Denver Public Library
The James Brothers
Just before the Civil War, Missouri’s Western border with Kansas was one of the most violent areas of the nation. With slavery legal on one side of the border and a militant form of abolitionism on the other, conflicts often arose. Both Kansans and Missourians rode across the river to burn farms, steal slaves, and kill for their respective causes. Perhaps one of the most famous raids took place on August 21, 1863. William Quantrill led the raid that resulted in the massacre of two hundred men and boys at Lawrence, Kansas. Frank James, Jesse James’s older brother, was among Quantrill’s gang. Frank James was only twenty years old at the time, born on the family farm near Kearney on January 10, 1843. Jesse was five years younger, born September 5, 1847. Their father, the Reverend Robert James, was a Baptist minister and farmer who helped found William Jewell College at Liberty. But when he left the family to minister to miners in California, the family changed dramatically. Their mother, Zerelda, remarried twice after Robert’s departure. Zerelda’s third husband, Reuben Samuel, was content to let her be head of the household. She was strong and passionate, with an unrelenting temper when provoked, as were her boys. Frank had enlisted with the Missouri State Guard in May 1861, but he was captured by Union soldiers in 1862 and paroled from the Confederacy. The next year, he joined William Quantrill’s guerrillas to continue fighting for the Confederate cause. Before the Lawrence raid, Union soldiers had come to the James’s farm and assaulted Mr. Samuel, Zerelda, and Jesse. At sixteen, Jesse was left with a sense of injustice and a purpose. Like his brother, he also began riding with guerrilla soldiers, under the command of William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. After the Civil War, Frank and Jesse’s gang roamed the United States, robbing banks and trains and killing people. Frank played a leading role in the Liberty bank robbery on February 13, 1866, which is thought to be the first daylight bank robbery during peacetime in U.S. history. Together, they helped build the image of the American outlaw that persists today. Remembered as a political figure and an outlaw, Jesse acted with confidence in both actions and words and manipulated the media, promoting himself as an avenger who punished those who rejected the Confederacy. He defied Union authority and was not afraid to voice his opinions. On April 3, 1882, Jesse was killed at his house at St. Joseph by Robert Ford, a member of the gang, who had agreed to turn Jesse in for a ten-thousand-dollar reward. After his brother’s death, Frank turned himself in to authorities and was held at Independence. He was tried twice but acquitted both times and lived peacefully for the rest of his life. —Rebecca Legel
August 30, 1864: The James gang robbed a stage near Lexington.
This post was contributed by Ross Malone. A historian and a retired school teacher, Ross has authored many books about Missouri’s history, weird facts, and folk tales. He has also written children’s historical fiction. Visit his website, and buy his books in the Missouri Life store.