To many students of history, Jesse James is one of the most notorious villains ever to live in the United States, robbing banks and killing enemies all over the country for decades during the mid-1800s. But for a fair number of his contemporaries in western Missouri, James was a freedom fighter and folk hero.
I learned a fascinating story about James life and motivation for his violent actions at the James Farm, a historic site in the small town of Kearney, Missouri, where James was born and lived much of his early life. During a tour of the museum, I learned about the violent Civil War-era events that motivated Jesse and his brother Frank James to begin their life of violent crimes. The James boys and their family, who supported the South in the Civil War, saw significant abuse at the hands of Union sympathizers. After the war, when a new Missouri constintution disenfranchised and marginalized those who had supported the rebel cause, the James brothers began robbing pro-Union banks as a form of vigilante justice.
After seeing an introductory video and touring the small museum, I took a guided tour of the James house, which was built in the early 1800s. During the tour, I heard stories of the family’s life there, including some of the attacks that the boys’ mother and siblings endured by federal marshals pursuing the outlaws. The boys’ mother lived there until the day she died; after that, Frank James came back and lived in the home as well, giving tours of the farm to curious passers by who came to see the birthplace of the already-infamous Jesse James.
After he was killed in St. Joseph, Jesse James was brought back to the farm and buried there, where a gravestone and memorial still stands. Reading the inscription on the headstone, you would think that Jesse James was a first-rate hero. It’s a good reminder that history is never quite as simple as it seems. And after visiting the home and hearing its stories, I have a new appreciation for the difficult time in our history that this family’s struggle represents.