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Robert Sallee James (1818 – 1850)


Robert Sallee James was the father of the famous outlaw Jesse James. He was a hemp farmer, slave owner, and Baptist minister from Kentucky who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Robert James was orphaned at age nine and went to live with his married sister Mary Mimms. In 1838 he enrolled at Georgetown College, Kentucky. While a student there, he met Zerelda Elizabeth Cole. They married on December 20, 1841.

After James received his diploma in 1842, he and Zerelda moved to Clay County, Missouri. They lived with Zerelda’s mother and stepfather until their first child, Frank, was born in 1843. James then acquired a farm and started purchasing slaves to work in the fields. By 1850 James owned at least five black children and a black woman.

James became a preacher at New Hope Baptist Church. He was known for his passionate sermons and his ability to attract new members to the congregation. He received no income for his preaching.

The Gold Rush of 1849
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."
enticed many people to seek their fortune out west. In 1850 James joined other men from Clay County and traveled to the mines. His purpose, he claimed, was to preach to the miners. He became ill and died unexpectedly in a camp named “Rough and Ready” in August 1850.
Text by Carlynn Trout with research assistance by Elizabeth Engel


References and Resouces

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

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Robert James in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.

  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • "Death of Rev. Robt. James." Liberty Weekly Tribune. October 25, 1850. p. 2, c. 3.
    • "From the Clay Emigrants, Fort Laramie, May 18, 1850." Liberty Weekly Tribune. June 21, 1850. p. 1, c. 3.
  • Books
    • McGrane, Martin Edward. The James Farm: Its People, Their Lives and Their Times. Pierre, SD: Caleb Perkins Press, 1982. pp. 6-8. [REF F508.1 J234mc2]

Historic Missourians: Robert James
Robert Sallee James (1818-1850)Robert Sallee James (1818-1850).

[SHS 94-0007]

Robert Sallee James

Born: Jul. 17, 1818
Died: Aug. 18, 1850 (age 32)
Category: Folk Legends
Region of Missouri: Northwest
Missouri County: Clay