Jesse James – Folklore Hero or Cold-Blooded Killer?


Jesse James in 1864

Jesse James in 1864

“Jesse James (partly) turned to crime as a means of exacting revenge on all things Yankee”

— Time-Life Books’ The Wild West


When Jesse James was still alive, America already loved him, for in him, there was adventure in an otherwise dull, slowly-turning-scientific age. Late in America’s second century, the man rebelled against a society that he didn’t like and became a folk hero. In the mid 1860’s journalists, eager to entertain Easterners with tales of the Wild West, exaggerated and romanticized the gang’s heists. Jesse James was touted as being the modern day Robin Hood because it was said that he robbed from the rich and was kind to the poor.

At the time, his exploits were relished by those who could do no more than fantasize about living such an adventurous life. This obviously remains true today, as thousands of people are intrigued by not only Jesse James, but by the many outlaws who carved out the western frontier.

However, while Jesse was many things, including being a sometimes kind man, a dapper dresser, and a prankish charmer, he was also a cold-blooded murderer, robber, horse thief, and terrorist. He and his gang were very dangerous men.

Jesse James’ parents, Robert Sallee James and Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James were originally from Stamping Ground, Kentucky where the two met at a revival meeting. Married on December 28, 1841, Robert James continued his schooling and graduated from Georgetown College. After Robert’s graduation the young family relocated to the Centerville area of Clay County, Missouri. Centerville would later be known as Kearney.

With the help of neighbors, Robert and Zerelda, “Zee”, as she was more commonly known, built a log cabin in the wilderness and began to carve out a farm. Robert became the pastor of a small Baptist Church outside of Kearney. Reverend James was a well-liked and respected man in the community who helped found William Jewel College in Liberty, Missouri. Zee, who stood six feet tall, was known as a hard-working, strong-willed farm woman. Their first son, Alexander Franklin “Frank” James was born at the family farm on January 10, 1843. Three more children quickly followed. Robert James, Jr. was born at the farm on July 19, 1845 but died just 33 days later. Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847 and Susan Lavenia James was born on November 25, 1849.

In early 1850, the Reverend James was asked to serve as chaplain on a wagon train of local men headed west to California in search of gold. On April 12 he left the farm in Zee’s care and headed west with the intent of preaching to the crowds of gold miners who had gathered there. The minister never made it back to Missouri.

Shortly after arriving in California on August 1, 1850, the Reverend contracted a fever, as a result of drinking contaminated water. On August 18, 1850 the minister died of cholera at a Placerville, California gold camp and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Years later Jesse would go in search of his father’s resting place but was unsuccessful. Zerelda inherited the farm which she continued to own until her own death years later. But for the moment she was a widow, left with three young children. Frank, the oldest one was seven years old when his father died.

Zerelda James

Zerelda James

Zerelda married a second time to man named Benjaman Simms, a neighboring farmer on September 10, 1852. The marriage proved to be an unhappy one, mainly because of Simms’ behavior towards the two boys. His lack of affection for them and his use of corporal punishment which Zerelda did not approve of, resulted in the failure of the marriage. Zee was a woman of strong opinions who fiercely guarded her sons from criticism. After a series of arguments between the couple Zerelda started procedures for a divorce, an unusual move for the time. This didn’t prove necessary since Simms was killed on January 2, 1854 in a horse accident.

A third marriage to Dr. Archie Reuben Samuel took place in 1855. The physician was well-to-do, docile, and allowed his wife to make the important family decisions. When it came to the children, Zee made all the decisions. Dr. Samuels purchased additional adjoining property and the James’ holdings grew. The family purchased slaves to help them in the running of the farm.

In his youth, Frank was said to be a taciturn, withdrawn Bible-reading boy. He developed an interest in his late father’s sizeable library, particularly the works of William Shakespeare. Frank reportedly wanted to become a school teacher. Quite to the contrary, Jesse was described as generous, noble-hearted, and assertive, with a prankish charm. Dr. Samuel taught both boys horse-riding and shooting skills. Both boys worked on the farm through their teenage years, enjoying a normal family life.

In 1861, when Frank turned eighteen, any thoughts of pursuing a higher education came to an end when Missouri became rife with the conflict and violence of the Civil War. Missouri was torn in two directions – the majority of the state’s settlers came from the south, yet her economy was linked directly to the north.

Though Missouri voted against a secession from the Union, there were a significant number of people with Confederate sympathies in the state which led to the formation of two separate governments with different allegiances. The James family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, had been slave-owners for years which formed their allegiance. Missourians would serve in the armies of both sides of the war until its end in 1865; Frank joined the Missouri State Guard on May 4, 1861, fighting for the Confederacy.

In 1862, the illegitimate son of Dr. Archie Reuban Samuel is born out of wedlock by one of the slaves. The mulatto boy was raised as part of the Samuel family. 

While in the Missouri State Guard, Frank served in the Battle of Lexington where an estimated 1,774 Union troops lost their lives. A large victory for the State Guard, the Confederates took control of Southwestern Missouri in October, 1861.

William Quantrill

William Quantrill

At some point after the battle Frank returned home, presumably because of injury or illness. There he was arrested by a local militia of Union supporters. He was released when he signed a statement of allegiance to the Union. But by July, 1862 he had instead joined the Missouri Partisan Ranger’s of William Clark Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders were Confederacy supporters who used Guerrilla tactics. They were active in the Border War between Missouri and Kansas and were attacking both the regular Union army and various militia of Union supporters active in the two states.

Quantrill’s raids gained the attention of other desperados. By 1863, Quantrill recruited others who joined his company including “Bloody” Bill Anderson, the James brothers, and the Younger Brothers. In the summer of 1863 Quantrill set his sites on Lawrence, Kansas – the location of his most infamous destruction.

Early on the morning of August 21, 1863, Quantrill along with his murderous force of about 300, descended on the still sleeping town of Lawrence. Incensed by the free-state headquarters town, Quantrill set out on his revenge against the Jayhawker community.

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