I am a bonded highwayman
Cole Younger is my name
Through many a temptation
I’ve brought my friends to shame.
For the robbing of the Northfield bank
They say I can’t deny
And now I am a poor prisoner
In the Stillwater Jail I lie.
— Excerpt from a ballad written by Cotton Davis Woodville, 1941
The infamous Younger Brothers of Jackson County, Missouri, sons of a prosperous slave-owning farmer, would grow up to become some of the most well-known Civil War guerrillas and outlaws in history when they joined up with Frank and Jesse James to form the James-Younger Gang.
The four brothers — Thomas Coleman, James Hardin, John Harrison, and Robert Ewing, were from a large family of 14 children born to Henry Washington and Busheba Fristoe Younger. Henry came to the Kansas City, Missouri area from Kentucky where he met Busheba Leighton Fristoe, the daughter of a prominent area farmer. The two soon married, settled on a farm, and began to have children. Henry was quickly successful in his farming endeavors and began to accumulate quite a bit of land, as well as expanding into business ventures, which included earning a contract as a “mail agent” with the federal government.
The many children of the prosperous Henry Younger were well-educated and lived a good life up until the time that major strife began to break out in the area during what would become known as the Kansas-Missouri Border War. Kansas, established as a “free-state,” was in constant conflict with its neighbor of Missouri, which was primarily populated with slave-owning families. Despite the fact that Henry owned a couple of slaves, he was a Union sympathizer, believing that the union should be preserved and that slavery should be abolished.
His beliefs; however, would not stop raids on his farm by Kansas guerillas, which were referred to as “Jayhawkers.” During these raids, his stock and wagons would be stolen and his property destroyed. These actions began to turn his sons against the Union and more specifically, against the Kansas guerillas. After watching the violence for years, Cole Younger went against his father’s beliefs and sided with the Confederates, becoming a guerilla himself, under William Quantrill. When his father was killed by a detachment of Union militiamen in July 1862, Cole’s anger was fired even further against the Union and the Kansas Jayhawkers. On August 21, 1863, he participated in the notorious raid against Lawrence, Kansas where some 200 men and boys were killed and the town was ransacked and burned.
In 1864, Cole’s brother, James, also joined up with Quantrill’s band and Cole moved on to serve in the regular Confederate Army. He was soon made captain and led his men into Louisiana and later into California, where he remained until the close of the war. Cole returned to his home in 1865. In the meantime, James had been captured by Union troops in the same ambush that resulted in William Quantrill’s death. He was then sent to Alton prison until the end of the war.
Cole and James returned to the family farm to find it in ruins and the once profitable business long gone. Though brothers John and Bob had done their best to maintain the farm, the ravages of war had taken their toll.
An embittered Cole continued to associate with his old war comrades and in the midst of the tumultuous Reconstruction in Missouri, some former soldiers turned outlaws. Claiming to be taking revenge against Yankee capitalist banks and railroads, the James-Younger Gang made its first robbery on February 13, 1866, when the men stormed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri taking over $60,000 in cash and bonds.
For the next several years, the gang, which included such notorious men as Jesse and Frank James, Clell Miller, Bill Chadwell, and Charlie Pitts, also added James, John and Bob Younger to their ranks. The large, loosely organized group of former guerrillas carried out robberies and hold-ups throughout the South and Midwest. The Younger brothers took part in an estimated 12 bank robberies, seven train robbers, and four stagecoach robberies, leaving behind at least 11 dead citizens.
In the meantime, in March 1874, Jim and John were involved in a shoot-out near Roscoe, Missouri with Pinkerton Agents. When the smoke cleared, John Younger, St. Clair County Deputy Edwin Daniels and Pinkerton Agent Louis J. Lull were killed, but Jim managed to escape.
However, it was the attempted robbery in Northfield, Minnesota would spell the death of the James-Younger Gang, though a later gang would be formed simply called the James Gang.
After taking the train to Minneapolis in early September 1876, the group split up, with one party going to Mankato and the other to Red Wing, on either side of Northfield. After scouting the area, they attempted to rob the bank on September 7, 1876. Jesse and Frank James, along with Bob Younger, went inside the bank while Cole and Jim Younger, Bill Chadwell, Clell Miller, and Charlie Pitts stood guard outside.
Inside the bank, the three outlaws demanded that the vault be opened and the money surrendered. However, Joseph Lee Heywood, the bank clerk on duty, refused to do so and was shot and killed. Hearing shots, Northfield citizens realized that a robbery was in progress and taking up arms they began to shoot at those outside, killing Miller and Chadwell and hitting Cole Younger in the thigh. In the meantime, Jesse, Frank and Bob Younger fled from the bank, and Bob was shot in the right elbow. Returning the fire, the gang killed Nicholas Gustavson, a Swedish man who was caught in the crossfire.
The surviving gang members then took off and were quickly pursued by posses. Near Mankato, the gang split up with the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts going one way and the James brothers, another. After covering some 400 miles in the search for the outlaws, the posse caught up with the Youngers near Madelia, Minnesota on September 21, 1876, and after a gunfight erupted, Charlie Pitts was killed and the Younger brothers further wounded. Finally, they surrendered. Tried in Faribault, Minnesota, they were found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in the state prison at Stillwater. Bob Younger died in prison in 1889; Jim was paroled in 1901 but committed suicide the following year; and Cole, who was paroled in 1901 and pardoned in 1903, lived until 1916.