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Jesse James (1847 – 1882)



Jesse James was a daring outlaw from Missouri. He became a legend in his own lifetime by committing crimes supposedly out of revenge for the poor treatment he, his family, and other Southern sympathizers received from Union
Union is the term used to identify the United States and its government during the Civil War.
soldiers during the Civil War
The Civil War was a military conflict that began on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Several Southern states had seceded from the United States (also known as the Union) and formed the Confederate States of America (also referred to as the Confederacy) out of fear that the United States' newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not allow the expansion of slavery into new western states. Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout the country by Union and Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. As other Confederate forces heard the news of Lee's surrender, they surrendered as well and the war was soon over. Over half a million men were killed or wounded in the war. Thousands of former slaves gained their freedom. After the war, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed prohibiting slavery, providing equal protection for all citizens, and barring federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote due to their race, color, or status as a former slave.
. James sought personal recognition and publicity by writing letters to the press. His crimes terrorized innocent civilians and stifled economic growth in Missouri in the years following the Civil War.

Early Years

Jesse Woodson James was born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 5, 1847. He was the third of four children born to Robert and Zerelda Cole James, both Kentucky natives. Jesse James had an older brother Frank, a brother, Robert, who died in infancy, and a younger sister, Susan. His father was a slave-owning farmer and popular Baptist minister in Clay County. Intending to preach to the gold miners, lured by the prospect of gold, or simply restless, Robert James left his family A census record listing the James family living in Clay County in 1850.

[1850 U.S. Census, Clay County, Missouri]
and traveled to California when Jesse was three years old. He never returned to Missouri, dying—probably of cholera
Cholera is a sickness caused by a water-dwelling type of bacteria. Its symptoms include extreme nausea and diarrhea, often causing dehydration and death. Cholera spread from Asia to Europe in the early 1800s, then to America at the beginning of the 1830s. Since cholera lives in water that has been contaminated with feces, it thrived in highly populated areas around rivers and other bodies of water with poor sewer drainage systems. Cholera outbreaks affected several American cities in the Mississippi River Valley during the mid-1800s. St. Louis was one of the cities hardest hit during this period, enduring cholera epidemics numerous times between 1832 and 1867. The 1849 and 1866 epidemics were especially severe, killing several thousand people. Cholera became less of a problem in American cities later in the 1800s as sewage systems improved and public health awareness increased.
—in a gold mining camp
In 1848 gold was discovered in the river near John Sutter's sawmill in Coloma, California. This discovery inspired a mass migration of fortune seekers from other parts of America and several foreign countries in 1849. These migrants came to be known as "forty-niners." Very few of them found riches, and many went broke. Some died of sickness, exposure to the elements, or violence in the relatively lawless environment. Overall, about one percent of America's total population migrated to California during the gold rush, and California afterward became known as "The Golden State."
in 1850.

Robert James Robert James Robert Sallee James (1818 – 1850), father of Jesse James.

[SHS 94-0007]
The Jameses owned a hundred-acre farm
A descriptive narrative about the birthplace of Jesse James. A descriptive narrative about the birthplace of Jesse James. The farm is now operated by the Clay County Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Sites.

[Missouri Historical Review, v. 52, no. 1 (October 1957), back cover]
James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri.

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James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri James family farm in Clay County, near Kearney, Missouri.

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where they used slave labor to grow hemp and raise sheep. When Zerelda became a widow, she was responsible for her three children as well as five enslaved children and one adult. She remarried, first to Benjamin Simms, then in 1855 to a doctor named Reuben Samuel. Known as a strongwilled, opinionated woman, Zerelda was the head of the household for years to come.
Zerelda James Zerelda James Zerelda Cole James Samuel (1825 – 1911), mother of Jesse James.

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Jesse James grew up on the farm. He was both popular in the community and outwardly religious. Some townspeople believed he might become a minister like his father. The Civil War, however, derailed this possible career path.


Confederate Sympathizers and Guerrillas

Frank James Frank James Frank James (1843 – 1915), older brother of Jesse James.

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As slave owners with southern roots, the James family joined Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson in supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. Frank James fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek under the command of General Sterling Price and afterwards joined up with Confederate
Confederacy is a term used to identify the states that seceded from the United States and formed their own separate government during the Civil War. "Confederacy" is also used interchangeably with the terms "the South" and "the Confederate States of America."

Confederate is the term used to identify an individual who was loyal to the Confederacy.
A guerrilla is someone who fights in a war but is not part of an officially recognized military force. Often outnumbered or facing forces with superior weaponry, guerrillas rely on ambushes, raids, and surprise attacks. Their unconventional style of warfare includes attacking and killing civilians, which conventional militaries typically forbid. One of the most well-known guerrilla raids of the Civil War occurred in 1863 when Confederate guerrillas from Missouri raided Lawrence, Kansas, killed over two hundred men and boys, and burned the town. Guerrillas in Missouri were also called bushwhackers because they frequently launched attacks from heavily wooded areas in order to surprise the enemy and often in hid in rugged, forested terrain that made it difficult for the enemy to pursue them.
s and raiders. Because Missouri was a border state with sympathies for both sides, it became the site of vicious skirmishes started by both Union militia and Confederate raiders. Each side struck brutally, harming civilians and crippling the economy.

In 1863 Union soldiers visited the James farm. They were seeking information about Confederate guerrilla bands. The soldiers hurt and threatened Jesse James and his family. Shortly after this incident, James joined his brother, Frank, and a guerrilla unit led by William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. James adapted quickly to a lifestyle that would set the pattern for the rest of his life: plan and attack, flee and hide.

In the summer of 1864, James was shot in the chest during a guerrilla raid. By the morning of September 27, 1864, however, he was well enough to be part of an eighty-man raid on Centralia, Missouri. Led by “Bloody Bill,” the guerrillas terrorized the town and murdered twenty-two unarmed Union soldiers in what is called the Centralia Massacre. Hours later, at the Battle of Centralia, the guerrillas killed and horribly mutilated over a hundred soldiers in the Thirty-ninth Missouri Infantry, U.S. Volunteers. James took credit for killing their Union commander, Major Andrew “Ave” Johnston.


Guerrillas Become Outlaws

Zerelda 'Zee' Mimms James "Zee" Mimms Zerelda “Zee” Mimms James (1845 – 1900).

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At the end of the Civil War, Jesse James was shot by Union cavalrymen as he attempted to surrender. His cousin, Zerelda “Zee” Mimms, whom he later married, nursed him back to health while some of his former war comrades took to robbing banks and stagecoaches. Once well, Jesse began his career as an outlaw. In 1866 the Clay County Savings Bank Clay County Savings Bank, Liberty, Missouri, around 1920.

On February 13, 1866, the Clay County Savings Bank was the site of the first daylight robbery of a bank during peacetime. The James brothers were later accused of stealing sixty thousand dollars and killing George Wymore in their escape.

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was robbed and an innocent bystander was shot. By 1868, Jesse and Frank James took part in robbing a bank in Kentucky. In December 1869, Jesse James’s name appeared in the newspapers for the first time. He and his gang had held up the Daviess County Savings Bank Daviess County Savings Bank of Gallatin, Missouri.

The James gang was accused of robbing the Daviess County Savings Bank of Gallatin, Missouri, on December 7, 1869. The robbers shot and killed the bank owner and cashier, John W. Sheets, whom they believed had played a part in the death of “Bloody Bill” Anderson.

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in Gallatin, Missouri. Though the robbery brought little cash, Jesse James shot the cashier, whom he thought was the man who had killed “Bloody Bill” Anderson a month after the Centralia Massacre. This act of revenge and a daring escape brought James into the public eye.

John Newman Edwards John Newman Edwards John Newman Edwards (1839 – 1889).

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Jesse James came to crave and demand public attention. He wrote letters to John Newman Edwards, the editor of the Kansas City Times, claiming his innocence or explaining his deeds. Edwards, who wanted the Confederates to regain power in Missouri, published James’s letters. He also wrote elaborate editorials praising James as a Robin Hood figure and making him a symbol of Confederate defiance during the period of Reconstruction when Unionists were in charge of state government.

Meanwhile, the James brothers united with Cole Younger and his brothers, all former Confederate guerrillas. The James-Younger gang conducted a string of robberies from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to West Virginia. They robbed banks, stagecoaches, and even a fair in Kansas City. In 1873 they turned to robbing trains. In most cases, they stole money from the train safe rather than from passengers.


A Life of Crime

 Mary and Jesse James Jr Mary and Jesse James Jr. Studio portrait of Mary (left) and Jesse James Jr. (right) as small children, taken shortly before their father was killed.

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On April 24, 1874, Jesse James married Zerelda Mimms. Newspaper article reporting Jesse James’s marriage to Zee Mimms.

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Together they had four children: a son Jesse, twin boys Gould and Montgomery who died in infancy, and Mary. Agents for the Pinkerton
The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was founded in 1850 in Chicago by Allan Pinkerton as a private law enforcement organization. The agency provided private security services to businesses and individuals and also performed military contract work. It became famous after its agents claimed to have foiled an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln after he was elected president. Lincoln later hired Pinkerton agents during the Civil War to protect him. Pinkerton agents were also hired to track Missouri outlaws such as Jesse James and the Younger brothers.
Detective Agency had been pursuing the James brothers since 1871. In 1875 they tossed a flare into the Samuel home. It exploded, killing James’s half-brother and injuring Zerelda Samuel’s hand, which later had to be amputated.

On September 7, 1876, the James-Younger gang tried to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The robbery was the gang’s first serious disaster. The Younger brothers were caught and sent to prison. The James brothers fled and eventually settled in Nashville, Tennessee, where they lived under assumed names. Jesse became “Thomas Howard” and Frank became “B. J. Woodson.”

Eventually, Jesse drew new men into his gang. They were not war comrades, but thugs with no loyalty to the Confederate cause. Jesse James grew increasingly suspicious of them as he continued to rob trains
Illustration depicting Jesse James and his gang robbing the Iron Mountain Railroad Jesse James and his gang robbed the Iron Mountain Railroad at Gads Hill, Missouri, on January 31, 1874. Reports of the crimes appeared in the following Missouri newspapers: St. Louis Republican, February 1, 2, 3, and 11, 1874; Boonville Weekly Advertiser, February 4, 1874; Liberty Tribune, February 6, 1874; and Lexington Caucasian, February 7, 1874.

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Illustration depicting Jesse James and his gang robbing the Iron Mountain Railroad Jesse James and his gang robbed the Iron Mountain Railroad at Gads Hill, Missouri, on January 31, 1874. Reports of the crimes appeared in the following Missouri newspapers: St. Louis Republican, February 1, 2, 3, and 11, 1874; Boonville Weekly Advertiser, February 4, 1874; Liberty Tribune, February 6, 1874; and Lexington Caucasian, February 7, 1874.

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and hold up banks.

Wanted: Dead or Alive

Governor's Proclamation Governor's Proclamation Proclamation from Governor Crittenden for the arrest of Jesse and Frank James, 1881.

[Thomas Theodore Crittenden, Proclamation, 1881 (C2875) , The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
In 1881 Governor Thomas T. Crittenden issued a proclamation for the arrest of Frank and Jesse James. By 1882 Jesse James had moved his family back to St. Joseph, Missouri. Still using his alias, James passed himself off as a cattle buyer and brought two new men, Robert and Charley Ford, into his gang to help him scout banks for future robberies. James was unaware that Robert Ford had already talked with Governor Crittenden about getting a reward for killing him. On April 3, 1882, Robert Ford shot and killed
An engraving depicting Robert Ford shooting Jesse James An engraving depicting Robert Ford shooting Jesse James inside his house in St. Joseph, Missouri. James’s wife and children are shown in the adjoining room.

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Photo of house where Jesse James was shot and killed Photograph taken around 1906 of the house in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse James was shot and killed.

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Jesse James. The Ford brothers were tried for murder and found guilty, but the governor pardoned them.

James's Legacy

For sixteen years, Jesse James and his gang robbed and murdered people in a half-dozen states. They held a chilling grip on Missouri. Fear of the James gang prevented many homesteaders from coming to Missouri and new businesses from investing in her economy. After James’s death, people lived with less fear, and affairs in Missouri became more peaceful and prosperous. Frank James eventually surrendered to Governor Crittenden, and Zerelda Samuel showed off her infamous son’s grave
Photograph of grave of Jesse James Photograph of grave of Jesse James on the farm of Zerelda Samuel near Kearney, Missouri, around 1898.

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Headstone of Jesse and Zerelda Mimms James Headstone of Jesse and Zerelda Mimms James after reburial in Kearney Cemetery.

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to visitors. Friends and family members who had supported and protected Jesse James during his years as a raider and outlaw remained loyal to him, even in death. He became the source of countless songs, books, articles, festivals, and movies—all of which painted slightly different pictures of this controversial Missourian. Interest in Jesse James and his legend continues to this day.

Text by Carlynn Trout with research assistance by Jillian Hartke


References and Resources

For more information about Jesse James's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Jesse James in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.

  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “The Bandit Buried.” Kansas City Times. April 7, 1882. p. 1.
    • “A Card from Jesse James. He Denies All Complicity with the Exposition Robbery.” Kansas City Times. October 20, 1872. p. 4.
    • “Jesse James. The Great Outlaw Killed in His Home in St. Joseph.” Kansas City Times. April 4, 1882. p. 1.
    • “Jesse James Shot.” Boonville Weekly Advertiser. April 7, 1882. pp. 4-5.
    • “The Murder of Jesse James.” Sedalia Democrat. April 13, 1882. p. 2.
    • “Missouri’s Gay Bandits: The Genuine James Boys and One of the Youngers.” Lexington Weekly Caucasian. September 5, 1874. p. 1.
    • The Train Robbery. Jesse James Says He Is Innocent and Presents the Proof.” Jefferson City Daily Tribune. August 19, 1876. p. 1.
  • Books and Articles
    • Brant, Marley. Outlaws: The Illustrated History of the James-Younger Gang. Montgomery, AL: Elliot & Clark Publishing, 1997. [REF F508.1 J234bra]
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 428-431. [REF F508 D561]
    • Croy, Homer. Jesse James Was My Neighbor. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1949, 1997. [REF F508.1 J234cr]
    • Dyer, Robert. Jesse James and the Civil War in Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. [REF F508.1 J234dy]
    • James, Jesse, Jr. Jesse James, My Father. Provo, Utah: Triton Press, [1995], c1988. Orig. pub. 1899. [REF F508.1 J234j 1995]
    • McGrane, Martin Edward. The James Farm: Its People, Their Lives and Their Times. Madison, SD: Caleb Perkins Press, 1982. [REF F508.1 J234mc2]
    • Reineke, Charles E. “Violent Birth of a Legend: Jesse James and His Murderous Rise to Infamy.” Missouri Life. February 2002, pp. 48-53. [REF Vertical File]
    • Settle, William A., Jr. Jesse James Was His Name: or, Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966. [REF F508.1 J234s c7]
    • Stiles, T. J. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. [REF 508.1 J234sti]
    • Triplett, Frank. The Life, Times, and Treacherous Death of Jesse James. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1992. Orig. pub. 1882. [REF F508.1 J234tr 1992]
    • Yeatman, Ted P. Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2000. [REF F508.1 J234y2]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • Crittenden, Thomas Theodore (1832-1909), Proclamation, 1881 (C2875)
      Governor’s proclamation offering rewards for the arrest of express and train robbers Frank and Jesse James.
    • Croy, Homer (1883-1965), Papers, 1905-1965) (C2534)
      Homer Croy, a Missouri native, was the author of numerous books, short stories, plays and articles. The collection contains research and manuscripts for published and unpublished work, including material on Jesse James.
    • Settle, William A., Jr. (1915-1988), Papers, c. 1920-1987 (C3896)
      William Settle was known as an authority on Jesse James. This collection includes his research notes on the James family.

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
  • The City of St. Joseph, Missouri
    This Website offers information about Jesse James and his death in the Jesse James house in St. Joseph.
  • Friends of the James Farm
    This is the Website for the James Farm in Kearney, Missouri, where Jesse James was born and raised.
  • American Experience: Jesse James
    This Website provides information about the PBS American Experience film about Jesse James. The film’s aim is to present “the true story of an outlaw who has captured the imagination of generations of Americans.”

Jesse James Jesse Woodson James (1847 – 1882)

This famous portrait photograph, a waist view with gun drawn, was taken in 1864 when Jesse James was seventeen years old.

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Jesse Woodson James

Born: September 5, 1847
Died: April 3, 1882 (age 34)
Category: Folk Legends
Region of Missouri: Northwest
Missouri County: Clay
Related Biographies: Frank James, Zerelda Cole James Samuel, Robert Sallee James, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms James, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, John Newman Edwards, Cole Younger