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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


    Newly Discovered Primary Sources

    One of the most enjoyable aspects of historical research is the discovery of new primary sources (original documents, as opposed to secondary sources, or what other historians have written). It is not necessarily the most significant part: Two people can look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions. But the finding of new sources is both important and exciting.

    In writing Jesse James, I found a number of new sources, and also made more extensive use of known sources.

    • The Watkins Mill Letter Collection

      A mile or so from the James-Samuel farm is the Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park. It occupies the farm and woolen mill that once belonged to Waltus Watkins, a neighbor to the James-Samuel family. The park is not an archival facility, but it has amassed a collection of nineteenth-century letters (typescript copies, typed out by volunteers) written by the various families that comprised the Watkins clan. These letters shed fascinating light on Robert James, his widow Zerelda and her family after Robert's death, daily life during the Civil War, and the hunt for the James brothers. Some of the letters were written by George Patton, a sheriff of Clay County during Frank and Jesse's outlaw years, and by his wife, Bettie Scruggs Patton.

      A couple of important notes: First, I did not exactly discover these letters. I found a reference to them in an article by Louis Potts on Baptist revivalism in Clay County, in the Missouri Historical Review. He cited the letters by Robert James's church members, which drew my attention. Second, the letters, while fascinating, did not alter the picture I would otherwise have developed of Jesse and Frank James. Indeed, apart from adding interesting details, and throwing fresh light on the family's antebellum history, they do nothing to undermine any of the better-researched accounts of the brothers (such as the books by Settle and Yeatman). Third, I did not see originals, only typescript copies. The state park rangers in charge of the collection told me that volunteers had transcribed from the originals. However, I find it impossible to believe that they are fraudulent. They contained numerous obscure details that have been confirmed by other sources (one letter refers, for example, to Zerelda James's friendship with a Mrs. West; county records revealed that Tilman West served as legal guardian to Zerelda's children after Robert's death). Who would go to so much trouble to create extremely accurate fraudulent letters, with no earthshaking revelations that overturn what we already know, and then bury them in an obscure state park office? I am convinced they are genuine, though errors from transcription no doubt exist.

    • The Missouri State Legislature's Militia Report

      In 1864, the Missouri State Legislature conducted an extensive study of the conduct of the various forces of Union militia active during the Civil War. The results were then published, including lengthy testimony from local citizens, officials, and militia officers. In 1999, the State Historical Society of Missouri republished the report. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this document to the study of the Civil War in Missouri. In focusing on Clay County, I was able to better see the emergence of a militiant secessionist movement out of the border-ruffian mobilization (and suppression of dissent within Missouri) of the late 1850s; the efforts by secessionists to purge Clay County of Unionists in the summer of 1861, before the arrival of Union troops; the critical differentation between the different militia organizations, and the political significance of each; the exact extent and nature of the Paw Paw militia; and the emergence of the Radical Party in this conservative county. I also learned important new details about individuals wrapped up with the lives of Jesse James, from John S. Thomason to O.P. Moss to E. M. Samuel.

    • Provost-Marshal Papers in the National Archives

      Two Civil War historians, Michael Fellman and Mark E. Neely, Jr., broke new ground in the use of the papers of the Union provost marshals, kept by the National Archives in Washington, D.C. In terms of Jesse James, writer Ted Yeatman is the first, I believe, to make extensive use of these papers. I had completed most of my own work in the National Archives when Yeatman's book appeared, and found that I had come across some reports that he did not cite (though I had to go back to look at the National Archives's "Bulky Package File" that he cited, which includes detailed accounts of the Muscle Shoals robbery).

      For almost the entire Civil War, Missouri was under martial law; the provost marshals were the military policemen in charge of control of the civilian population. The reports are collected on two sets of microfilm documents: One-Name Files, and Two-or-More-Name Files. To find a report in the Two-or-More-Name Files, one must first search the alphabetical One-Name Files, then find the report numbers and go back to the numerically arranged Two-or-More-Name Files.

      The files I found that are of greatest interest are the reports of Colonel Catherwood and Captain William B. Kemper, Missouri State Militia. Captain Kemper first came to Clay County in May 1864 to hunt for the guerrillas led by Fletch Taylor (including the newly recruited Jesse James). After being wounded in an ambush, Kemper returned to serve as the provost marshal for most of Clay County, replacing Colonel Catherwood. I found two items of note. First, the 1865 order to exile Zerelda and Reuben Samuel (along with Susie James) from Missouri originated with a plan by Colonel Catherwood in the summer of 1864. Union headquarters in St. Louis found his plan insufficiently documented, however, and sent it back to him. Captain Kemper continued where Catherwood left off, and sent in a detailed eight-page report on the various families that he wanted banished for their support of the Confederate guerrillas. That report is the second interesting thing. Kemper, who had come to know the county well, wrote that he was certain that both Frank and Jesse were present at Centralia, and took part in the infamous massacre of Union troops there by Bill Anderson's men. He also called Zerelda Samuel "one of the worst women in this state."

      In addition, I followed in Fellman's footsteps in examining army reports on the turmoil in Missouri in 1866. These reports have a conservative bias, in keeping with the postwar army's political leanings (in particular, the conservative leanings of General Winfield Scott Hancock and General William T. Sherman). However, they shed important light on the often intense political violence of that critical election year, and the chaos that gripped Clay County and the town of Lexington in November and December.

    • Governors' Papers in the Missouri State Archives

      The various governors' papers in the Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri, are an absolutely essential source on the postwar guerrillas and James-Younger bandits. Governors Fletcher, Woodson, and Hardin personally directed operations against them, even to the extent of coordinating the movements of militia detachments and special agents. Letters from public officials and local citizens show the depth of the terror and despair created by the outlaws' seeming invicibility; many of their local, grassroots opponents (most of them former Unionists) received death threats from the bandits or their supporters. Furthermore, the governors' correspondence with railroad and express company officials shows that the railroad corporations took little interest in the bandits (until Crittenden called them together to ask for their help, late in Jesse James's life). The express companies, not the railroad corporations, drove the pursuit for the outlaws, along with the governors, who correctly saw Jesse James as a political problem as much as a threat to public safety.

    • Newspaper Editorials

      Most books about Jesse James have paid at least some attention to John N. Edwards's newspaper editorials in support of the bandits. I have thrown a wider net to include the larger context of both the outlaws' support and opposition. For example, I found that Edwards tied his economic complaints (about railroads, national banks) to his hatred of the Republicans, based on his Civil War loyalties and opposition to Reconstruction. He made no effort to cast the bandits as economic avengers of the small farmers, but depicted them as Confederate avengers against the Radical Republicans. I found a wide fault between Unionist and Confederate Democrats, as Unionist-Democratic newspapers denounced the Confederate Democrats' support for the bandits. Republican newspapers (especially Robert T. Van Horn's Kansas City Journal of Commerce) often provided perceptive commentary on the political role of the bandits, and on the shifting balance between the two wings of the Democratic party. I found extensive, vituperative denunciations of Reconstruction civil-rights measures in the Democratic press, especially the Confederate-Democratic press; indeed, Reconstruction overwhelmingly dominated the political debate from 1865 through the election of 1876.

    • Railroad and Express Industry Press

      I made a point of examining surviving corporate reports and periodicals of the railroad and express corporations. I found that the railroad press (and company reports) paid virtually no attention to the famous bandits. On the other hand, the express industry press went on at some length about train robberies, describing the raids, discussing measures to thwart them, exhorting messengers to be ready to resist. Again, this fits in with my overall findings: Jesse James did not rob railroads, but rather express companies, which were not the target of agrarian economic discontent. Railroad corporations did not fund, or even take an interest in, the pursuit of the James-Younger bandits.

    • Post Office and Secret Service Records in the National Archives

      These records proved most interesting for what they did not contain: Any reference to the James-Younger bandits, or their robberies. In copies of official correspondence, logs of letters sent and received, and case files of investigations, the records strongly suggest that the federal government took no interest in capturing the outlaws. This is all the more striking for the close relationship that the Pinkertons maintained with federal agencies, particularly with the Secret Service. The Secret Service (which investigated many mail robberies in this period) often hired the Pinkertons. Allan Pinkerton recommended that the Service hire Louis J. Lull (a Pinkerton operative killed by the Youngers), and the Service employed William Pinkerton to investigate a theft in its Washington offices in 1875. But nothing in the Secret Service or Post Office records relates to the James-Younger robberies. This shows that the Post Office did not hire the Pinkertons, as Ted Yeatman concluded after reviewing Allan Pinkerton's letters to the postmaster and Post Office's chief of investigations. As Pinkerton's language in those letters show, he approached the Post Office off the record to ask for favors, not as a hired gun reporting in.

    • The Letters of Sarah Harlan of Haynesville, Clinton County

      These letters (a part of the Bond-Fentriss Family Papers collection at the Southern History Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) were written by a young woman who lived just across the county line from the Samuel family. Her letters illuminate the Civil War and its aftermath in the immediate vicinity of the Samuel household (with a Unionist perspective), offering details on the actions of specific bushwhackers, the atmosphere at the end of the war, and the building of the railroad that ran through what became Kearney, Missouri. She specifically cited Jesse and Frank James as members of a crew led by Ol Shepherd, part of Bill Anderson's gang, as they murdered Unionists in late 1864. Michael Fellman first cited this letter in his book Inside War; however, Fellman mistakenly placed Harlan (and these events) in Chariton county.