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Jesse James, the American Civil War and Billy the Kid

Frank James (1843–1915) and his brother Jesse James (1847-1882) were born on a Missouri farmhouse. Their father Rev Robert James was a Baptist preacher who had earlier moved from Kentucky; now he bought a substantial commercial hemp farm with slaves. In 1849 Robert James went to work in Californian gold-rush towns, but died there.

To most people, the story of Jesse James was a part of the story of the Old West - of outlaws, gunslingers and saloons. But the real story was that of the Civil War and slavery. In 1818 the Territory of Missouri had applied for statehood, but the northern states didn't want to admit another slave state.

Jesse James (left) and Billy the Kid (right) 
Both in their late teens 

By 1854, Nebraska Territory applied for statehood. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, it would be admitted as a free state. The Nebraska-Kansas Act brought the sectarian conflict between North and South to a climax. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln became president on an anti-slavery plat­form and South Carolina announced its secession; the Civil War started.

James' family farm in Missouri had always had slaves, and the county had many Southern sympathisers. Frank quickly joined the local secessionist militia but Jesse, 13, was too young. In Aug 1861, Frank James fought for the Confed­erates at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield Missouri, the first major Civil War battle - bands of guerrillas executed soldiers, prisoners and civilians.

Frank was in a guerrilla group that car­ried out raids and massacres in Missouri and Kansas: Quantrill’s Raiders. So in 1863, Union troops moved onto the James farm looking for Frank and brutally attacked the estate. Including young Jesse.

Perhaps the cruel Union soldiers did promote rebellion in the James brothers. In one action for the Confederate Army, the Quantrill Raiders killed 22 unarmed Union prisoners; in another, they shot 100+ Federal troops who were surrendering. In Oct 1864, Jesse was shot and seriously wounded when his group was surrounded by a Union patrol, ending his Civil War action.

The Civil War ended in 1865 but tensions in Missouri continued. Jesse’s Confederate commander kept his band of guerrillas together, to attack the new Repub­lican state government. The James brothers revolted against harsh post-war civil legislat­ion and their gangs specifically targeted banks staffed by former Union sympathisers. But in 1866 Archie Clement, the pro-Confederate guerrilla leader during the American Civil War, was killed in an ambush by Union militia. Jesse was severely wounded that day.

In Dec 1869, the brothers robbed a bank in Gall­atin Missouri; James executed the bank teller, because he was one of the militia troopers who’d killed Archie Clement. So the Missouri Governor set a price on the James Gang’s heads.

The James brothers then joined forces with another former Con­fed­erate guerrilla, Cole Younger. Jesse began sending political letters to the pro-Confederate editor of the Kansas City Times, condemning the Repub­lic­ans and supporting the Secessionists. A hero, he was defying oppressive Northern occupiers.

Wanted Dead or Alive poster
A valuable reward on Jesse James' head and on his brother, Frank's head

In 1874 Jesse married his long time sweetheart-cousin Zerelda and had two children. Both James brothers were good family men, but they still continued their life of crime – especially train robberies. Natur­ally they were targeted by police throughout the Mid West.

In Sep 1876, the James Gang robbed a bank in Minnesota, and while they were inside, the local citizens surrounded them and opened fire. In the ensuing gunfight, two gang members were killed. Jesse and Frank fled Missouri and hid in Virginia.

By Dec 1881 Jesse had returned to Missouri, acc­ompanied by two trusted brothers, Charley and Robert Ford. Even after the gang had been killed, and their friends the Youngers had been sent to prison for 25 years, the James brothers planned one more robbery with the Fords. Apparently Missouri Governor Crittenden had promoted a reward so large that the Fords turned traitors to earn it. In April 1882, Rob Ford shot Jesse in the skull, killing him instantly at age 34. Missourians considered it a vicious assassin­ation.

Henry McCarty aka Billy the Kid (1859-1881) was born in the New York slums. He moved to Wichita Kansas, and then New Mexico in the early 1870s. Henry quickly adapted to life in the rugged territory and learned Spanish, but his frail mother died of TB in 1874. Ignored by his absentee stepfather, the future gun slinger spent the next year living in boarding houses. 

The Kid’s first trouble came in 1875, when he robbed a shop and hid the goods in his boarding house, but his landlord handed him in. The crime only carried a minor sentence, nonetheless the wiry youth escaped prison and fled town. The Kid worked as a roving ranch hand, gambler and gang member and became skilled with weapons. In Aug 1877 he killed a man in an Arizona saloon.

In the 1877-1881 era, the baby-faced outlaw was in­volved in the murder of many men. But Billy the Kid first became known as a significant gunslinger in 1878, when he participated in a bloody frontier war in Lincoln County New Mexico, regarding a business feud. Tunstall asked the Kid and other gunmen to protect his property. The tensions finally boiled over in Feb 1878, when Tunstall was murdered by Sheriff William Brady’s posse.

Following Tunstall’s death, the Kid and others organised themselves into a revenge-filled vigilante group: The Reg­ul­ators. They assassinated Sheriff Brady and spent months shooting it out with government forces. The Kid left the war reputed to be one of the West’s most skilled gunmen, but he was wanted for Sheriff Brady’s murder. After claiming that he killed more than 20 men, the Kid spent the rest of his VERY short life on the run.

In late 1880, Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked the Kid to a cabin in New Mexico, and arrested him. In the Lincoln courthouse the Kid was found guilty of Brady’s murder and was scheduled to be hanged. But he planned a daring getaway in April 1881, ambushed two guards and killed both. Once in cont­rol of the courthouse, the Kid collected weap­ons and fled on a stolen horse. News­papers across the country made the Kid the most wanted man in the West.

The Younger brothers and the James brothers, 1876

The Kid hid for months on the frontier with locals in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In July 1881 Sheriff Garrett and his deput­ies rode into town and shot the 21-year-old dead.

Films Billy the Kid was a relatively unknown historical figure until the publication of The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, written by his killer, Sheriff Garrett in 1882. And with the 1911 silent film “Billy the Kid”, he became an even greater celebrity.

Over time Holly­wood transformed James and the Kid from murderous outlaws into young, romantic heroes who were fighting the author­ities. At least one film suggested that Jesse invited the Kid to join his gang, but robbing banks and trains did not interest the Kid. The UCLA Film & Television Archive explored the cinematic history of these two outlaws in its Two Western Myths: Billy the Kid and Jesse James film series in 2010.


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