Jesse James was a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War who would later go on to become an infamous outlaw, bushwhacker, and bandit gang-leader across the southern United States.
He became a symbol of the deep, violent divides between the American people in the post-war period.
Jesse Woodson James was born to Robert James and Zerelda Samuel on September 5, 1847 in Clay County, Missouri. The area was much more southern-influenced than surrounding parts of Missouri, leading to the region being nicknamed ‘Little Dixie’.
Growing up in this area, Jesse James witnessed the years of violence that erupted between pro- and anti-slavery groups along the border following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. When this period known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ finally came to an end, it was only because of the onset of the Civil War.
When the war came to Missouri in 1861, the slave-owning James-Samuel family readily sided with the Confederacy. By the time he was 16 years of age, Jesse James and his older brother Frank had joined up with several groups of secessionist guerrilla fighters known as ‘bushwhackers’.
As bushwhackers of Quantrill’s Raiders, the James brothers participated in several raids and massacres against Unionist forces and civilians. These were part of a cycle of escalating violence and reprisals by both sides of the conflict during the state of martial law brought to Missouri by the Union. By age 17, Jesse had been shot twice in the chest and lost part of a finger.
While recovering from his second chest wound after the end of the war, Jesse began a nine-year courtship with his first cousin Zerelda ‘Zee’ Mimms, which resulted in their marriage and several children. During this time Jesse remained in contact with his fellow bushwhackers, including his former commander Archie Clement. Clement continued the war after it was ended, leading his guerrillas in attacks that harassed state authorities and their sympathizers.
James brothers may or may not have participated in one of the first daylight bank robberies in the United States during peacetime when Clement’s gang raided the Clay County Savings Association of Missouri in 1866. It is confirmed that the James brothers participated in later robberies, mostly targeting local banks.
The bushwhacker gang dwindled in number from arrests and deaths while Jesse’s notoriety as a defiant Confederate in the Reconstruction-era southern states grew stronger. When Clement died trying to occupy the town of Lexington, Missouri on election day 1866, the gang disbanded and the James brothers went their own way.
Around 1869-70, the James brothers joined with a man named Cole Younger and his brothers, as well as other former Confederates. Over the next 6 years the so-called James-Younger Gang ran a string of high-profile thefts from banks, stagecoaches, and later on trains from West Virginia to Texas.
The Gang reportedly acted with ‘ham and flare’ for crowds of bystanders, adding to Jesse’s fame and turning him into a larger-than-life figure, thriving in the divided political climate.
In 1874 the Adams Express Company hired the Pinkerton detective agency to put a stop to the James-Younger Gang. Thanks to Confederate aid the James brothers evaded the Pinkertons, however several of the Younger brothers were shot and killed during skirmishes with their agents.
The Pinkerton investigation ended on the night of January 25, 1875 when the James family farmstead was burned to the ground during a botched raid. Locals were outraged by the acts being done on their state’s soil, causing the James brothers’ popularity to soar higher.
Rather than being punished for their crimes, Jesse James and his gang were offered protection by the state legislature of Missouri in the form of a bill which limited the reward the governor could offer for fugitives, in turn decreasing the incentive bounty hunters had to hunt them down. A bill offering the James-Younger Gang praise and amnesty was voted against, but only by a narrow margin.
The James-Younger gang attempted their last heist at the First National Bank of Northfield at 2 PM on September 7th, 1876. The reason for the heist is said to be because the bank was connected to a Reconstructionist governor named Adelbert Ames, and his Union general father-in-law Benjamin Butler.
The raid failed completely, killing or leading to the capture of every member of the gang except Frank and Jesse James. The James brothers fled to Missouri, where Jesse later raised a new but inexperienced and short-lived outlaw gang in 1879. Frank later moved to Virginia after deciding to give up on banditry.
James began to recruit for a new robbery in 1881, taking in the brothers Charley and Robert “Bob” Ford. Bob had secretly been in contact with the governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden to get the bounty on Jesse’s head. On the morning of April 3, 1882 Jesse James was shot in the back of the head in his own home by Bob Ford while cleaning a picture on the mantle.
His body was identified thanks to his old bullet wounds and half a middle finger, but rumors spread immediately that he had survived the attempted killing and fled into hiding. These rumors grew as news of his death became sensationalized, transforming into myth and legend. He was buried on family property, though later moved to a proper cemetery in Kearney, Missouri.
Jesse James is a deeply divisive, controversial figure in American history to this day. For decades after his heyday he was regarded as a frontier hero, a “social bandit” friendly to the downtrodden and poor on par with Robin Hood. This inspired songs, literature, film, and folklore for generations of people in the American South and beyond.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, James has been interpreted differently by scholars and various political groups whenever the need arises, with attention paid to him and his legacy rising during episodes of social unrest similar to the kind he lived through. He has been seen as a charismatic opportunist, as an ailing man out for petty revenge, as a freedom fighter, as a terrorist, and as a Neo-Confederate hero.