Poor Jesse James might not have been the victim of what amounted to state-sanctioned murder in 1882—or so many bad movies—if he hadn’t made that first career blunder in Gallatin, Missouri, in 1869. But how did the West’s most notorious bank, train and stagecoach robber get to Gallatin?
It starts at the family farm outside of present-day Kearney, Missouri, where Jesse Woodson James was born on September 5, 1847, and where visitors today can tour the museum, farmhouse and Jesse’s original grave at the Jesse James Birthplace Museum.
Jesse’s Kentucky-born dad, Robert James, became pastor at New Hope Baptist Church—now called New Direction Church— in Holt. Things might have turned out differently too, but in 1850, Robert James left Missouri for the California goldfields only to die of fever four months after arriving in present-day Placerville.
Then came the Civil War. Big brother Frank enlisted in the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard, was captured during the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in April 1861 near Springfield (tour Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield), paroled, then broke parole and joined guerrilla William Clarke Quantrill’s Southern bushwhackers.
On May 23, 1863, pro-Union forces, looking for Quantrill, hoisted Jesse’s stepdad off the ground with a rope to make him talk. Legend says they also whipped 15-year-old Jesse with a rope. That eventually drove Jesse to join the bushwhackers, but the war was lost. When Jesse attempted to surrender in May 1865, he was shot through the lung.