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Frank and Jesse James.jpg

Frank & Jesse James  

21st Paternal cousins, 2x removed.

When you are researching your family ancestry, you will come across both good and bad ancestors. In the case of the infamous James brothers, my find definitely falls into the "bad" category.

Jesse Woodson James and his older brother, Alexander Franklin James were both on September 5, 1847 and January 10, 1843 respectively. They were the sons of my 20th cousin, 3x removed, Zeralda Elizabeth Cole and her husband, Robert Salle James. They were raised in Missouri on a farm, and at the outbreak of the American Civil War, the brothers, who were sympathetic with the Confederate cause, joined separate groups of Confederate guerrillas. Frank joined William C. Quantrill's guerrillas where he met Cole Younger, who would become a member of the James brother's outlaw gang after the end of the Civil War.

At the end of the war, both guerrilla gangs surrendered, and it was reported that Jesse was shot and severely wounded by Federal troops during the surrender. 

On February 13, 1866, Jesse, Frank and 8 other men began their outlaw careers by robbing a bank in Liberty, Missouri. Later that year, Cole Younger joined the James gang. Over the next few years, Cole's brothers John, James and Robert followed their brother and also joined the James gang. The gang then became known as the James-Younger gang.

The James gang robbed banks from Iowa over to Texas and down to Alabama. In 1873, the gang began robbing trains. They also robbed stagecoaches, stores and individual citizens. During their robbery spree, Jesse James became a folk hero to the Missouri Ozark citizens who romanticized his crimes and saw the pursuit of the James gang by Federal officers as revenge for Jesse's support of the Confederate cause. During and after the James gang's robberies, writers would seize upon their exploits and romanticized their crime to enthrall readers eager for tales of the wild West frontier.

On September 7, 1876, the James gang, with the exception of Frank and Jesse, were all either killed or captured during an attempt to rob the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota.  The James brothers rounded up new gang members in 1879 and once again resumed their crime spree. 

Between 1866 and 1882, the James gang had become the most feared gang of outlaws in the west. They robbed more than 20 banks and trains, and were responsible for the murders of countless people who stood in their way. The estimated value of thefts was around $200,000.00. Although revered by their own community in Missouri, the brothers had to constantly stay on the move to avoid capture.

In 1881, having tired of the James brother's robbery spree, Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden announced a $10,000.00 reward for the capture of the James brothers, dead or alive. Such a large bounty was too enticing for people to turn down, and it would prove to be the downfall of the James gang.

Jesse and Frank had joined ranks with brothers Charlie and Bob Ford. The $10,000.00 reward for the James brothers, dead or alive, was too tempting for Bob Ford to ignore. On the morning of April 3, 1882 after breakfast, Bob Ford shot Jesse once in the back of the head, killing him. Jesse was 34 when he was shot and killed.

The citizens of Missouri were outraged at the murder of Jesse James, and immediately labelled Bob Ford a coward for having shot Jesse from behind. Jesse's brother, Frank disappeared after his brother's death, but 5 months later he surrendered himself directly to Governor Crittenden in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Frank was tried for only 2 robberies and the murders of two men. When the trials were over, Frank had been acquitted on all charges. Frank would live out the remainder of his days doing odd jobs before dying on February 18, 1915 at the James' farm in Missouri. He was 72.

The tales of the James brother's exploits are legend, often twisted into a falsely romanticized tale of the wild West in the late 1800's. The fact of the matter is that both of these brothers - distant paternal cousins of mine - were thieves and murderers, and by no stretch of the imagination could I ever call them heroes. 


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