are some sort of lacquer on gold, I think; I don’t believe they are jade.

I wish I knew the story behind how she came to acquire these pins. I mean, who wears butterfly pins? Even in the 1950s, who wore butterfly pins? And even if for some reason you wore one pin, why would you ever wear two?

The earrings and pins together

I have only had a couple of occasions when I thought it appropriate to wear these pins. Once I put them on a white dress. And the other time was to a Girl Scout fundraiser, where the invitation said to wear “camping chic.” I wore hiking pants and boots, a sweater set, and my jade earrings and butterflies. No one made any comment, whether out of polite circumspection or disinterest, I couldn’t say.

Someday, I’ll leave all this jewelry to my daughter, who was named after my husband’s grandmother. Then she can wonder when it is appropriate to wear butterfly pins. At least the earrings have already been converted for her to wear with pierced ears.

Do you have items you’ve inherited that you wonder about?

Blue-Tarped Roofs After Hurricane Katrina

As the news reports have shown pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about my experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I wasn’t in New Orleans during that hurricane nor for over a year after it occurred, but what I did see taught me how long it takes for a community to recover from a natural disaster of that scope.

My daughter attended Tulane Law School from 2007 until 2010. She and I first visited New Orleans to check out the school in April 2007—over a year and a half after Katrina destroyed much of the city. We returned in June of that year to find her an apartment, and in August 2007 we moved her to New Orleans. We visited her a couple of times during her three years there, and our last visit was for her graduation in May 2010—by then it had been almost five years since Katrina.

Blue Tarp City, by Gail Williams, taken on December 20, 2005, available on Flickr

On my first visit in April 2007, my daughter and I drove all around the city, trying to get a feel for the community. In every neighborhood we passed through, there were dumpsters in the driveways and blue tarps on the roofs.

“But this neighborhood’s fine,” my daughter said as we drove near the Tulane campus. “Check out the cars.”

Sure enough, there were late-model cars parked on the streets, indicating that the nearby houses would be repaired, even if they were in bad shape at that time.

In other neighborhoods, where the cars were older, there were more homes still boarded up, fewer dumpsters showing active rehabilitation, and more blue roofs that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. Those neighborhoods still showed the storm’s destruction.

Blue Tarp Roofs Across the Street, by Bart Everson, taken on December 5, 2005, available on Flickr

With each visit to New Orleans, I saw fewer blue tarps and more repaired homes. The more affluent neighborhoods returned faster, the poorer neighborhoods continued to have many abandoned and boarded-up houses. But slowly the community fought its way toward normalcy.

What I saw in New Orleans taught me that Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the other areas hit by storms this year have a long battle ahead. The immensity of the reconstruction must be overwhelming to residents at this stage.

But what I saw also tells me that Houston and the many other cities and towns devastated this year will come back.

The same drive to rebuild has been true after other hurricanes, after tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, and after mudslides on the West Coast. The restored communities won’t look exactly the same, and not all the same people will return. But the human resolve to reconstruct their lives will prevail. Again and again, if need be.

What experience have you had with natural disasters?

My Great-Grandmother Della Phillips Jones

The great-grandmother I know the least about is my father’s maternal grandmother, Della Phillips Jones. All I ever knew about her growing up was that she had been married before she married my great-grandfather, and her daughter (my grandmother) had a half-sister from Della’s first marriage who was quite a bit older than she was. I had the sense there was some scandal associated with Della, but whether it was simply that she’d been divorced or whether there was more to the story, I never heard.

Della died before I was born, so I never had the opportunity to meet her, or her husband (my great-grandfather) Tucker Jones, who also died before I was born.

I knew that Tucker Jones owned a store in Arnold, Nebraska, during the Depression. My father talked about how Grandpa Tucker gave credit to people who were down on their luck in those years, which caused him his own financial troubles.

My father must have known his grandmother Della, but he didn’t tell me any stories about her. I had the impression he liked Tucker, but might not have liked Della.

My grandmother never told stories about her parents either. I wondered whether she got her musical talent from Della or from Tucker.

I later met my grandmother’s sister, my half-great-aunt Ethel, who lived with her husband in Idaho, not too far from my parents’ vacation home in Coeur d’Alene, when I was in high school. We had a couple of lunches with them. Ethel was quite old when I met her, and she did not tell any stories about her parents. I think Ethel died just a few years after I met her.

And that’s all I knew about this branch of the family. I should have asked my father more about his mother’s parents.

So recently I went searching for what else I could find out about Della. “Jones” is not an easy name to research. But between family genealogy records and what I found online, I’ve pieced together the following:

Della was born on January 25, 1877, to James Martin Phillips and Martha Josephine Stevenson. I could trace Della’s father’s family back through several generations. They had come from Indiana, and from Virginia in generations before that. Her father’s ancestors came to America well before the Revolutionary War—one of her great-great-great-grandfathers, a Joseph Phillips (one of several Josephs) was born in Orange, Virginia, on July 16, 1706. I’d known I had pre-Revolutionary War relatives on my mother’s side (the Hooker family), but I hadn’t known my dad had such long roots in the New World until I researched Della.

Della’s mother, Martha Josephine Stevenson, was also from Indiana. She had six children and died in May 6, 1922, in Chicago.

Della’s first marriage license says she was born in Indiana, but her obituary says she was born in Nebraska. Her first marriage was to Glenn Johnson on April 12, 1898. Glenn was born in Iowa. He was twenty-six, and she was only seventeen. Their daughter Ethel was born in about 1900.

After my father died, I found a copy of Della’s divorce papers from her first marriage. Why my father had them, I have no idea. I don’t know whether his mother gave them to him, or whether they came with some genealogy records that his sister gave him. The papers made it sound like Della had been abused during her first marriage, but I don’t know if that was the truth—from my law school days, I know it was common to make such allegations to provide the cause necessary to get a divorce decree, in the days before no-fault divorces. I didn’t keep the divorce papers, so I don’t remember the date of their divorce.

Della’s second marriage in 1908 to Tucker Lon Jones, produced my grandmother, Kathryn Delores Jones Claudson, born February 12, 1911. Della and Tucker had no other children, though Ethel lived with them until she grew up, according to census records.

I know Tucker was born on June 6, 1881, in Grand Pass, Missouri, in Saline County—the same county my husband’s family is from, though I don’t think my in-laws knew of Tucker or his family at all. Tucker was four years younger than Della—possibly another reason for scandal in those days—he married an older divorcee.

Inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile store in 1914, Arnold, Nebraska

I don’t know how Tucker and Della got to Arnold, Nebraska. They may have moved there when they bought into a mercantile store in 1912. An article I found said that Tucker and Della operated the store in Arnold for twenty-eight years, starting in 1912, when they opened it with two other men. They bought out their partners in 1925 and renamed it the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. According to the article, the store stopped selling clothing in 1928 and thereafter only sold groceries. At some point, Tucker and Della sold the store, and it was operated by others until 1944.

Della Phillips Jones in 1914

I have only found one picture of Della. It was taken in 1914 inside the T.L. Jones Mercantile Co. store that she and Tucker owned and operated.

Della was one of the witnesses to my grandparents’ marriage on August 30, 1928, in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Tucker Lon Jones in 1914

Tucker Jones died in 1944 in Arnold Nebraska. Della died on December 17, 1955, in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Plattsmouth is south of Omaha, right where the Platte River joins the Missouri, across the Missouri River from Iowa—a good distance from Arnold. Della was buried in Arnold with Tucker, so I wondered what she was doing in Plattsmouth. Her death certificate answered that question—she was living in the Masonic Home in Plattsmouth at the time of her death. The doctor who signed her death certificate stated he had attended her since 1947, so it appears she moved to Plattsmouth, possibly to the Masonic home, a few years after Tucker’s death.

And those are the only facts I’ve learned about her life and death. I still wish I knew more.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors?

I Have Another Guest Post on “A Writer of History”

M.K. Tod offered me another opportunity last week to have a guest post on her blog, A Writer of History. I wrote about the lessons I’ve learned in the last ten years on writing a novel. These were the lessons I presented during my session at the Arrow Rock Writing Workshop in Arrow Rock, Missouri, last month.

Please take a moment to check out A Writer of History. It’s a great blog with interesting information for writers and lovers of history. If you browse through her posts, you’ll find lots of intriguing reading suggestions in the historical fiction genre.

My post can be found here.

Hope you are having some fun as you celebrate Labor Day this year.

Recipe: Steak Soup

Shortly after I married my husband, his mother wrote out her recipe for steak soup for me. My husband had made this soup for me already, and I knew he loved it. I liked the steak soup also, but I was very ill one evening after eating it, and I lost my taste for it.

It wasn’t the soup that made me ill, I knew, but memories of that evening kept me from eating steak soup for years. I wouldn’t order it at restaurants and only rarely bought it at the cafeteria at work, no matter how hearty and delectable it smelled. My memories of it coming back up were too vile.

I’ve slowly overcome my distaste for steak soup. Over the years we—usually my husband—made it often enough that the handwritten recipe card is spattered and stained. I made steak soup for my husband a couple of months ago using my mother-in-law’s recipe.

Well, sort of using her recipe. As I’ve written before, I often regard recipes as mere suggestions. It’s more about getting the proportions right than exactitude.

So here is my mother-in-law’s recipe:

Melt a stick of oleo, stir in 1 cup flour to make a smooth paste. Stir in 8 cups cold water slowly. Saute 1 lb hamburger, drain off grease, add to above. Parboil (10 minutes) 1 cup each sliced onions, carrots, celery, and add. Add 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, 1 can tomatoes, 1 Tbsp Accent, 1 tsp pepper, 6 beef bouillon cubes. Bring to boil, simmer about 30 minutes.

And here is what I did:

Browned 1 lb hamburger with a diced onion, then drained it and dumped it in a crock pot. Added a package of frozen corn, another package of frozen green beans, a can of diced tomatoes, and 5 smallish red potatoes (diced). I didn’t have any Accent, so I used 2 Tbsp Montreal Steak Seasoning. And added 6 beef bouillon cubes. Covered it with 8 cups water. And cooked it in the crock pot on High for 5-6 hours.

With bread and a salad, dinner was ready.

My husband was curiously silent as we ate. Finally I asked, “Don’t you like the soup?”

“Where’d you get the recipe?”

“From your mother.”

“It doesn’t taste like Mom’s.”

The flavor was a little different than his mother’s soup. I could detect the Montreal Steak Seasoning. But the soup tasted wonderful—full-flavored and savory, with a hint of sweet—and I told him so. He still eyed it suspiciously.

Last helping of steak soup, just before husband dished it up

Rather than make him eat leftovers the next day, I froze a container of the soup, which I pulled out the other night for a quick supper.

“This isn’t so bad,” he said as he dished himself up a second bowl.

What family recipes have you altered? Did you do so intentionally or not?