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?

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One Comment

  1. We once visited the “Dalton Defenders” museum in Coffeyville, Kansas. The good citizens there had sense to honor the citizens who fought the gang and not the gang. Among the displays were reports that some felt one of the gang got away. Later in that same trip, we were in a little museum in Folsum, New Mexico that had a saddle purporting to belong to the Dalton cousin that “got away.” We let each museum know about the other, but I have often wondered if they followed up.

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