Many families in Northwest Missouri hand down stories about outlaws Frank and Jesse James from generation to generation. Some even claim relationships. Before sharing a few samples (as follows below), here’s how to hunt your bad man ancestor.
Start your research about Jesse James with such basic information as where he was born (Kearney, then called Centerville, in Clay County, MO, on Sept. 5, 1847; his death in St. Joseph on April 3, 1882; and that his family was from Kentucky. Then go to the 1850 Clay County census and look for a 3-year-old Jesse and brother, Frank (born 1843). That census should give you the name of their parents, their ages and where they were born.
Research a county history of Clay County to learn more. Research in land, probate and marriage records in Missouri and Kentucky to reveal more details. You also may be able to find a copy of Background of a Bandit, the Ancestry of Jesse James by Joan Beamis. It was published in 1971 and is available at the Library of Congress and other libraries.
Once you have traced your own family, compare information about it with what you’ve learned about any well-known person. like Jesse James. Does anything match?
If your line does not merge with the famous one in surnames, localities, dates or social status, you probably are not related… or the relation is so nebulous (via some marriage of an in-law) that it is not worth pursuing. Or you may learn that you are indeed related to someone famous, and will be able to determine your exact kinship and include the information in your family history.
The people who really made America were ordinary people whose stories you should compile and preserve, even about infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James. Here are some to consider (no attempt to verify this stories as factual has been made):
Jesse James stories shared by Moses Orr and his wife, Liza, of Hamilton, MO (taken from “The Orr Family — Then and Now” printed 1978 by Beck Printing in Richmond, MO, page 80):
Jesse James, riding a very weary horse and being pursued, stopped by their home and bought a horse. After he left, the family was afraid he might return for the money so they hid it in the clock. Days, months, or years later, he returned, again weary but not hotly pursued, and he stayed overnight. This time he was very relaxed and sat around through the evening with children on his knee and probably spinning stories.
Another incident credited to Jesse but not absolutely confirmed was an unusual occurrence. Once when Jesse had been there, he had wanted to buy a certain horse but Moses refused to sell because it was the girls’ pet. After an unusual plea for the horse, James rode off. One morning sometime later, the family went to the barn and found the pet horse missing. In its place was a mare about to foal. The girls were obviously heartbroken but the family believed they at least had an honest trade. A month passed, the mare had foaled and had a nice healthy colt at her side. One morning the Orrs found the horses had been exchanged again. The girls were happy to have their pet returned in good health and the family never knew who had switched the horses.
These stories are certainly not meant to make a hero of James but merely prove a point that he could not operate in a hostile countryside and the Orrs possibly qualified as “friends.”
Memories of Nat S. Givens, published in the Sept. 15, 1931, edition of the Gallatin North Missourian. Is reprinted here as follows:
Rail Controversy Recalls Winston Mail Train Theft
The application of the Rock Island to close the station at Winston, MO, recalls to Nat S. Givens’ memory the mail train theft there in 1881. Mr. Givens now resides at Boonville where h is son, Spencer, is editor of the Advertiser and the following account by Mr. Givens appeared as a special article in Wednesday night’s Kansas City Star:
Boonville, MO — To the Star: The recent account of The Star demoting of the town of Winston, MO, to a flag stop on the Rock Island, and an account of the Winston train robbery in 1881, recalls that, as a boy, I was in the circuit courtroom when Clarence Hite pleaded guilty to the robbery. He was related to the Jameses and said he an a companion took care of the engine while the James boys looked after the coaches. He was given a long sentence to Jefferson City and died soon after.
When Frank James was confined in the jail at Gallatin for trial for the Winston robbery, eastern salesmen placed Gallatin on their route cards, and each night after supper Frank James gave audiences to those that sired to visit him. Frank had a magnetic personality and nearly every visitor went away doubtful of his guilt. The sheriff was prejudiced against him at the start, but fell under his spell and treated James as a guest.
All the witnesses in this famous case have died with the exception of S.T. Brosius, who was a passenger on the train, and at that time reside in Gallatin and now lives at Alton, MO. The jury, court and all the attorneys in the case died years ago, and Sheriff George T. Crozier died a year ago in Canon City, CO. The defense attorneys made a canvass and knew the opinions as to the guilt or innocence of James of every legal juryman in Daviess County before the trial started. Metropolitan papers from all over the country sent reporters for the trial. Dave Poole from Texas an Gen. Jo Shelby of Missouri attended the trial and helped manufacture sentment for their former Confederate war comrade, James.
A letter from Cynthia (Hill) Doyle of Gallatin, MO:
On a hot summer day in 1881, some men roe up to the Prairie Valley school house which was located between Altamont and Winston, MO. My grandparents lived across the road and always watched over the school, having given the land for it, and my grandfather, a carpenter, had built it. So, it was not unusual for one of the gentlemen to cross the road and knock on the door. My grandmother very cautiously answered the door and, after the man had removed his hat and politely asked if he and his friends might use the well to water their horses and wash themselves and rest awhile before the continued on their journey, my grandmother told him it would be quite all right. He thanked her and left. He seemed such a gentlemanly person she really was not scared, even though grandfather didn’t return from work until later that evening. Since grandmother was expecting my mother at this time (she was born Jan. 6, 1882), there was no doubt about this being 1881. The great shock came the next day on the news of the train robbery the night before by the James Gang. There was no doubt they were the same men who rested at the school yard. My grandparents were Almacha and William T. Millman; my mother was Cora Millman Hill.
This recollection written by Robert Thomason, who lived in Daviess County from 1964 to his death in 1973, was first published in the Liberty Tribune on Sept. 14, 1967. It is shared here by his daughter, Nadine Thomason Tapp of Gallatin, MO, in a letter dated Sept. 8, 1989:
My grandfather, John S. Thomason, got the title of Captain by being head f a militia called the “Paw-Paw Militia.” This company was stationed on the bluffs north of North Kansas City to intercept the Red Legs and Jayhawkers from Kansas, who pillaged the border counties of Missouri; the militia thereby did Clay and Platte counties a great service.
Shortly after the War Between the States, Capt. Thomason and Oliver P. Moss jointly filled the office of sheriff and other offices coming under the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court at that time. They were elected in 1866. Twenty years later in 1886, Oscar Thomason (Capt. Thomason’s oldest son) was elected sheriff and served six years Then in 1940 I was elected by a small majority and served four years. It would take a long story to tell many of the incidents that happened in the sheriff’s office through these terms.
You asked for an account of the fight my grandfather and Uncle Oscar had with Frank & Jesse James. I can remember my grandfather saying that they left Liberty for Kearney thinking they would form a posse but the people along the way were either afraid or were friends of the James Gang, so when the posse didn’t materialize my grandfather and Uncle Oscar went on by themselves. When they arrived at the James farm the boys were at the barn with their horses saddled. They mounted and rode off with my grandfather and Uncle Oscar in pursuit. About a half mile from the house the James boys dismounted and got behind a rail fence. The horse Capt. Thomason was riding was afraid of the guns popping, so he dismounted and the horse jerked loose and ran to the fence where the James boys were. They shot this horse and then mounted their own horses and got away. Capt. Thomason killed his horse and then he was going to take a horse from the farm. Mrs. Samuels told him, “If you take a horse from here it will be over my dead body.” Capt. Thomason said, “Well, I am going to take a horse and if you had died 40 years ago it would have been a damn good thing for this county.”
The story of the James boys has bee publicized all over the world. Books have been written, moving pictures taken, and in all of these they have been almost heroes, and the officers who risked their lives to try to apprehend them are usually made out to be fools or cowards. It still goes on. Even Liberty people are told they have a great asset in having such notorious characters born and operated in Clay County.
Recollection from Joe Froman of Gallatin, MO:
My uncle, Edward Lee Froman of Gallatin, recalls how whenever his great-grandfather talked about the James boys, he talked like they were next door neighbors. Whenever you dealt with Frank and Jesse James, they always paid in cash and always came at night. He said Frank James was a most honest person, and that he’d rather trade with Frank James than with anyone else. The Union treated all these people the same way, I suppose Jesse a little more so than the others. It was desperate times. People kind of stole from each other because that was the only way to survive. The Reconstruction Act literally stole everything from these people.
Recollection on the event of the 93rd birthday of Fondia Critten, written by Velma Nieberding for publication in the Gallatin Democrat:
“I was just a child but I remember when Frank and Jesse James came to our home. My father invited them in to eat. We were not afraid of them.” Like most Missourians of that area (Jamesport), Mrs. Critten’s parents probably considered the James boys as neighbors rather than bad men. “Another time mother was alone when Frank and Jesse came by on horseback. They were hot and tired and they aske to water their horses at our well. They must have seen that mother was a little nervous for they told her, ‘If you’ll just let u sit under your tree and rest we’ll see that nobody bothers you.'” Mrs. Critten recalls that her mother was making fried apple pies and took some of them, with a pitcher of cold milk, to the outlaws.
An account written by Bertha Booth for the Aug. 15, 1940 issue of the Advocate-Hamiltonian of Hamilton, MO. The source is Mary Spratt Poteet, repeating memories from her grandfather, A.C. Cochran, who opened the first bank in Caldwell County which was known for many years as the Houston, Spratt & Menefee Bank (Mrs. Poteet was the daughter of Spratt):
Mr. Cochran usually opened the bank at 8 o’clock, but one morning because of business pressure he went down earlier. It was one of those gray mornings when every sound was clear and the roads were beaten down hard. In those days of about 1869, there was no screen over the bank counter. Cochran just had time to unlock the door and get behind the counter when he heard the hooves of several horses. As he looked out, he saw three men stop their horses nearby. One of the lighted, flung his reins to another man, and then strode rapidly over into the bank. The man held out a hundred dollar bill and asked for change. Cochran was sure he recognized the face from the pictures he had seen of Jesse James. The banker was a large and powerfully built man, taller than the newcomer. Only the counter was between them. He told the stranger that he had just come and had not opened the safe. As he spoke, he pulled open the drawer in front of him and laying his hand on the revolver, always there, he told the stranger that he could not oblige him. The man saw his revolver and, turning away, almost ran to join his companions and they all rode off in a furious gallop. By that time several other residents were on the street and the whole crowd stood there in wonder till the last echo of the horses’ hooves ended. A short time after that came news that the Gallatin bank was raided and Capt. Sheets was killed. Hence, Mr. Cochran was always sure that he had a narrow escape from death. It was his idea that hi bank was not really in their original plans, but that they were on their way to the Gallatin job. But when they ran across his bank and saw him alone and no one on the street, they thought they would make an extra haul.
Daviess County families share James Gang lore, often passed down by word of mouth. No attempt at verifying facts are made here; it is of interest how the legend keeps growing.
CAROLYN YOUTSEY: Jameses Helped Out — “In 1939 there was an old couple in their 80s named May and Cown Jewell (Joanne Smith’s grandparents), who lived six miles south of Kidder. There was a little schoolhouse on the corner named Jewell Schoolhouse, and 1/4 miles west of there was a log cabin where the couple began their married life. Mrs. Jewell says when she was a child they were having a hard time making it. When the James Gang was in the neighborhood many times early in the morning the family would awaken to find a couple of turkeys or deer left on their doorstep by the James Gang. The family knew the James boys and had fixed meals for them when they had passed through and became friendly with them. The people who lived in the neighborhood all thought the James Gang were really super because they helped her family out so much.”
MARJORIE TROTTER: They Fed the James Boys — “My great-grandparents, Mary and John William Patton, lived about two miles northwest of Altamont. My great-grandfather said travelers came to their home and asked for food. My great-grandmother prepared the food, and my great-grandfather and his son, William, fed the horses. They were well paid. My great-grandfather went to Altamont, heard about the train robbery and from the description of the men and horses, realized they had fed the James Gang.”
WENDY GATTON: Related to the Jameses — “My great-great-grandmother, Mary Beller, was a first cousin of Jesse James.” Wendy’s mother’s name is Wanda Ballard of Gallatin, MO. Mrs. Beller was from the Kansas City area.
AVA PUGH: They Gave the James Boys Water — Margaret (Tibbs) English, my niece now of Yonkers, NY, is the granddaughter of Elizabeth (Reynolds) Tibbs. Elizabeth was raised in Marion Township, the only daughter of Harvie Reynolds. When Elizabeth was a young girl, Frank and Jesse James stopped at the Reynolds farm home and asked for water to fill their jugs and to water their horses. After doing that, they rode off.”
NORMAN E. O’HARE: They Found Themselves Lost — “My great-grandfather, Martin O’Hare, homesteaded our farm in 1855. He was discharged from the Civil War in 1865, after which he continued to clear more land for farming. The timber that was cleared was used for building and for firewood, and the process took several years. According to him, and this tale has been passed down through the generations, one day while he and some men folk were in the timber on the east side of the farm where Brushy Creek runs through, some rough looking characters on horses came up. They asked directions to Gallatin, MO, and ‘How in the hell do we get out of this brush?’ Being in new territory they found themselves lost, out of the familiar surroundings of St. Joseph and Platte County. Grandpa thought they were the James Gang, and his assumption became more valid when he heard in a short time (however fast news traveled in the late 1860s) that the Daviess County Savings Association had been robbed, and Captain Sheets had been killed.”
MARGARET M. (Schoonover) MESEBERG, The Cut Reins — “The History of Daviess and Gentry Counties (Leopard-McCammon-Hillman on page 77) states the 1883 trial of Frank James was in the building owned by Judge Alexander on the west side of the square. Jury went 11-1 for acquittal. Jesse’s fight at Harrisonville is on page 12 of ‘The Life, Times and Treacherous Death of Jesse James.’ The guerrillas were forced to retire, and at Flat Rock Ford on the Grand River, Jesse was shot through the breast, a minie ball tearing through his right lung. I found the post mortem for Jesse on page 293 interesting. I was shown the sliced tied bridle rein ends from one rider’s bridle that was left at the railroad trestle at Gould Hill east of Winston in 1935 by my dad, Eldia Schoonover. We lived neighbors to the Willis DeFord family who lived where the Martindale family now lives. Willis’ father, Ross DeFord, after the robbery of the train in 1881 found the evidence. I do not think there is every a chance of anyone knowing the whereabouts of this evidence today, but it made quite an impression on me at the time. I have quite a scrapbook of clippings about Jesse, Frank and family. I am trying to make the connection between my great-great-grandfather David James and Calvin James of Buchanan County. Calvin James, of barbecue fame, located near the present town of Easton, MO, in 1837. I believe that Mr. Lawrence Barr, one of six grandchildren of Jesse, worked as a part time manager for Katz Drug Store at 12th & Walnut in Kansas City in 1944. I also worked part time while going to school, at Katz. Mr. Barr was a payroll accountant for Hallmark Cards, Inc. I am not saying for certain that this was THE Lawrence Barr, but I have reason to believe it was.”
ROY, VIRGIL J. and GEORGIA SWEANY: Dinner Guests — Roy Sweany, a widower who was married to Lulu Opal Brown for 63 years, has one living son, Fred Sweany of Lock Springs. The first Sweany in this area was probably Roy’s great-grandfather, John Sweany, who resided at Civil Bend, where the current owner is Jim Snider. Roy thinks that Georg occasionally had Jesse and Frank James for guests for meals. While one outlaw fed the horses and acted as a sentinel, the other bandit ate a meal with Roy’s grandfather and family. Roy’s father, McIvin Sweany, lived in Altamont; he was a farmer and real estate agent. Melvin died at the age of 58 in 1922.
MARY ROGERS: Frank James Held The Baby — “Many years ago my aunt, Mary Smith Aldridge, told me this story. One day before Frank James surrendered, some men on horses came to her father’s (D.L. Smith) farm home near Civil Bend. They insisted her mother cook dinner for them. She told them her baby was fussy so she couldn’t cook for them. One of the men said ‘go ahead and cook. I will take care of your baby.’ He held my aunt on his lap and entertained her while my grandma cooked. A few hours after the men left, the James boys were captured and taken to jail in Gallatin. My grandparents felt sure they were the men grandma had cooked dinner for. When Frank James saw my Aunt Mary, he said, ‘where is my curly-headed baby?'”
MRS. GLENN RIDDELL: Silhouettes of the Gang — Mrs. Glen Riddell, an 82-year-old resident at Daviess County Nursing Home, remembers a story her grandfather, Adam Ream, used to tell her when she was a little girl. He was an resident of the Kidder area, doing chores one night, and noticed three riders walking single file, silhouetted in the sunset. The men were headed south where J Highway lies now, which runs from Kidder to Highway 36. Since the neighbors those days recognized each other’s horses, he knew they were strangers to the area. Two or three days later Mr. ream heard the train had been robbed at Winston and quickly recalled the strangers on horseback near his home. Judging the time of day when he saw them, he figured they must have been part of the James Gang.
JACK TINGLER: A Ride With Frank James — “My grandfather, Lewis Allen Tingler, lived west of Gallatin and told how one day he was riding down the road. He came upon a stranger, well-armed and riding a fine horse, They rode together a ways, and eventually the stranger rode into the timber. The next day the savings association in Gallatin was held up. My grandfather always thought it was Frank James. After Frank James’ pardon, later in Oklahoma, my father as a small boy witnessed watching Frank James ‘rob’ a stagecoach at a fair held there. Both were at Joe Jump’s hanging. My grandmother hunter her head so she wouldn’t watch it, but heard the crowd groan so looked up just in time to see the actual hanging. She said she’d never go to another.”
OLIVE HOWARD: James Boys Would Never Relax — “The most famous characters associated with my family were the James and Younger brothers. My husband’s grandfather, Gibson Howard, and great-grandfather, Mackleborough Howard, were their contemporaries and had come to Northwest Missouri at about the same time. They were all Southern sympathizers and all received much the same treatment from the guerrillas, treatment that was to have far-ranging consequences.”