|The train and bank robbers of the Old West sprang from the Civil War, primarily in Missouri. Disenfranchised, and disgruntled, ex-Confederates learned a trade of theft and violent raiding during the war and could not, or would not, give it up afterwards.
Many of the original Western outlaws had been guerrilla raiders during the war–which in the Missouri-Kansas border area stretched from 1854 to 1865. Cole Younger, and Frank and Jesse James had been with Quantrill’s raiders, the most noted of the guerrilla bands. Both Cole Younger and Frank James did leave Quantrill and join the regular Confederate army later in the war, but both were present at the infamous Lawrence, Kansas massacre (though there is some dispute as to whether Jesse James was there or joined Quantrill later that year, most evidence indicates he was not at Lawrence).
Motivations and causes for why these young men did not return to normal lives after the war ended can be debated endlessly without result. The two main points of view are:
Vengeful Unionists harassed them, blaming them for illegal activities until they were forced into the outlaw life. They claimed they could not surrender to the law to defend themselves from early charges because in the atmosphere at that time and place they’d have been lynched, so chose the outlaw trail as a survival option.
They were bitter losers in the war, refusing to give up the Lost Cause, continuing the war after it was over by robbing banks and trains as pseudo-guerrilla raids.
Credence can be lent to either argument. Cole Younger unintentionally gave weight to the latter argument when he stated that part of the motivation for robbing the Northfield bank was that they believed it was owned, in part, by Benjamin Butler, a hated Union general. On the other hand, there is also evidence that both the James and Younger brothers attempted to return to their homes and farming lives but were harassed and pursued because of their guerrilla connections. All ex-Confederates faced hard times in Missouri at the war’s end (see Oath of Loyalty), but guerrillas were often not regarded as having been legitimate soldiers and were, instead, treated as outlaws and criminals. Missouri had a long, bitter struggle that began before 1861 and would not end in 1865.
James family cabin as it would have appeared around the Civil War
John N. Edwards in “Noted Guerrillas”, a book that is not without bias however, says of the James and Youngers on their return home after the war’s end:
Cole Younger was repeatedly waylaid and fired at. His stock was killed through mere deviltry, or driven off to swell the gains of insatiable wolves. His life was in hourly jeopardy, as was the life of his brother James.
What else could Jesse James have done? In those evil days bad men in bands were doing bad things continually in the name of law, order and vigilance committees. He had been a desperate Guerrilla; he had fought under a black flag; he had survived dreadful wounds; it was known that he would fight at any hour or in any way; he could not be frightened out from his native country; he could be neither intimidated nor robbed, and hence the wanton war upon Jesse and Frank James, and hence the reason why today they are outlaws, and hence the reasons also that–outlaws as they are and proscribed in county or State, or territory–they have more friends than the officers who hunt them, and more defenders than the armed men who seek to secure their bodies, dead or alive.
The ‘on the other hand’ of Edward’s comments is the statements by some that they weren’t turned in because witnesses feared retribution at their hands.
What is without doubt is that both the James and Younger brothers had a considerable number of loyal supporters, not all of whom were fellow Confederates. Though well-known by many in Missouri, none were betrayed to the law.
As he had confessed to the Northfield robbery attempt, Cole Younger, in later years, could admit to having been an outlaw (though he claimed Northfield was his first and only robbery). Frank James had to claim innocence his entire life. This didn’t stop him in his later years from capitalizing on his, and his brother’s, notoriety, charging admission to see his home.
“Since 1865 it has been pretty much one eternal ambush for these two men–one unbroken and eternal hunt twelve years long. They have been followed, trailed, surrounded, shot at, wounded, ambushed, surprised, watched, betrayed, proscribed, outlawed, driven from State to State, made the objective points of infallible detectives, and they have triumphed. By some intelligent people they are regarded as myths; by others as in league with the devil.”
“Noted Guerrillas” by John N. Edwards,
referring to Frank and Jesse James
home of Jesse and Frank James near Kearney (pron. car-nee), Missouri
Frank James lived in the house, and sold tours for $.50 each to the curious. Cole Younger, after his release from prison, visited Frank often. The two men were seen talking and laughing in private conversations that immediately ceased when anyone else came within ear-shot.
I am a bonded highwayman
Cole Younger is my name
Through many a temptation
I’ve brought my friends to shame.
For the robbing of the Northfield bank
They say I can’t deny
Come listen, comrades, listen,
The next thing we defended them of
We started then for Texas
We started then to the Northward
We pointed out our pickets
from the Library of Congress Dustbowl Collection
[Historical note about the content of the above ballad: It was Bob Younger’s idea to go to Minnesota, Cole and Jim tried to talk him out if it. I’ve never seen historical mention of any of them robbing a miner in California. I don’t know where he got Northfield “Bay”. Northfield is on a small river, the Cannon river, not a lake.]
Some interesting web sites on the James and Youngers
Stray Leaves: James Family in America this is a very large site with pictures, articles, and information. Formatted for viewing on 1024X768 monitors-smaller monitors won’t work well with this site.
Friends of the James Farm by the organization that operates the Jesse & Frank James home as a museum
James-Younger Gang Reorganized lots of pictures
Jesse James Virtual Museum and Gift Shop pictures of artifacts
Northfield Bank site virtual tour of the bank in Northfield
Graves the Find-a-Grave sites of many of the James and Younger gang members
The Summer of Jesse James includes a photo of the wrecked train at Adair, Iowa
Pinkerton History page history page of the famous, and still in business, detective agency that hunted the James and Youngers. Some photos.
Myths and Facts historian for the Jesse James Farm & Museum attempts to sort truth from legend
The Jesse James Scrapbook site promoting a new novel, also includes historical newspaper articles on Jesse James
Jesse James’ original gravesite in the yard of the James family home. Jesse’s mother had him buried in the yard to protect the grave and his body. He was later moved to the town cemetery, in Kearney, Missouri, next to his wife after her death years later. The original marker was chipped away over the years by souvenir seekers.
In 1995 Jesse James had his third funeral when he was reburied after being exhumed for DNA tests to determine if he was really Jesse James. He was. The DNA reports are online at this site.
Frank James, after his death in 1915, was cremated as he feared graverobbers. His ashes were kept in a bank vault until his wife’s death in 1944.
“I was a guerrilla. I fought the best I knew how with Quantrill, Anderson, and Todd; but I never in all my life slew an unarmed man or a prisoner. Ask any of my comrades in Clay, Jackson, Lafayette, Howard, or Randolph counties if this is not so. You may think I tell you this to soften my fate, and strengthen my case before the people, but I do not. I tell it to you because it is the truth, and because I have been described in some newspapers as a monster of cruelty who delighted in bloodshed and murder.”
Frank James, October 5, 1882
“From the mass of rubbish that has been written about the guerrilla there is little surprise that the popular conception of him should be a fiendish, bloodthirsty wretch.
“Yet he was, in many cases, if not in most, a man who had been born to better things, and who was made what he was by such outrages as Osceola, Palmyra, and a hundred other raids less famous, but not less infamous, that were made by Kansans into Missouri during the war.”
Cole Younger, 1901
|Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, August 1863…
It is doubtful whether the world has ever witnessed such a scene of horror- certainly not outside the annals of savage warfare. History gives no parallel, where an equal number of such desperate men, so heavily armed, were let perfectly loose in an unsuspecting community. The carnage was much worse from the fact that the citizens could not believe that men could be such fiends. No one expected an indiscriminate slaughter.
(from Union newspaper account)
William Clarke Quantrill…
“‘Barbarism,’ rejoined Quantrell…, [note: common misspelling of Quantrill–D.R.] ‘barbarism, Mr. Secretary, means war and war means barbarism. Confederacy wants a victory. Men must be killed…
“‘I would wage such a war as to make surrender forever impossible. I would break up foreign enlistments by indiscriminate massacre. I would win the Independence of my people or I would find them graves…
‘There would be no prisoners,’ exclaimed the fiery captain. ‘Do they take any prisoners from me? Surrounded, I do not surrender; hunted I hunt my hunters; hated and made blacker than a dozen devils, I add to my hoofs the swiftness of a horse and to my horns the terrors of a savage following. Kansas should be laid waste at once. Meet the torch with the torch, pillage with pillage, slaughter with slaughter, subjugation with extermination.'”
from the autobiography of Cole Younger, one of Quantrill’s guerrillas-quite a few of the later James-Younger gang members had been with Quantrill at one time or another. Cole Younger and Frank James primarily. Jim Younger and Jesse James were with Quantrill later in the war.
“Quantrell assembled his gang about noon the day before the raid, and started towards Kansas about two o’clock. They crossed the border between five and six o’clock, and struck directly across the prairie toward Lawrence. He passed through Gardner, on the old Sante Fe wagon road, about 11 o’clock at night. Here they burned a few houses and killed one or two citizens. The passed through Hesper , ten miles southeast of Lawrence, between two and three o’clock. The moon was now down and the night was very dark and the road doubtful. They took a little boy from a house on Captain’s Creek, near by, and compelled him to guide them into Lawrence.”
Dawn, August 21, 1863...
“At the house of the Rev. S. S. Snyder a gang turned aside from the main body, entered his yard and shot him. Mr. Snyder was a prominent minister among the United Brethren. He held a commission as lieutenant in the Second Colored Regiment, which probably accounts for their malignity.”
Scenes from the raid…
“The most brutal murder was that of Judge Carpenter. Mr. Carpenter ran into the house, up stairs, then down again, the ruffian after him and firing at every turn. He finally eluded them and slipped into the cellar. He was badly wounded, so that the blood lay in pools in the cellar where he stood for a few minutes. His hiding place was soon discovered, and he was driven out of the cellar into the yard and shot again. He fell mortally wounded. His wife threw herself onto him and covered him with her person to shield him from further violence. The ruffian deliberately walked around her to find a place to shoot under her, and finally raised her arm and put his revolver under it, and fired so she could see the ball enter his head. [they had been married less than a year]
“Mr. Fitch was called downstairs and instantly shot. Although the second ball was probably fatal, they continued to fire until they lodged six or eight balls in his lifeless body. They then began to fire the house.
“Mr. Ellis, a German blacksmith, ran into the corn in the park, taking his little child with him. For some time he remained concealed, but the child growing weary began to cry. The rebels outside, hearing the cries, ran in and killed the father, leaving the child in its dead father’s arms.
“Noticing life in Mr. Sargeant one of the men coolly reloaded his pistol saying he “would soon finish him.” Mrs. Sargeant at once fell on her husband’s prostrate body, begging for his life, but the murderer placed the pistol above her shoulder and sent a ball crashing through his head. Mr. Sargeant survived eleven days.
“The courage shown by these ladies is seldom matched by the soldier’s in the excitement of a battle. On every side men were falling, close to them Mr. Williamson was killed, near them Mr. Hay was shot down. Bullets were flying all about them, but they stood guard over the dead and dying.”
from “The Lawrence Massacre” J. S. Broughton
Lawrence monument, 1895
Dedicated to the memory of the one hundred and fifty citizens who, defenseless, fell victims to the inhuman ferocity of border guerrillas, led by the infamous Quantrill, in his raid upon Lawrence, August 21st, 1863. Erected May 30th, 1895(inscription on monument)
Lawrence, Kansas 1869 map Map link–search “Lawrence” to see closer views
…poor, awkward Lawrence’s cry for help is quite unheeded, except, perhaps, in the passing of a few well-sounding resolutions, which remind one of champagne, long exposed to the air, from which the life and sparkle is gone forever…
from “Six Months in Kansas” by Hannah Anderson Ropes
“A trifle atrocity prone…”That could be said of Quantrill and his raiders, but it could also be said of his opponents. The Lawrence raid came after numerous female relatives of his men were arrested (just for being relatives) and killed or maimed in the collapse of the building in which they were confined. The collapse may have been accidental… or not. The raid on Lawrence, Kansas didn’t come out of the blue or without motivation. It was one in a long string of atrocities by both sides that had been taking place in the border area since 1854. The prison collapse wasn’t the sole reason, only the finally trigger. The response to the Lawrence raid was Order 11 which forcibly depopulated several Missouri counties of anyone sympathetic to, or suspected of being sympathetic to, the Rebels, turning the area into what was called the “Burnt District.”. It’s well to remember that the majority of the raiders at Lawrence killed no one. Cole Younger is said by more than one source to have saved several lives that day.
This page by William Pennington covers the Kansas City women’s prison collapse very well. Use your back button to return here.
Lawrence, 1856…“When we came to look out upon Lawrence and the surrounding country, as we had nearly run through the vocabulary finding words to express our rapture at the ever-changing beauty of every part of our route, and as this view from our window, and from the hill beyond us, was the master-piece, silence expressed most truly our feelings, stirred as they were by a divine hand. The house fronts the east, and is situated upon an elevation commanding a prospect unequaled for extent, or variety of loveliness, for miles in all directions. Half a mile to the north sits Lawrence, a little hamlet upon the prairie, whose fame has even now crossed the continent, awakening hopes and fears in the hearts of many for friends, who for six months, have battled with pioneer life. Malignity and hatred have been aroused in the souls of others, who see in this little gathering of dwellings of wood, thatch, and mud hovels, the promise of a new state, glorious in its future.
“The town reaches to the river, whose further shore is skirted with a line of beautiful timber, while beyond all rises the Delaware lands, which in the distance have all the appearance of cultivated fields and orchards, and form a back-ground to the picture of singular loveliness. To the eastward the prairie stretches away eight or ten miles, and we can scarcely help believing that the ocean lies beyond the low range of hills meeting the horizon. The line of travel from the east, or from Kansas city, passes into the territory by this way. Blue Mound rises in the south-east, and, with the shadows resting over it, looks green and velvety. A line of timber between us and Blue Mound marks the course of the Wakarusa, while beyond the eye rests upon a country diversified in surface, sloping hills, finely rolling prairies, and timbered creeks. A half mile to the south of us, Mount Oread, upon which our house stands, becomes yet more elevated, and over the top of it passes the great California road. West of us also is a high hill, a half mile in the distance, with a beautiful valley lying between, while to the north-west there is the most delightful mingling together of hill, valley, prairie, woodland and river . As far as the eye rests, we see the humble dwellings of the pioneer, with other improvements.”
from Kansas Its Exterior and Interior Life. by Sara T. L. Robinson published in 1856
“Jesse James was but a boy of sixteen, but he boasted of having killed thirteen men in Lawrence. But all stories with “thirteens” can safely be discounted. Thirteen seems to have been a favorite number with them, and enough of them boasted of having killed thirteen each to have exterminated the entire population of Lawrence. But his killing was probably limited only by his opportunities.” [Note: Jesse James was probably not at Lawrence, being too young, instead joining Quantrill later. Cole Younger and other first-hand sources say Jesse James was not there–D.R.]
from A History of Lawrence, Kansas by Richard Cordley
“In the first place I have never had a picture taken of myself since 1863. That portrait of mine in Edward’s Noted Guerrillas was taken from that picture. If you have seen it you will admit, I think, that I have changed greatly since then.”
Frank James, October 5, 1882, on how he had escaped recognition for years
[This was said to a newspaper reporter immediately after he surrendered to the governor. The statement is at odds with at least two photos that are well-sourced to be of Frank taken following 1863. Is this a truth? Or partial truth? Did he not count a couple photos that were secure in the possession of his wife or mother?]
“There are no good likenesses of these robbers extant, the only ones the police have being eight years old, and Cole Younger says they look nothing like them.”
reporter in Minnesota in 1876 after interviewing Cole Younger
|First daylight (peacetime) bank robbery in the US, Liberty, Missouri, attributed to the James and Youngers…
February 13, 1866, Liberty, Missouri, $62,000 was taken from the Clay County Saving Association Bank, the majority in bonds. The bank ended up closing due to insufficient funds. Depositors received $.60 on the dollar.
“I think there were about ten men in the robbery. No one was recognized. I do not remember that they were disguised in any way. I do not think there was more than suspicion as to who the parties were.”
remembrance of the Liberty robbery by Judge Sandusky
The James-Younger gang’s outlaw career began with banks, with this being the first in the town of Liberty, partway between the James brother’s home in Kearney, and the Younger’s home in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. Which individuals were actually responsible is open to debate, nevertheless the bank in Liberty is — historically or mythologically — the beginning of the James-Younger gang legend.
Liberty bank, Liberty, Missouri (closed Sundays)
Jesse James robs the Liberty bank… or not…Jesse James probably was not a participant. Sources indicate he was in too poor of condition due to a war wound to have been one of the Liberty bank robbers. Cole Younger (who claimed innocence in every robbery but the one at Northfield, Minnesota) says of the robbery, “Although every book purporting to narrate the lives of the Younger brothers has told of the Liberty robbery, and implied that we had a part in it, the Youngers were not suspected at that time, or for a long time afterward. It was claimed by the people of Liberty that they positively recognized among the robbers Oll Shepard, ‘Red’ Monkers and ‘Bud’ Pence, who had seen service with Quantrell.” (from The Story of Cole Younger by Himself) You’ll notice Cole Younger doesn’t say they didn’t rob the bank, just that they weren’t immediately suspected.
“I was tired of an outlaw’s life. I have been hunted for twenty-one years. I have literally lived in the saddle. I have never known a day of perfect peace. It was one long, anxious, inexorable, eternal vigil. When I slept it was literally in the midst of an arsenal. If I heard dogs bark more fiercely than usual, or the feet of horses in a greater volume of sound than usual, I stood to arms. Have you any idea of what a man must endure who leads such a life? No, you cannot. No one can unless he lives it for himself.”
Frank James, October 5, 1882, regarding his reason for surrendering
|A $10,000 reward had been put out on Frank and his brother Jesse which resulted in Jesse’s death. Because of this, and his wife’s influence, Frank decided to get out of the outlaw trade. He was older, 40-years-old, had a wife who disapproved of his criminal activity, and had a young son. His life was worth $10,000 to any stranger, friend, or family member who might choose to kill him for the reward. Frank James wanted out.
An attempt to negotiate an amnesty with the Governor of Missouri failed. Frank had too many crimes, and too many murders associated with them, to his credit to simple wipe the slate clean. Frank James surrendered to the Governor in his office, handing over his guns, saying they hadn’t left his side since the ’60s. [I read one historical author say that the governor laughed at this as the guns were 1875 model pistols, not 1860s.] Frank’s belt buckle was a “US”–a Union army buckle he’d gotten at Centralia, Missouri. Through all the years the ex-Confederate guerrilla had been robbing, he’d worn a Union army belt buckle. A stack of Frank’s wanted posters were piled on the floor behind him. The only real concession Frank seems to have gotten was that the State of Missouri wouldn’t extradite him to Minnesota. Had he been sent to Minnesota he almost certainly would have been hanged for the Northfield murders.
When Frank was acquitted the first time, for robbery and murder, the public reaction was shock and outrage. This was the O.J. verdict of the day, though many considered it a contrived outcome. Frank was almost certainly guilty. Frank James was then extradited to Alabama. Though he was escorted to jail there in handcuffs by two Federal marshals, the pro-Confederate atmosphere in Alabama gave him good hopes of another acquittal. As soon as the not guilty verdict there was read, Frank was immediately arrested by a Missouri sheriff. This was part of the plan to keep him out of the hands of Minnesota authorities. Thereafter, every time Minnesota tried to get a hold of Frank James, the Missouri legislature would introduce a bill charging him with further crimes so as to keep him in the state.
Frank James was never convicted of any crimes and, other than some time in jail during the trials, served no prison time. He shunned offers to capitalize on his outlaw fame, turning down offers of $100,000 and more for appearances, taking menial jobs instead. In his declining years he reversed this policy to an extent, joining Cole Younger in a traveling wild west show using their names (and outlaw fame) as its main draw.
Cole Younger and Frank James were reunited in their later years. In one story, Cole suggested they stop at a bank, wanting to change some money. Frank looked thoughtful for a long moment, then smiled and said, “If Cole Younger and Frank James walk into a bank together, the first thing they’d do is slam the vault shut and start shooting.” They wisely sent their driver in to change the money.
Related Pages on Civil War St. Louis…
|Alleged James-Younger Gang robberies…
The members of the James-Younger gang set the template for western outlaws, though they never roamed too far west.