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Missouri ~ Jesse James, Bandit or Folk Hero?

Updated on August 6, 2017
Peggy W profile image

I live in Houston, and I have worked as a nurse. My interests include art, traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and our wonderful pets.

The log cabin part of the house is where Jesse James was born in Kearney, Missouri.
The log cabin part of the house is where Jesse James was born in Kearney, Missouri. | Source

Kearney, Missouri

Jesse James and his brother Frank were born during the strife of the Civil War in American history and circumstances helped to shape their lives. Were they folk heroes as some thought or were they simply robbers and bandits who had gone astray?

The legends about these two brothers are widespread and persist despite facts.

The log cabin part of the home in Kearney, Missouri was where Jesse was born in 1847 to Zerelda and Robert James.

Robert James was a Baptist preacher who ended up owning a 275 acre farm with some sheep and cattle. They also had seven slaves who assisted with the farm labor.

The (Jesse) James Farmhouse

Click thumbnail to view full-size
My mother and niece waiting for the tour to startOne view of the houseAnother view...
My mother and niece waiting for the tour to start
My mother and niece waiting for the tour to start | Source
One view of the house
One view of the house | Source
Another view...
Another view... | Source

Family History

Robert left his family consisting of three children and wife behind to join in the California gold rush in 1850 which is where he died at age 32 of some gold camp plague.

Although his family was left rather well off for that day and time, this left his children fatherless.

Zerelda was a strong willed woman from all accounts and her boys could do no wrong in her opinion.

Zerelda married a local farmer by the name of Benjamin Simms but apparently he was not a good father figure and a divorce would have ensued, but he died prior to that occurrence.

Her third marriage was more successful. Dr. Reuben Samuel was a physician who preferred to be engaged in farming.

This suited Zerelda as she liked her husband to stay closer to home than her first minister husband had been able to do.

The Samuel's proceeded to have 4 children together. At the time of the first birth, a girl by the name of Sarah, Jesse was already 11 years of age and his brother Frank was almost 16.

Narrated history of Jesse James

Jesse and Frank were hearty farm boys and they quite naturally learned how to hunt and became proficient at handling guns and knives. The James boys had also grown up knowing how to ride horses.

But circumstances were about to change their normal rural farming existence. The ensuing Civil War would not only leave scars all across the American landscape, but it forever changed this family.


The American Civil War

Missouri was a so called border state leading up to the Civil War. There were anti-slavery states surrounding them on three sides. In Clay County where Jesse and his family lived, 25% of the population were slaves. So this was a well developed way of life for these farmers and they weren't about to be ordered and told that they would have to change their means of making a living.

Pro and anti-slavery militias had been formed and much guerrilla warfare ensued between the border states with civilians being killed and homes being ransacked and looted. Emotions were high and one dastardly act gave reason for another to be initiated.

Missouri ultimately sided with the North and the Union but families were torn apart in making the decision of which side to take on this issue. The slaves were well treated on the James Farm and even stayed there by choice after the Civil War was ended and they were officially freed.

Frank James (Jesse's older brother) had joined the secessionist Frank Drew Lobbs Army and fought on the Confederate side. He fought at the battle of Wilson's Creek but soon became ill and went home to recover.

Frank was not at home when soldiers from the Union army tried to capture him. They supposedly whipped Jesse; abused his mother and hung his step-father twice in an effort to gain information about Frank's whereabouts all to no avail. This certainly spurred Jesse's hatred of the Union side and he soon joined guerrillas fighting for the Confederates.

His step-father did not die at that time. Jesse's mother nursed him back to health but he was never mentally the same after the attempted hangings.

Jesse did his part to fight against the Union soldiers and was almost killed with a severe chest wound in the process. A cousin of his helped nurse him back to health and that cousin Zerelda eventually became his wife bearing him two children.

After the Civil War, the brothers joined in with other discontented young men and formed gangs who started robbing banks, stagecoaches and trains.

Jesse James Portrait
Jesse James Portrait | Source

The Legend

Jesse and his gang were outlaws and became well known for their escapades of bank hold ups and other robberies. Unfortunately over the course of time some bank clerks were killed during the commission of their crimes.

John Newman Edwards who was the editor and founder of the Kansas City Times newspaper had agreed to publish letters from Jesse James stating his being innocent of charges. Jesse laid out the case that he was not responsible for the crimes of which he was accused and this may have actually been correct in many instances.

The public who read these newspapers started to identify with Jesse James and his brother Frank who repeated many times that they would turn themselves in to authorities except for the fact that they feared instant retribution and felt as though they would never get a fair trial.


As the legend grew of the James Gang and the James - Younger Gang (which Frank and Jesse had also joined at one time), they were blamed for robberies all the way from Iowa to Texas and from Kansas to West Virginia. They literally could not have been in all those places at the same time according to eyewitness accounts placing them at each robbery. Thus their reputations kept growing.

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was enlisted to try and capture Jesse James and other members of the gang. He had escaped often and at one point, Allan Pinkerton took on the assignment almost as if it was a personal vendetta.

Large rewards were placed upon their heads for their capture.

At one point the Pinkerton Agency got word that Jesse was in his home and an explosive incendiary device was thrown into the house. As was the case in so many instances, the tip was wrong and Jesse was not there.

But the explosion killed his half brother Archie and damage to his mother's arm caused it to be amputated in order to save her life.

Of course the newspapers picked up this account and the public outcry resulted in rewards ultimately being reduced when posting wanted fliers.

In the meantime stories flourished...most of them fictional...regarding the James brothers and their escapades. Some of the accounts portrayed them as good guys who only robbed from the rich giving to the poor. None of this can be documented as ever having actually taken place.

After both brothers had married they tried to settle down living under assumed names. They each had families and children at this point in their lives. Jesse used the name of Thomas Howard. Frank, his brother, became known as B.J. Woodson.

But the lure of doing occasional robberies was in Jesse's blood. Many of his other gang members had been captured through the years or killed.

He had taken up with a couple of brothers by the names of Robert and Charley Ford. Unbeknown to Jesse, Robert was in collusion with the Governor of Missouri to claim the reward for capturing Jesse James.

Quick sketch of the framed picture that Jesse was dusting when he was shot.
Quick sketch of the framed picture that Jesse was dusting when he was shot. | Source

One day when Jesse and the Ford brothers were making preparations for another robbery, Jesse supposedly stopped to dust a picture frame inside his home. Bob Ford took the opportunity to shoot Jesse in the back of his head and Jesse died.

The outlaw Robert Ford, who lived from 1860 to 1892, in an undated photograph by an unknown author reportedly posing with the weapon he used to assassinate Jesse James.
The outlaw Robert Ford, who lived from 1860 to 1892, in an undated photograph by an unknown author reportedly posing with the weapon he used to assassinate Jesse James. | Source

He was identified by his Civil War wounds and the tip of a finger that was missing. The public was incensed at this cowardly act. The Ford brothers were actually charged with murder but were exonerated in the end.

His mother Zerelda Samuel had his body buried on the James Farm where she could keep watch over it. She was afraid because of the notoriety people might have tried to snatch Jesse's body. Crowds of people did come to visit Jesse's grave and Zerelda was there to tell each person the story of her very good son who had been forced to become a person living outside of the law due to circumstances beyond his control.

An interesting side note: The average coffin in those days cost $25. Jesse's coffin cost $250 and was paid for by the State of Missouri as Jesse was considered to be somewhat of a hero.

Frank James who lived quietly finally gave himself up to the law and with the help of a brilliant legal team was acquitted of all charges. He ended up his life hosting thousands of visitors to the farm where he and his famous brother had grown up.

Jesse's body was finally moved into the town of Kearney to rest beside his wife upon her death and was interred in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in 1902. He has a Confederate gravestone marking the head of his grave and that of his wife.

My mother, niece and I visited his grave as well as his the graves of his half brother, Archie and his mother and step-father when we stopped in Kearney to learn more about Jesse James and see his birthplace.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Jesse's mother's gravestone in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in KearneyJesse's step-father's gravesite
Jesse's mother's gravestone in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney
Jesse's mother's gravestone in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Kearney | Source
Jesse's step-father's gravesite
Jesse's step-father's gravesite | Source

Because of so many romanticized versions of stories told and the Robin Hood image that was portrayed, the legend of Jesse James and his brother Frank will continue to live. His story is forever intertwined with the Civil War and its aftermath.

Claybrook House

This is the Claybrook House in Kearney, Missouri.  Restored pre-Civil War mansion built in 1858.  It is a fine example of antebellum Missouri architecture, and at one time was the home of Jesse James' daughter, Mary James Barr.
This is the Claybrook House in Kearney, Missouri. Restored pre-Civil War mansion built in 1858. It is a fine example of antebellum Missouri architecture, and at one time was the home of Jesse James' daughter, Mary James Barr. | Source
Kearney, Missouri:
Kearney, MO, USA

get directions

What do you think of Jesse James?

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Jesse James (movie) trailer

© 2009 Peggy Woods

Comments are welcomed.

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    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Mary,

      We learned more about him also than we had previously known by visiting these sites and taking a tour. Jesse James and his gang are almost legendary...but much of what people credit to him and his gang is not based on fact. In fact many more robberies were attributed to him than humanly possible from what we were told. Such is the stuff of legends! Thanks for your interest, comment, vote and share.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Well, Peggy, this is a very interesting Hub about Jesse James. I never read much about him. I probably have learned more about him on this Hub than I ever knew. I did see a movie once about Jessie James, but not the same movie on your video. Yours has Brad Pitt. I love Brad Pitt. I'll see if I can get that on NetFlix.

      I voted this UP, and will share, Mary

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Elsie,

      I surely can't argue with that. Innocent people were killed in the course of the James brothers and their gang robbing banks, etc. All of the circumstances combined have made this into a fairy-tale of sorts, although it was certainly all too real. Thanks for your comment.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      They killed innocent people. End of story

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Billy,

      Was that a movie or real life...Jesse James marrying Sandra Bullock? From the sound of what you wrote, it sounds factual. Obviously I haven't kept up with Sandra Bullock's life, if so.

      The Jesse James who robbed banks, etc., was blamed for far more than he and his gang could possibly have accomplished. That story seemed to become enlarged and embellished with time.

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      7 years ago

      Seems like he was a bad guy just like his supposed relative Jesse James the mechanic who found fame marrying Sandra Bullock and then cheating and being a worm there - the apple never fell far from that tree even generations on it seems.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi again dahoglund,

      Will see what you have written about Jesse James and others. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for the compliment on my writing.

      If you want my own take on Jesse James you might want to look at my hub "Heroes, Outlaws and Other Folk."

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi dahoglund,

      Glad you liked this hub about Jesse James and the times in which he and his siblings grew up. like the subject outlaws. How do you feel about inlaws? Haha!

      You are a very good writer so I take your comment as a great compliment. Thanks!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Outlaws are one of my favorite subjects. You are a great writer and historian.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago


      Love the Hub!  Filled with fascinating information that I did not know.  I really enjoyed it.  Thanks for the hard work. It was worth it.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello RedElf,

      You said it...Jesse James was certainly a "colorful outlaw." Glad that you found this interesting. Thanks for leaving a comment.

    • RedElf profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      WOW - lots of great info here! I have always been fascinated by some of your more colorful "outlaws". Thanks for all the interesting background, and your slant on the topic.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Kiran, Being in a different part of the world, you undoubtedly would not have grown up hearing the story about the James boys like we did. Very romaticized stories! So happy that I could share this with you. Thanks for reading and leaving your comment.

    • kiran8 profile image


      9 years ago from Mangalore, India

      Great hub peggy ! very informative esp for me...

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for reading and leaving your comment, shamlabboush.

    • shamelabboush profile image


      9 years ago

      I heard a lot of this man and honestly, I have big respect for him. Nice Hub Peggy.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi William,

      You are indeed the wordsmith. The "unfortunate" thing about clerks being killed in bank robberies was that anyone was killed, period.

      As to their slaves being "treated well" I was just referring to the conditions in which they supposedly lived and worked. The fact that they elected to stay on the James farm after the Civil War says something. Now...does this mean that slavery of any kind was "good" in any sense of the word? Of course not!

      My original title was simply Jesse James but for people that had no idea of who he was, I thought I would add the rest to lure them into reading the article. Think I'll go tweak it a bit right now so that people don't misunderstand.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Tom, Glad you liked it. Thanks for the comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Candie,

      I fully agree with you as to their having had a choice. I am beginning to think that people are inferring from my title that I personally thought that these "good boys" were forced into becoming bandits. Of course not! I just meant for the title to show the effect that the James brothers had on people not affected by their crimes. They were romanticized and thus, many people thought of them as folk heros. Many people profited by portraying them as such. Thanks for leaving your comment.

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Pete,

      Naturally I come from a part of the country and from people who would have abhorred slavery, but that being said, the reasons why some people entered the Confederacy was a mixture of reasons. It was not solely the slave issue.

      From what I read, these early skirmishes became similar to the famous "Hatfields and McCoys" in many cases. Jesse was not fighting but the Union soldiers that came to his house looking for his brother did some pretty horrific things. This alone could have turned him to begin fighting on the other side.

      Yes, I agree with you that they were both criminals who should have been brought to justice. The legends of these two are exaggerated and they gained some sympathy from many readers because of many things...included of which was the treatment their family suffered.

      Thanks for reading as always and leaving your comment. I can't wait to read the next episode of your science fiction fantasy!

    • Peggy W profile imageAUTHOR

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hello RKHenry, Glad you liked this bit of history. Some of it was told to us when we toured the house and other bits of it was gleaned from reading other accounts. Thanks for commenting.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Good history, Peggy W, but I'll always believe that Jesse and Frank were simply bad guys, although there's little doubt that the Civil War and other circumstances affected their behavior. I don't think their crimes are mitigated by the view that it was "unfortunate" some bank clerks were killed while they were robbing banks -- or that their slaves were "well treated"? But they certainly were fascinating men and, deservedly or not, have made their mark as legendary Americans.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image

      Tom Rubenoff 

      9 years ago from United States

      Well written article about a fascinating time in American History. Thanks for writing it.

    • Candie V profile image

      Candie V 

      9 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

      History is a tough subject to cover. There's no way to know how they felt, we just have the tale of their actions. They were products of their time, to be sure. They did have a choice, I believe, we all do. We only know of the way they went.

    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 

      9 years ago

      The James boys were criminals. They were also traitors when they turned their back on their country to join the armed rebellion against it. When the issue came to keep slaves or change their ways it was more important to fight to enslave people than it was to find another way to farm. That is more criminal than the banks they robbed.

    • RKHenry profile image


      9 years ago from Neighborhood museum in Somewhere, USA

      I love history. I also love the fact that I can count of your delightful hubs as a new found source to knowledge. Great writing. Excellent HUB!


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