Jesse James grew up both lucky and unlucky. His father, Baptist preacher Robert Sallee James, owned a prosperous farm in Clay County. His slaves cultivated hemp and other cash crops, and Jesse and his older siblings Frank and Susan grew up in comfort. Robert kept a large library and both his sons became avid readers. Frank loved Shakespeare, while Jesse was more devoted to the Bible and newspapers.
The boys’ luck quickly changed. Although Robert had founded a successful Baptist church and was respected by his neighbors, he wasn’t content. In 1850 he decided to go to the gold fields of California to preach to the miners. Jesse James, then only two years old, clutched his leg and begged him not to go. Robert went anyway, and within a few months had died.
This was a financial disaster for the James family. It turned out Robert had left many debts and some of the family possessions had to be auctioned off. Jesse’s mother Zerelda, a tough Southern woman, married a wealthy farmer named Benjamin Simms, a man twice her age. This saved the financial situation but did not stabilize the children’s lives. Simms rejected his stepchildren and made them move into a relative’s home. Simms soon died by falling off a horse and Zerelda, showing little grief, married mild-mannered physician Reuben Samuel. The children moved back to the farm and Samuel treated them as if they were his own.
All should have gone well, but Clay County was on the border of the Kansas Territory. In the 1850s, there was a bitter fight over whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave state or a free state. Immigrants from the north arrived armed, ready to make Kansas free, while Missouri “border ruffians” crossed the border to disrupt local elections and skirmish with the Free-Staters. Kansas “Jayhawkers” raided Missouri, freeing slaves and killing slave owners. As slave owners themselves, the James family wanted Kansas to become a slave state. The majority of Missourians agreed with them, although a growing minority were outspoken abolitionists.
%Gallery-108204%Bleeding Kansas, as the fight was called, was the precursor to the Civil War. When the Confederacy formed in 1861, Missouri’s governor and much of the legislature wanted to join, but they met fierce resistance. Soon there were two Missouri state governments on opposite sides of the Civil War. Jesse was still a boy, but Frank was old enough to enlist in the Missouri State Guard, a Confederate outfit. He saw fighting at Wilson’s Creek and Lexington, both Confederate victories, then fell ill and was left behind and captured. Frank swore loyalty to the Union and went home, but when the Unionist state government required that all able-bodied men join a local Union militia, he fled and became a guerrilla under the command of William Quantrill.
Quantrill’s band of guerrillas, often called “bushwhackers”, terrorized Unionist civilians and attacked Union patrols. They became famous for their lightning raids and merciless persecution of Unionist civilians. Their worst atrocity was attacking Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolitionism, and killing 200 mostly unarmed men and boys.
Everybody knew Frank rode with Quantrill. The local Union militia, the same one Frank had refused to join, showed up at the James farm. They had heard Frank and the bushwhackers were camped nearby. Finding 15 year-old Jesse working in the field, they demanded to know where Frank was. When he refused to tell, they beat him. The militia had better luck with Reuben Samuel. They put a noose around his neck, threw the rope over a high branch, and hauled him up. Just before he passed out, they dropped him back down, then hauled him up again. Eventually Samuel revealed where Frank was. The militia rode off in pursuit, but the bushwhackers got away.
Jesse never forgot that beating, and when he was sixteen he joined the bushwackers. He became one of the toughest of a tough crew and participated in the Centralia Massacre in 1864. His mother Zerelda stayed at home throughout the war, helping her boys on the sly and giving the militia a severe tongue lashing any time they appeared on her property. A local Union commander called her “one of the worst women in the state.”
After that the James farm never knew peace. Frank and Jesse, unable or unwilling to adjust to life after the war, continued their guerrilla activities as outlaws. They lived more or less openly on the farm. Many of their neighbors supported them as loyal Southerners, while others were too afraid to cross them. One night in 1874, a group of Pinkerton detectives, thinking Frank and Jesse were home, snuck up to a window and threw a bomb inside. The explosion mangled Zerelda’s arm and killed eight-year-old Archie Samuel, Frank and Jesse’s half brother.
In 1882 Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford and Frank gave himself up shortly thereafter. He was found innocent of all charges (this was a time before fingerprinting and CCTV) and settled down to a peaceful life. Zerelda stayed at the farm until her death in 1911, giving tours of the farm for the curious. She even sold pebbles from Jesse’s grave for 25 cents. When she ran out of pebbles, she’d go down to the nearby creek and get some more.
At the James Farm Museum just outside of Kearney you can still buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave, and they still cost 25 cents. The visitor’s center explains the life and times of Frank and Jesse and displays many artifacts from the family. Hidden behind a screen of trees the James farm looks much as it was, lovingly restored in the 1970s by James devotees and filled with family heirlooms. The legend lives on there, as it does in many other spots where the James brothers fought, robbed, and died in Missouri.
Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.
Coming up next: Jesse James robs his first bank!