John W. Sheets (1821-1869) is known mostly as an unfortunate victim of circumstance, allegedly shot by outlaw Jesse James who mistook him for former Union leader Samuel Cox during the 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association in Gallatin. But a look at the life of John Sheets reveals much more.

Capt. John Sheets was murdered during the 1869 robbery of the Daviess County Savings Association, apparently a victim of mistaken identity. Jesse James was the killer, thinking he was avenging the death of Wm. “Bloody Bill” Anderson by gunning down the cashier that he thought was Major Samuel Cox. James previously declared he would shoot Cox whenever, wherever “on sight.”

John Sheets was the son of farmer and gunsmith Henry Sheets of Virginia, who purchased 80 acres in Sheridan Twp. in November, 1844 (land sold to James Morris in 1848 for $300, originally recorded to Wallace McFee in September, 1839; his mother was Rachel Ellis of Jefferson County, VA, the daughter of Obediah Ellis (1745-1825) of Georgetown in Scott County, KY.

Research reveals many details about the life and times of John W. Sheets. From January 1838 through May 1842 he kept the records of property lot sales in Gallatin. On Aug. 28, 1847, he joined the U.S. Army to serve in the Mexican War.

In 1850 John Sheets was single and living in Gallatin with Johnathan Mann and Cornelia McFerran. Then in November, 1850, at age 29, John Sheets married Martha R. Casey, daughter of Thomas J. and Martha Casey of Gallatin. The couple were parents of two children before Martha’s death in 1856. In September, 1861, Sheets married Mary G. Clingan, the daughter of Major Thomas and Elizabeth Clingan of Gallatin.

Public service rendered by John W. Sheets of Gallatin, MO, includes:

    • Daviess County Sheriff 1848-52
    • Daviess County Recorder of Deeds 1852-62
    • Daviess County Circuit Clerk 1860

During the Civil War, John Sheets was a Captain of Company D, First Regiment of Cavalry in the Missouri State Militia for the Union (1862-64). He returned to civilian life to become a partner in a dry goods store in Gallatin, known as Sheets & Brosius, and saw his partner murdered in the store in 1864.

From 1865 until his death, Capt. Sheets was employed by Col. McFerran as cashier of the Daviess County Savings Association. It was while he was at work that Sheets was shot to death. Although Jesse James was never convicted of murdering Sheets nor of robbing the savings association, the crime which occurred Dec. 7, 1869, marks the first time the State of Missouri officially declared a bounty on Jesse James, branding him as an outlaw.

Witnesses said Jesse James was sworn to avenge the death of Confederate guerilla “Bloody” Bill Anderson by killing the man credited with killing Anderson, Samuel P. Cox. Apparently, James mistook John Sheets for Samuel Cox — shooting first before asking questions.

As one of the old settlers who served Daviess County faithfully and well, Sheets was a well-known public spirited citizen held in high esteem. When, therefore, his cold-blooded murder was heralded forth, the people rose almost in a body to pursue the murderer and reek vengeance upon him for his dastardly crime. Pursuit, however, proved fruitless; it is not known positively who robbed the Gallatin bank and who was the murderer of Capt. Sheets to this day.

A stone monument marks the grave of Capt. Sheets in west side of Lyle Cemetery, the cemetery located next to Gallatin First Baptist Church on West Richardson Street.

Resting place of John Sheets

The life of John Sheets also connects to another notorious character of the Old West — Johnny Ringo. Sheets had control of the Greenfield and Einstien Store where his father worked as a gunsmith when the store was rented to Martin Ringo and B.B. Pryor (1858-1861). Martin Ringo was the father of gunslinger Johnny Ringo, famous in the gunfight which occurred at Tombstone, AZ.

— research by David Stark, Gallatin; December, 2000.