Outlaw Jesse James and his ties to the mining camp of Rough and Ready
Special to The Union
Jesse James, along with his brother, Frank, are two of the most celebrated outlaws of American lore.
Movies, ballads and books are dedicated to these Missouri natives who during a 17-year stretch (1864-1881) robbed 19 banks, trains and stagecoaches throughout the Midwest and killed about 20 people. A little known fact, but an important one, is Jesse’s history ties him to our own Rough and Ready.
Jesse’s parents, Zerelda and Robert, met and married in Lexington, Kentucky in 1841. Robert, 23, had just completed Georgetown College to become a Baptist minister. His 16-year old-wife had just completed Catholic high school and the two moved to Missouri so that Robert could assume a ministry position at New Hope Baptist Church. The church’s congregation grew and thrived so that Robert was able to purchase a 225 acre tobacco farm along with six slaves in the Missouri territory. It was in Missouri that Zerelda gave birth to two sons, Frank, and later, Jesse.
In 1850, Robert got “gold fever.” Despite having a successful farm, growing church, and two young sons, Robert headed to California to strike it rich. He sold one of his slaves to fund the trip West. Family lore tells of a young Jesse sobbing and begging his father to not go.
In a letter sent upon reaching the goldfield, Robert noted, “Give my love to all inquiring friends and take a portion of it to your self and kiss Jessie for me and tell Franklin to be a good boy and learn fast. I must close by saying live prayerful and ask God to help you to train your children in the path of duty. Fare-ye-well till my next letter.”
The letters stopped in the fall of 1850 because Jesse’s father, Robert James, died of cholera in the mining camp of Rough and Ready. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the town.
Jesse and Frank James grew up angry in an angry world. Besides losing their father at an early age, Missouri was an embattled state in the 1850s pitting slaveholders and free-soilers. Everyone packed a pistol in those years because this portion of the country was at the center of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions who used violence to impose their political philosophy. The James family were slaveholders who at the outbreak of the Civil War saw Frank enlist in the Confederate forces. A neighbor recalled that when the war broke out, 18 year-old Frank “was wild, shooting his pistol and hallooing for Jeff Davis.”
In 1863, Frank joined the command of Southern guerrilla leader William Clarke Quantrill. The guerrillas, also known as bushwhackers, would act independently of the Confederate Army by raiding Union armories and storage depots. One night, Union troops appeared at the James’ farm and wanted to know the whereabouts of Jesse’s brother, Frank. Jessie refused to cooperate so the soldiers mercilessly beat and whipped him.
“After that day,” Frank would recall later, “Jessie was out for blood.”
The next year, the rampage began with Jesse exacting revenge against two of the Union troops that beat him up the previous year. Brantley Bond and Alvis Dagley were ruthlessly shot at point blank by the James brothers. In order to exist as renegades from the law after those murders, the brothers began a long string of robberies which often resulted in murder.
Jesse and Frank had bounties on their heads in multiple states. It took 17 years for the law to finally catch-up to Jesse who was shot dead at the age of 34. His older brother, Frank, turned himself in and was acquitted of two murders and returned to the farming life in Kearney, Missouri.
One can only imagine what might have changed if Jesse’s preacher father, Robert, had not gotten the gold bug and stayed on his Missouri tobacco farm raising his two boys and spreading the gospel.
Terry McAteer is the former Nevada County Superintendent of Schools and a current member of The Union’s Editorial Board.
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