James, Frank and Jesse

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri – Kansas City

Jesse and Frank James, taken in Carolinda, Illinois, in 1872. Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Biographical Information for Alexander Franklin James:
Biographical Information for Jesse Woodson James:
  • Date of birth: September 5, 1847
  • Place of birth: James Farm near Centerville (present-day Kearney, Missouri)
  • Claim to fame: rode with “Bloody Bill” Anderson, Centralia Massacre, bank and train robberies
  • Date of death: April 3, 1882
  • Place of death: his home in St. Joseph, Missouri
  • Cause of death: shot in the back of the head by Robert Ford
  • Final resting place: Mount Olivet Cemetery, Kearney, Missouri

The violence that erupted along the Missouri-Kansas border before the Civil War continued throughout the conflict as Union and Confederate sympathizers waged guerrilla warfare on behalf of their interests. Both sides instigated atrocities against the regular armies and against non-combatants, including women and children. This backdrop of brutality resulted in participants on either side being portrayed as heroes or villains, depending on one’s political perspective, and led to myth-making of a magnitude that is astonishing. Few participants better represent this dichotomy than Frank and Jesse James: they were either guerrillas, robbers, and vengeful murderers or victimized young Robin Hoods, seeking revenge for the atrocities they and their families suffered.

It is easier to trace the origin of the myth of Frank and Jesse James as American Robin Hoods than it is to verify many of the facts, especially those of their early life. Historians have tried but are thwarted by a lack of verifiable data. Rumor and imaginative storytelling, presented as facts by early newspapers and dime store novelists, have been perpetuated and repeated until the weight of the myth far outweighs hard data. The historian William A. Settle, for one, described many of the books and articles about the James brothers as “carelessly written” and “frequently in error, [although] they still claim to be authentic.”

"...the James brothers grew up steeped in Southern tradition."

What is known about the brothers is that they were born in Missouri in 1843 and 1847, respectively. Their father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister who moved to Clay County, Missouri, with his wife, Zerelda Cole James, to assume the pastorate of the New Hope Baptist Church outside of Kearney, Missouri. Robert James was a small slaveholder who, in addition to owning six or seven slaves, accumulated 275 acres of unencumbered farmland, 30 sheep, six head of cattle, three horses, and a yoke of oxen. The area in which they settled was known as Little Dixie, a region along the Missouri River with the highest concentrations of enslaved persons in the state; consequently, the James brothers grew up steeped in Southern tradition.

In addition to Frank and Jesse, there were two other children born to Robert and Zerelda: Robert, who died five days after being born, and Susan. When Robert Sr. died, Zerelda married Benjamin Simms, who is believed to have been harsh to Frank and Jesse, and who Zerelda eventually left. After Simms’s death six months later, Zerelda married Dr. Reuben Samuel, who was reported to have been good to the James children. The Samuels had four more children, Archie, John, Sarah, and Fannie.

Frank James in Confederate cavalry uniform. Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections.

When the Civil War broke out, Frank James served in the Missouri State Guard (MSG). After the First Battle of Lexington, MSG commanders Sterling Price and Claiborne Fox Jackson could not hold their position in Missouri and retreated. Frank, who had fallen ill, surrendered, accepted amnesty, and pledged not to fight against the Union, but he violated his parole and joined William Clarke Quantrill’s band of guerrillas (again, the date and circumstances have not been documented). It is known that Frank was with Quantrill during his raid on Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863. The exact date that Jesse joined the guerrillas is undocumented, but it is known that he and Frank rode with “Bloody Bill” Anderson, a former lieutenant of Quantrill’s, in 1864, after Quantrill’s Raiders splintered into smaller groups. Alongside Anderson, they participated in the Centralia Massacre of 22 out of 23 Union soldiers on the train.

Only myth and oral tradition suggest what impelled the brothers to join the guerrillas, but considering the atrocities committed against the families in Clay County by the Union Army and Kansas jayhawkers alike, it is assumed that the brothers were seeking revenge for some affront to their family or themselves. They were not leaders in the Quantrill or Anderson bands and, despite participation in some atrocities committed by the groups, returned to their family farm at the end of the war without notoriety.

The James brothers lived and worked on the Kearney farm after the war, even joining the local Baptist Church. But lawlessness was still the scourge of the Missouri countryside as bands of wartime irregulars, unable to readjust to civilian life, harassed the citizenry. The state militia was often called in to disrupt the felons, although sometimes the cure was worse than the disease. When and why Frank and Jesse turned to robbery is debated by the many chroniclers of their life. Most of the crimes attributed to them cannot be validated decisively, and again, myth and legend prevail. Regardless, former guerrillas were held accountable for many of the robberies, and men named and hunted by authorities were often former members of Quantrill’s band and known friends and associates of the James brothers. One such, Allan Parmar, even married the James’s sister, Susan.

While some historians question the association of the James brothers with early robberies charged to them at the Clay County Savings Association bank at Liberty, at Russellville, and others, there is general agreement that it was they who robbed the Daviess County Savings Association at Gallatin, Missouri, on December 7, 1869, and killed Captain John W. Sheets. With this crime, the reputation of Frank and Jesse James was solidified and a price put on their heads. Many robberies over the next 13 years were associated with one or both of them, along with their James-Younger Gang.

"Shortly after the fair robbery, the gang took up a new form of thievery – train robbery."

The man most responsible for glorifying the post-war deeds of Frank and Jesse James was John Newman Edwards, editor and co-founder of the Kansas City Times, a former Confederate adjutant for General Joseph O. Shelby and a staunch supporter of the Lost Cause. After the James brothers robbed the Kansas City Industrial Exposition in 1872, Edwards published an editorial, The Chivalry of Crime, in which he downplayed the shooting and wounding of a young girl and—without actually naming them—compared the perpetrators to “men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table . . . .” Edwards contended that these men were ostensibly innocent of crimes after the war because they were forced into a life of banditry when pursued by those seeking revenge on them for their wartime behaviors. The audacity of the crime, which took place at an event with thousands of attendees, contributed equally to Edwards’s mythology. Shortly after the fair robbery, the gang took up a new form of thievery – train robbery. While not the first to do so, they perfected the technique, starting with their first robbery of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad about midway between Council Bluffs and Des Moines, Iowa.

The James brothers were aided and abetted by their neighbors, living openly in Clay County and surrounding areas despite the publicity surrounding their crimes and the rewards offered for their capture. Many in the area felt aggrieved by banks who charged high interest rates and by the railroad companies—for which they were taxed to subsidize—and then charged unreasonable rates to ship their products. This, coupled with Edwards’s glorification of the James gang as Robin Hoods who stole only from Union sympathizers and who had suffered at the hands of Union soldiers, provided Frank and Jesse with a certain amount of protection for many years. Alongside government agents, the private detectives hired by the railroads were stonewalled by the residents of Little Dixie, making the brothers’ capture more difficult. Referring to Jesse James as the “last rebel of the Civil War,” historian T.J. Stiles argues that the anti-Unionist and anti-Reconstruction sentiments urged by Edwards (and the gang itself) were the leading source of support and myth-making for Jesse James. Other historians place more emphasis on public distrust of banks and railroads, but whatever the mechanism, the James brothers managed to craft a public image that elicited sympathy rather than scorn for their crimes.

In 1881, Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, weary of the violence and concerned that Missouri was viewed by Easterners as a home for bandits and miscreants, offered a reward of $5,000 each for Frank or Jesse James delivered to the sheriff of Daviess County, plus a reward of $5,000 each if either was convicted for participating in the train robberies at Glendale or at Winston or for the murder of John W. Sheets, William Westfall, or John McCulloch. Finally, a similar reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone else involved in the crimes.

"The [Ford] brothers were indicted for first degree murder [of Jesse James] and sentenced to hang, but on the very day they were sentenced, Governor Crittenden gave them an unconditional, full pardon."

The reward money proved tempting to Bob Ford, one of the newer members of Jesse’s gang. He talked with his brother Charley, another gang member, about killing Jesse for the reward. Then in January 1882, he met with Governor Crittenden who agreed to give Ford a pardon and the reward money in exchange for his assistance in capturing Jesse. Whether Crittenden knew that Ford’s intention was to assassinate Jesse is not clear. Nonetheless, having gained Jesse’s confidence, Ford spent several days with him and his family in St. Joseph, Missouri. After breakfast on the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse, Bob Ford, and his brother Charles went into the living room. While Jesse’s back was turned, Bob Ford shot him in the back of the head, just behind the ear. The Ford brothers fled the house, wired the governor that Jesse James was dead, and gave themselves up to the authorities in the town. The brothers were indicted for first degree murder and sentenced to hang, but on the very day they were sentenced, Governor Crittenden gave them an unconditional, full pardon.

Initially the public assumed that Frank James would seek revenge for his brother’s death. This was not the case. Instead, with the help of Edwards, who negotiated on his behalf, he arranged to surrender. On October 4, 1882, Frank James, with Edwards at his side, walked into the governor’s office where a group of newspapermen were assembled, and surrendered. He was taken by train to Independence, Missouri, and held in the local jail pending trial. He denied that he had participated in any crimes perpetuated by the band in the four years prior to his surrender.

The sympathy in which Frank and Jesse were held by those in Jackson County who had suffered the abuse of the jayhawkers and the infamous General Order No. 11, made conviction of Frank James problematic. The press argued not only for his acquittal but that his efforts on behalf of the South in the war earned him a “not guilty” verdict. There was also a serious lack of concrete evidence of his involvement in the crimes for which he was accused. On August 21, 1883, Frank James went on trial in Gallatin, Missouri, for the murder of Frank McMillan. He was found not guilty, but his legal problems were not over.

After plans to try James in Jackson County for the robbery at Blue Cut fell through due to legal wrangling, Frank was transported to Huntsville, Alabama, to await trial for the 1881 robbery of paymaster Alexander Smith. James was again found not guilty. In February 1885 prosecutors dropped the case brought against him for the 1876 Missouri Pacific robbery when their key witness died. Although other jurisdictions indicated that they were interested in trying James for crimes committed in their towns, no additional charges were brought against Frank James. He lived the rest of his life in relative quiet. He died on February 18, 1915, at the family farm in Kearney, Missouri. He was cremated to prevent his body from being stolen from the grave. Eventually his ashes were interred with those of his wife in a Kansas City cemetery.

There is no doubt that Jesse and Frank James were outlaws who committed murders without compunction. The myth of their valiance is one crafted by their champion, John Newman Edwards, and nourished by the resentment of Missourians for treatment—real or imagined—received before, during, and after the Civil War. Whether seen as villains or revenging angels depends on one’s perspective, but what cannot be denied is that the legend of Frank and Jesse James will forever be associated with Missouri’s border conflicts and the politics of the Civil War era.


Suggested Reading: 

Breihan, Carl W. Saga of Jesse James. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, LTD., 1991

Burke, Diane Mutti. On Slavery’s Border: Missouri’s Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Stiles, T.J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Wellman, Paul I. A Dynasty of Western Outlaws. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1961

Cite this page: 
Keating, Deborah. "James, Frank and Jesse" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 24, 2019 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/james-frank-and-jesse

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