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From Farmer to Soldier: Jesse James’ Early Life

Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847 in the town of Kearney, Missouri. His father Robert James and his mother Zerelda Cole James were prosperous hemp farmers who owned six slaves. Robert was also a Baptist minister, so Jesse and his older brother Frank were fairly well educated.  When the Civil War broke out, Frank left home to join the Confederate Army of the South. Jesse longed to join his older brother in the war against the Union. He would soon get the chance to wage war against the north.

Jesse James and his older brother, Frank

Jesse’s older brother had been fighting with a group of Confederate guerilla fighters. These fighters would search the Missouri countryside for Union facilities to attack. In answer to his brother’s pro-Confederate activities, a group of Union soldiers who were looking for information roughed up and tortured Jesse and his stepfather. This experience may have sparked Jesse to soon join his brother.

In the spring of 1864, Jesse joined his brother in the Confederate gang of “Bloody” Bill Anderson. Jesse was just 16 years old at the time and, as a scrawny bright blue-eyed teenager, he was influenced by the atrocities the gang would commit. One of the worst of these atrocities as the Centralia Massacre, during which 22 unarmed Union soldiers and 100 other Union soldiers were killed by Confederate marauders. Such violence gave Jesse a taste for bloodshed that would last for the rest of his life.

Jesse and Frank James lead a life of crime

While most of the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War put down their weapons when the war ended, Jesse and Frank continued to fight their own battle against the North. On December 7,1869, the brothers rode into a bank that was believed to be run by the man who had killed “Bloody” Bill Anderson. Jesse asked the cashier to change $100 and as the man reached for the bill, Jesse shot him in the heart, killing him instantly. The brothers rode off with nothing more than worthless paper, and had to make a daring escape from a posse sent to capture them, but in the end they got away, declaring that they would “never be taken alive” (a phrase that became popular in American culture).

With the help of John Newman Edwards, a newspaper publisher who was a former Confederate soldier, Jesse began to construct an image of himself as a kind of Robin Hood who stole from the rich Republicans from the North and gave back to those in the south. In several letters published by Edwards, Jesse claimed that they were more than just everyday criminals. “We are not thieves,” he wrote in one such letter, “we are bold robbers. I am proud of the name, for Alexander the Great was a bold robber, and Julius Ceasar, and Napoleon Bonaparte.” While Jesse worked to create the image of himself as a folk-here Robin Hood, there is no evidence that he gave away any of the $200,000 that he and his gang stole.

The End Draws near for Jesse James

During the 1870s, Jesse, Frank and their gang went on a crime spree that included banks, stagecoaches, and trains. All told they made dozens of robberies, making hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was in 1876 that Jesse and Frank got too greedy, as they attempted to rob a bank in Northfield, Minnesota, which was almost 500 miles from their base. Unlike Missouri, Minnesota had no Confederate sympathizers who would help the gang hide out. In fact, the townspeople had no tolerance for the gang at all – the robbery was a disaster. Two of the robbers were killed on the spot, while the others were hunted down and killed later on. Only Frank and Jesse escaped with their lives.

A stagecoach, similar in style to those robbed by Jesse James.

As the 1870’s came to a close, Frank left the life of crime to enjoy life spent with his family. Jesse, on the other hand, remained restless for the thrill of the criminal lifestyle. After a brief lull in which he tried to settle down with his wife Zee and two children, Jesse returned to crime in 1879. This time though, the people In charge of Missouri politics and the citizens themselves had lost their patience for Jesse and his gang.

Since many of the ex-Confederate soldiers had now retired, Jesse could only find career criminals who were only interested in money to join his gang. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Missouri Governor Crittenden had offered a $10,000 reward for Jesse dead or alive. This reward turned out to be too good to pass up for the Bob and Charlie Ford, two brothers who Jesse had brought on for one more robbery.

On the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse stood and turned to straighten a picture that was hanging on the wall of his house. Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head, killing him instantly at the age of 34.

Jesse James Fun Facts

  • Jesse was shot in the chest two times before he even became an outlaw. Once in 1864 when he tried to steal a saddle from a farmer, and the other time by Union soldiers.
  • Jesse’s wife Zerelda “Zee” was named after his mother and was also his first cousin.
  • Jesse loved the limelight and was known to hand out “press releases” to witnesses to his crimes.
  • Jesse James and his gang robbed a stagecoach while Jesse was on his honeymoon.
  • Jesse and Frank cost their half-brother his life and their mother her arm. Members of detective agency hunting for the pair, threw a grenade-like device into the James house, killing their 4 year old half-brother and injuring their mom, causing her to have her right arm amputated.