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The Younger Brothers - Villians or Victims of Circumstance?

Updated on November 12, 2015

An Abnormal Discovery

Being a harmonica player in a rural area, I was asked regularly to play a final tribute to someone at a graveside service. This time it was a friend. I wasn't surprised to be asked by the family to play one of the deceased's favorite songs.The burial would be in the very old Yeater Cemetery in St. Clair County, Missouri.

I arrived with the undertaker a little early on a very nice Summer afternoon. I noticed something in the cemetery that was very strange. All of the graves were in a straight line except for one. This grave was at a noticeable angle to the rest.

Walking over to satisfy my curiosity, I found myself standing at the graveside of John Younger; one of the notorious Younger Brothers that had been involved with Frank and Jessie James in the late 1800's. Being raised in the area, I had heard much about the local history but the most notable and talked about history was the Missouri-Kansas Border War and the James-Younger Gang.

There are two different stories about John Younger's grave being at the strange angle. One story is that he was buried here by his brother Jim after a shootout with Pinkerton detectives.. The other story is that John was buried at an angle because it is believed that only the souls that are buried in a straight line will be resurrected on Judgment Day. At this late date the real story will probably never be known.

This discovery made me very curious about the Younger brothers. The brothers spent much time in my hometown area. I had heard many conflicting views about this family and decided to research some facts on my own. Being a topic that was extremely political in it's day, research was challenging. You can find answers, but only by getting several answers to the same question can you get a more accurate answer. I pressed on.

The early James-Younger Gang.  L-R; Frank James, Jessie James, Cole Younger, and Jim Younger
The early James-Younger Gang. L-R; Frank James, Jessie James, Cole Younger, and Jim Younger | Source

Life in the Younger home.

To find out how the stories, legends, and reputations came into being; you have to go back to an earlier time. The parents of the Younger brothers were Henry Washington Younger and Busheba Leighton Younger. Henry was a very successful farmer near Kansas City, Missouri. The couple had a very large farm. Henry was also a mail agent with the Federal Government. The couple had a total of 14 children, but only 4 of the sons and several daughters lived long enough to reach adulthood. Mr. and Mrs. younger made sure that their children were well educated.

As the young United States was growing, it was trying to balance itself between free states and slave holding states. Missouri was one of the few border states that tolerated both views, but was mainly a free state.. Henry was a Union sympathizer and felt that slavery should be abolished. His children were raised to appreciate his views.

A young John Younger.
A young John Younger. | Source

A brewing storm of hate and discontent.

When the Kansas territory was to become a state in 1854, a vote would be held to decide if the state would be a free state. This was a concern to many but mainly abolitionists. To "help the voting along", people traveled from various states to the new territory, posing as Kansas residents, to cast their vote.

Most travelers would take a river boat to Kansas via the Missouri River. As the boats traveled through Missouri, plantations were spotted along the way and many abolitionists made an assumption that all Missourians had slave labor and plantations. This was not an accurate assumption but as far as the river travelers were concerned, it was.

As people arrived in the Kansas territory, they already had a seething anger toward Missourians. Missourians were captured, maimed, and sometimes executed by abolitionist John Brown as well as others. Some of the Missouri captives were abolitionists as well but many would shoot first and ask questions later.

Many Missourians began to retaliate by raiding many of the camps and shooting innocent people as well. This problem would only get bigger. It is almost as if the original issue of Kansas becoming a state had been forgotten. The focus turned into a border conflict between Missouri and Kansas. And conflict it would be!

Robert Younger
Robert Younger | Source

Jayhawkers and bushwackers.

With the growing conflict, it was deemed necessary to create a service to keep the peace in the Kansas Territory. These enlisted men would be known as Federals. Many of these regiments would be unsupervised by the government. Some of them went on the offensive into Missouri to burn homes, kill residents, and to free any slaves if any. They used their uniforms to try to legalize their actions. This inspired the 1976 movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.


These Federal officers that held raids in Missouri became known as Jayhawkers. Bands of Missourians would also travel into the Kansas Territory to conduct their own raids. They became known as bushwackers. This would be a war that occurred within the American Civil War. This lawlessness began before the Civil War and continued for a period of time after.

James Younger
James Younger | Source

Making enemies out of allies.

Many Missourians were abolitionists. Among them was the Henry Younger family. As the raids on both sides intensified, Henry Youngers farm became a regular target for some of the Jayhawk raids. The family was looted, farm buildings torn down, and his livestock were stolen or shot dead.

Many of the Jayhawk leaders like General James Lane were criticized by the Union Army because they were launching attacks on anything in Missouri and turning fellow Unionists into bushwackers. Growing tired of being raided by people who were supposed to have the same view, the Younger household began to change.

A Jayhawk raid on a Missouri town.
A Jayhawk raid on a Missouri town. | Source

The death of Henry Washington Younger - The turning point.

Henry Washington Younger managed to keep retaliation at bay. He still supported the Federal Government and served as the second Mayor of Harrisonville, Missouri. He tried to just keep moving forward with his life.

On July 20, 1862, Henry was on a business trip to Kansas City. He was shot three times in the back and killed by a group of Jayhawks. His son Robert who was nine years old was present and saw his father murdered.

This act created a turning point in the lives of the four sons. Each son would deal with the situation in slightly different ways..

Cole Younger in later years.
Cole Younger in later years. | Source

Thomas Coleman (Cole) Younger 1844-1916

Cole was the oldest of the four brothers. As his father kept getting looted, it was Cole who first went against his father's wishes and joined William Quantrill's raiders. His anger with the destruction of the family farm caused him to seek retaliation. Cole was involved in the 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas. At least 200 men and boys were killed and the city burned to the ground in this raid. This was for the retaliation of Union General James Lane's burning of Osceola,Missouri. Lane's men took 11 men out in the street and shot them. Afterward, Lane's men looted and burned the town to the ground. Lane's raid took place on September 23, 1861.

Cole joined the Confederate Army and was quickly promoted to the rank of Captain. He was sent to Louisiana for a short term and then to California to help recruit. At the end of the Civil War he returned home to find the family farm in total shambles. At this point Cole joined Jessie and Frank James and entered into a life of banditry.

The first known robbery that Cole was involved in was in 1868. In 1874, the Pinkerton Detectives began to pursue Cole and his brothers. His banditry career ended with the failed attempt to rob the Northfield, Minnesota Bank in 1876. The bank was owned by Radical Republicans that Cole and others had a grievance with. Cole was captured and imprisoned. He was paroled in 1901 and pardoned in 1903.

He returned to Missouri to start a wild west show with Frank James. He traveled on a circuit lecturing about the evils of crime. He had become a respectable citizen. He died in 1916. His body is buried in the Lee's Summit Historical Cemetery in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

A young Cole Younger
A young Cole Younger | Source

James Hardin Younger 1848-1902

Jim Younger, followed behind his older brother Cole in joining Quantrill's Raiders. Quantrill was on his way to Washington, D.C. to assassinate President Lincoln. Quantrill and his group turned back but found themselves in an ambush with a Union battalion. Quantrill was killed and Jim Younger was captured in May of 1865. Jim was imprisoned until the end of the war.

Jim tried to start a horse ranch after the war but wound up joining his brother Cole in the James-Younger Gang. Jim was with his brother John when he was killed. Jim was captured along with his brother Cole, when they tried to rob the Northfield, Minnesota Bank.

He was paroled in 1901 and tried to marry a writer that he had gotten attached to. His parole terms wouldn't allow the marriage and Jim took his own life. His body is buried in the Lee's Summit Historical Cemetery in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

Source

Robert Ewing Younger 1853-1889

Bob was only eight years old when the American Civil War started. He stayed at home to assist his father and mother on the family farm. He was with his father when he was murdered and also saw a group of Jayhawk raiders burn his home to the ground.

After the Civil War had ended, Bob would join the James-Younger Gang in 1873. Bob Younger's bandit career would end with the attempted robbing of the Northfield, Minnesota bank. He was wounded in the elbow and the chest in the exchange of gunfire and received a life sentence in the Stillwater, Minnesota state prison. He died in prison of tuberculosis on September 16,1889. His body is buried in the Lee's Summit Historical Cemetery in Lee's Summit, Missouri.

John Harrison Younger 1846-1874

John, like his brother Jim, stayed on the family farm during the Civil War. After his father was killed, John looked after his mother and sisters. In January of 1866, John along with his mother and brother Bob, made a trip to Independence, Missouri to buy some winter supplies. An ex-soldier approached the wagon and started making comments about their brother, Cole. John told the soldier to be quiet but instead the soldier started slapping John in the face with a frozen fish. John shot the man between the eyes. The soldier had a slingshot around his wrist so the shooting was ruled as self-defense.

John and Bob took their mother and headed to Texas to try to find a peaceful life. It wasn't long before Bersheba became ill and the sons took her back to Missouri to die. As soon as they arrived, they were harassed by a group of men. Bob was knocked unconscious and John was hanged four times and cut down just before he died. John also was cut several times by knives. He would survive. With their mother looking on, she died shortly afterward on June 6, 1870, her fifty fourth birthday.

On March 17, 1874 John and his brother Jim were on their way to visit some friends in Roscoe, Missouri. Three men rode up to them and started asking directions. John and Jim detected that the three men were lawmen and opened fire on them. John was shot in the neck and died. His brother Jim buried his body in a shallow grave and then later moved the body to another gravesite along the road. The grave was unmarked so that lawmen wouldn't easily find it. John remains buried near this same location.

This leaves one to wonder.

After learning about the conditions at the time, the influences, and the terror that was inflicted on citizens on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas border; we have to think about how we would respond if we were in the same situation. History will record certain things but sometimes leaves out situations that changed people, especially if it was a political conflict.

In 1854 to 1865, this area was still the edge of the frontier. Many people took the law into their own hands. Others took advantage of the fact that there was little to no law enforcement.

The scars remain in this part of the country. The monuments, the graves, the old buildings are a testament to what happened here. Many Americans were killed by other Americans. Some had opposing views and some did not. While the American Civil War is known to many, the Missouri-Kansas Border War is know by few.

History labels the Younger brothers as outlaws. If the government at the time had a better presence to protect the citizens from lawlessness, I think the outcome might have been different.

Sources and further reading.

  • Wikipedia.com - The Missouri-Kansas Border War, The Younger Brothers
  • Legends of America.com - The younger Brothers
  • Britannica.com - The Younger Brothers.
  • The Outlaw Youngers by Marley Brant
  • pbs.org/Why were the Youngers put in Jail?
  • The Burning of Osceola by Richard F. Sunderwirth
  • The History of St. Clair and Henry County, Missouri

As with any political conflict, research requires several sources to get a better picture. Much of the information can have a slant to the story. The winner of the conflict always gets to tell the story their way.

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    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 19 months ago from Michigan

      Thanks, Besarien, for your condolences about my friend. Being raised in this area, the history was all around me. There are still some very "strained" feelings toward folks from Kansas which went as far as trying to get the University of Kansas to change their mascot, the Jayhawk. This was a very rough period for Americans in the area and these events operated under the shadows of the Civil War. Thanks again for your comments and being an unapologetic history nut. I am one too!

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 19 months ago

      First of all I'm sorry to hear about your friend. I much admire the talent to bring families musical solace. That means more at such a time than most people can express.

      Secondly I am an unapologetic history nut. I had heard about the off-kilter burial but in relation to some far out History Channel treasure theory. I figured it was more likely they were digging around a big tock or a root, myself. I like your theory about making sure they never saw that guy again, even on judgment day. This was a wonderful, thoughtful, well-researched hub that brought me back to that time. I'm glad you are the curious type!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks Mel! I was raised in that part of the country and many stories are still passed down from personal family accounts. You are right in that Americans need to reread some history. Thanks again.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      This is a perfect example of what happens when extremists dictate policy, and Americans would do well to reread this page of history. Great hub!

    • MHiggins profile image
      Author

      Michael Higgins 2 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks stevarino for reading my hub, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, there were definitely others like the James brothers, Anderson, and Quantrill. There is a large cave near where I grew up where the Youngers used to hide out. There is still a hitching post where they used to tie up their horses. Thanks again for stopping by.

    • stevarino profile image

      Steve Dowell 2 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Quantrill, "Bloody Bill" Anderson and other notorious Confederate Cavalry under Mosby and Morgan as well as the James brothers all came out of this area of conflict if I'm not mistaken. A fantastic read about an interesting period of our nation's growing pains.

      Very informative, I love it -

      Thanks!