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Jesse James pictured above.

1914 postcard of the Jesse James Farm pictured at right.

Jesse, His Life and Death
Compiled by Sonya Morgan, Excelsior Spring Historian | Additional Pages: Civil War Years | Family Tree | James Farm

A history booklet entitled "From Entry Fee to 'Fifty-Three" by Ruth Bogart Roney states the following of New Hope Baptist Church: "The church building served as a school house in 1843. Reorganizing in 1844, New Hope began regaining strength quite rapidly under the ministry of Robert James, a young Kentuckian.

He came out and settled on land near by, fresh out of Georgetown college, with his wife and infant son, Frank. A few months later when a new church was built, the Reverend James supplied part of its cost, plus the labor of two of his negroes. The North Liberty Baptist Association was organized at New Hope in 1844, due to his leadership; and during the six years he served there, the membership increased to 94. Another proof of his worth to the community is the fact that he was one of the men responsible for the location of William Jewell, a Baptist college. Had he not gone west in the gold rush, dying there in 1850, events in Clay county's post war history might read quite differently; his son, Jesse James, might now be honored for achievements."

But Jesse did not have the benefit of his father's upbringing. Books state little was known of Jesse's childhood. While young boys, Frank and Jesse were taught to ride and shoot like Indians by Wild Bill Thompson, a distant relative. They were tutored at home and probably both had eighth grade educations. Frank was an avid reader and his special love was Shakespeare. Jesse inherited an interest in religion, his favorite book being the Holy Bible. Reportedly, Frank and Jesse went to California to try and find their father's grave, but was unable to locate it. As teenagers they grew up in an atmosphere of unrest and bitterness, preparing them for their own involvement in the Civil War.

Walking across the wooden bridge between the museum and the house at the James farm while working as a historic interpreter there, I often stopped and looked at the little stream of running water, picturing Frank and Jesse as children playing along its edges. When I researched the history on the Hyder family cabin in Excelsior Springs, I was reminded of that image with a remarkable story that included a reference to Frank and Jesse.

In 1864, John Hyder was almost hung by a guerilla band while he served the Union forces in Missouri, but was spared when Jim Cummings and “Doc” Rupe interceded for the militiaman’s life. "... Hyder had been a friend of Jim's (Jim Cummings) and the two James boys before the war broke out. They had played together, ate together and slept together; they had fished in the same stream, hunted in the same wood, and swam in the same swimming hole. And when they chanced to meet while seeking each others' life, they could not forget," stated James Lemmon, city collector of Excelsior Springs, Missouri. (See Civil War Days)

Severely wounded at the end of the Civil War and taken to his mother, then in Nebraska, Jesse begged to be brought back to Missouri, not wanting to die in a "Northern" state. He was taken to a boarding house owned by his uncle John Mimms, where he was nursed by his cousin, Zerelda, named after his mother. Zerelda, or Zee, and Jesse fell in love and became engaged to be married before he returned to the family farm in Kearney, where he slowly made recovery.

John Hyder family cabin in Excelsior Springs, Mo. The Excelsior Springs Museum & Archives has recognized the cabin as an endangered landmark and has been active in trying to obtain the cabin to relocate and restore the structure for educational purposes.

Frank and Jesse learned their trade of robbery during their war days. Whenever the troops would capture a town, they would take the money out of the banks and use the money for food, supplies, and uniforms for the troops. When the war was over, some of Quantrill's men continued on with that way of life, robbing banks in retaliation for the loss of the Civil War. As they grew older, they robbed for the money. For at least their first 10 years, many people supported them and considered them heroes because the banks and railroads were so unpopular in Missouri after the Civil War.

The extent to which Frank and Jesse were involved in the several bank robberies that occurred in the area in 1866, 1867 and 1868 is difficult to determine. The nation's first successful daylight bank robbery during peacetime on February 13, 1866, of a bank located on the square in Liberty, Missouri, is attributed to the James Gang. On that afternoon a band of 10 to 12 men rode into Liberty and posted themselves at strategic places. Two of them, dressed in blue soldiers' coats, walked into the Clay County Savings Bank. One bandit forced Cashier Greenup Bird's son, William, into the open vault and forced him to fill a cotton wheat sack. The other bandit gathered the bank's paper currency and government bonds from a tin box on a table. Greenup and William Bird were then shut up in the vault, but the lock did not catch. As the bandits prepared to ride out of town, one of them shot at two men on the street, killed one, George Wymore, a student at William Jewell College. Then the band, all firing wildly into the air, rode out of town and south toward the Missouri River. They cross the river on a ferry and escaped the posse of townsmen that soon pursued them.

In February 1867 while Jesse was home in Kearney, five militia men, well armed and mounted, came to the farm. They stood on the porch and called for Jesse to come out. Still suffering from the chest wound that had not completely healed, Jesse was helped to the door by his stepfather. As they hammered at the door, Jesse placed his pistol within three inches of the door and shot through it, hitting one of the men. Jesse then threw open the door and with a gun in each hand began firing. One man was killed and two others wounded in addition to the wounded man on the porch. Not one among the five fired a shot at Jesse and he quickly left the farm before a whole company of militia arrived to take him.

Jesse traveled to Tennessee, Kentucky and California. Frank remained in Kentucky through much of these years, however, both were back at the family farm in December 1869.

On December 7, 1869, two men committed robbery and the murder of Captain John W. Sheets, cashier, at the Daviess County Savings Bank in Gallatin, Missouri. As the robbers were leaving, one of their horses became excited and the man was dragged several feet before he was able to free himself of the stirrup. He was picked up by his companion and the two of the rode the one horse out of town. Outside the town, they stole a horse and formed a local resident to guide them around the town of Kidder to the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, where they escaped. The horse that was abandoned in Gallatin was identified as that of Jesse James and locals assumed that he and Frank committed the robbery. A raid was organized on the James farm home, but Frank and Jesse rode from the barn, took the barn-lot fence and dashed away.

Several letters which were credited with coming from Jesse were published in the Kansas City Times and other papers denying that he had been at Gallatin. The first letter stated, "But I never will surrender to be mobbed by a set of bloodthirsty poltroons. It is true that during the war I was a Confederate soldier, and fought under the black flag, but since then I have lived a peaceable citizen, and obeyed the laws of the United States to the best of my knowledge." The second letter spoke of an alibi "to let those men know who accused me of the Gallatin murder and robbery that they have tried to swear away the life of an innocent man."

Their mother Zerelda, sister Susan and stepfather, Dr. Samuel, all stated under oath that the mare that had dragged one of the escaping robbers had been sold on Sunday, December 5, for $500 to a man who had said he was from Topeka, Kansas and also swore that Jesse was home all day on December 7. The alibi was weak in that only members of the family could comment on Jesse's whereabouts and Frank was never mentioned in the denials of guilt. From the day of the robbery at Gallatin to the end of their bandit careers Frank and Jesse James were outlaws with a price on their heads.

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