The son of Caleb & Virginia Fulkerson Berry, he was the fifth of ten children who is believed to have been born in Callaway County, near Shamrock, Missouri, in 1838. His father was a farmer and landowner, and he probably had a “normal” upbringing. In about 1860, he moved westward and for years ranged from Nevada to Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Texas, while making regular trips back to Missouri.
Caught up with the gold fever, he was living near the mining camp of Austin, Nevada, in 1861. While there, he met up with the Cyrus Price family, who were also from Calloway County, Missouri. When the Civil War began, the “Show-Me-State” was fighting amongst its own within its borders, the Price family escaped the turmoil. James soon began to see Cyrus Price’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, who he married in about 1863. The couple would eventually have six children, the first of whom was born near the Reese River, Nevada, in 1864.
Traveling from one mining camp to the other, Berry was known to have been at Reese River, Nevada; Salmon, Idaho; Bannack, Virginia City, Helena, and Butte, Montana; Los Angeles, California; and probably numerous other places. In 1867, the family lived in Bannack, Montana, where Mary Elizabeth gave birth to twin daughters. About six months later, Mary Elizabeth and her three children returned to Missouri without Jim. She returned, however, as she bore a fourth child in Los Angeles in 1869. However, her fifth child was born back in Mexico.
By this time, it is thought that Berry had mainly given up on mining and was leading the life of a bandit. By 1876, he hooked up with Joel Collins, Sam Bass, Jack Davis, Tom Nixon, and Bill Heffridge. Robbing a number of stages in the Deadwood, South Dakota area, they were known as the Black Hills Bandits.
Finding stagecoach robberies not profitable enough, when split with six people, they soon decided to rob a train. On September 18, 1877, they robbed the Union Pacific Railroad at Big Springs, Nebraska, making off with more than $60,000. After dividing the money, the outlaws split into pairs, each headed in a different direction. It is known that Berry and Tom Nixon headed to Missouri. However, Jim’s wife, Mary Elizabeth, gave birth to their sixth child just a day after the robbery. Myra Berry was born in Butte, Montana, on September 19, 1877. It is unknown whether she accompanied him back to Missouri, but he did not arrive in Mexico, Missouri, until October 5th, so she probably did, as she was known to have been there after his death.
In the meantime, a $10,000 reward had been offered for the fugitives, which described Berry like this: 5 feet 9 inches high, 180 pounds, 30 or 35 years old, sandy or red hair with a bit of gray in it, sandy beard and mustache, chin beard quite long, red or florid complexion, blue eyes, full round face which gets very red when he has been drinking, talks a great deal.
The day after he arrived in Mexico, just as soon as the town’s three banks opened, he made a fatal mistake — trading in $9,000 in gold coins for currency. The banks then shipped the coins to St. Louis, Missouri, where they were quickly identified as probably being from the Big Springs robbery. Three days after trading the gold for currency, detectives arrived in Mexico to confer with the Audrain County Sheriff, Henry Glasscock.
The authorities quickly went to Berry’s home near Shamrock, Missouri, but failed to find him. However, acting on a tip, they continued to search the area, finally locating him in the woods. When Berry spied the lawmen, he immediately fled but received a load of shotgun pellets in his legs. Berry pled with Sheriff Glasscock to shoot him rather than make him stand trial, but the authorities loaded him into a wagon and took him back to Mexico instead. In the end, Berry would get his wish. He would not stand trial. Two days later, after developing gangrene in his wounded legs, he died on October 21, 1877. He was 39 years old.
He was buried next to his mother, who had preceded him in death only by a few hours. Some say that his mother died of a broken heart after finding out her son was an outlaw. The grave is in the Liberty Church Yard Cemetery, approximately three miles north and west of Shamrock, Missouri.
In the spring of 1880, his widowed wife, Mary Elizabeth, and their children returned to the west, settling at Benton, Montana, near her family.