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Photo © Brice Hammack
From the Desk Of

  • Newly Discovered Primary Sources
  • Reinterpreting History: How Jesse James Differs from Standard Accounts
  • Photographs


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    Birthplace, battleground, refuge, icon: This humble house was the slumping center of the Jesse James story. Its modest dimensions (divided into only three rooms) misleadingly suggest a hardscrabble existence. Jesse's father, Robert James, ran a commercial hemp operation on this farm in the 1840s, using a team of child slaves in the labor-intensive task of harvesting the crop and preparing its fibers for sale to rope makers, who manufactured baling twine and bagging for the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Here in Clay County, Missouri, slaveowners were integrated into national markets, particularly Southern markets, reinforcing their cultural identification with Dixie and belying the frontier image that clings to Jesse James.

    After Robert's death in the California gold fields, the house became a virtual fortress that the family defended against the outside world. First, Robert's widow (and Jesse's mother) Zerelda, a tall and sharp-tongued woman, battled the common law and a court-appointed administrator to retain her slaves, her possessions, and the farm itself. After two estate auctions and a brief, failed second marriage (ending in the death of her much older husband), she finally restored herself by marrying a timid physician, Reuben Samuel, whom she overshadowed physically and emotionally. With the Civil War came raids by Unionist militiamen, some of them fellow Clay Countians, who tortured Samuel into revealing the whereabouts of Jesse's brother Frank, a Confederate guerrilla. Later, after Jesse joined Frank as a "bushwhacker," the family was banished from the state for several months.

    After the war came raids by sheriffs' posses (with attending narrow escapes by the James brothers), the kidnapping and murder of a recklessly adventurous Pinkerton detective, and the notorious 1875 bombing of the farmhouse by a Pinkerton squad. By then the reputation of the place had grown to the point where the county sheriff spent some hours looking for rumored subterranean passages. At the very end of Jesse James's life, he returned once more to the vicinity of the family homestead, where he was buried in 1882.


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