At the south edge of Franklin, Nebraska, between the railroad tracks and the Republican River is a piece of farmland immersed in the lore of Jesse James.
The legendary outlaw talked of buying 160 acres in Franklin as a home for his family after robbing just one more bank. But he was slain - shot in the back of the head in his home at St. Joseph, Mo. -- before completing the land deal.
The Franklin land is one of many connections Jesse James and his brother Frank had with Nebraska and Iowa.
Reported Nebraska locales include Omaha, Rulo, Nebraska City, The Devil’s Nest area near Niobrara, Obert, Sumner, Washington and Lowell.
Iowa stories mention Adair, Corydon, Council Bluffs, Hamburg and Bartlett.
Plattsmouth, Nebraska researcher Emmett Hoctor said the James Gang visited Nebraska at least 20 times.
Folklorist Roger Welsch said Jesse James "is perhaps the most beloved of American outlaws.” He robbed banks and railroads - institutions hated by many people in the 1800s - and reportedly gave some of the loot to the poor.
In 1871, the James gang rode into Corydon, Iowa, and robbed the bank while townspeople were in the Methodist Church to hear about the railroad coming to town.
In 1873 the gang staged the first train robbery in the west -- near Adair, Iowa. Jesse and Frank reportedly planned that robbery while Omaha.
Frank James was reported to have married in Omaha in 1874.
Some people believe that Jesse fathered a son while hiding out in the Devil's Nest area after robbing a bank in South Dakota. The mother was a Sioux woman. The boy, Joe Jesse Chase, long maintained he was Jesse’s son.
Jesse James frequently visited a friend in Nebraska City. A resident recalled that Jesse, “with a price on his head, used to ride boldly down Central Avenue in Nebraska City.” One of the best photographs of Jesse was made in a studio in Nebraska City.
Otoe County also is the supposed setting for a popular tale about the James Gang. The gang reportedly rode to a widow's farm home one evening and asked for a meal. As she fed them, she began crying. The gang leader asked why. She said a banker was coming the next day to foreclose on the mortgage and she didn't have money to pay him.
The gang leader assured her things might work out. As she cleaned up after the men left, she found under the table a leather bag that contained enough gold to pay off the banker. The next day, as he rode in his carriage back to town after collecting the money, the banker was robbed by a gang of masked men. He said they looked like the James Gang.
Jim Potter, state historian, said he has not found verification of the story. “It sounds too good to be true,” he said.
Jesse James Jr. in a book about his father, said Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Samuels, and her husband moved from Clay County Missouri, to Rulo, Nebraska during the Civil War because she was a Southern sympathizer - and was being harassed by Northerners.
Jesse James Sr., who was wounded during the Civil War, came up the Missouri River on a steamboat to Rulo to recuperate from his wounds, the book, said. Jesse’s stepfather was a physician.
In late 1881, weary from hiding, Jesse, living under the name Thomas Howard, talked of ending his outlaw ways and settling down to farm in Nebraska.
He answered a Lincoln Journal advertisement for 160 acres, with a creek running through it, for sale at Franklin, saying: “I want to purchase a farm of that size - I will not buy a farm unless the soil is No. 1."
He apparently visited the land in 1882, but was killed before moving ahead with the purchase.
The 160 acres is still farmland. The creek no longer runs through the site. It was rerouted after the 1935 Republican River Flood.
If Jesse and his family had moved to Franklin, would their home be a museum today? Both his boyhood home at Kearney, Mo., and the home in St. Joseph where he was murdered are museums.
There are many other tales of Jesse and Frank hiding out in Nebraska and sleeping in barns en-route to and from robberies.
One newspaper reporter said: “The legends that have sprung up concerning the bandit were as thick as dandelions, and he must have had the ability to be in a hundred different places simultaneously if all the several million people who ‘saw’ him are to be believed.”
View Jesse James original letter and the ad that caught his interest in Franklin County, Nebraska here:
Below is some additional information found on the R&R Auction web site on November 27, 2005.
Jesse and Frank James both fought as Confederate guerrillas in the American Civil War. In 1866 they and eight other men robbed a bank in Liberty, Mo. Joined by other outlaws in subsequent years, the James gang robbed banks from Iowa to Alabama and Texas. In 1873 the bandits began robbing trains; they also preyed upon stagecoaches, stores, and individuals. In 1876 Jesse led a failed attempt to rob a bank in Northfield, Minn.; though the brothers escaped, the rest of the gang was killed or captured.
After assembling a new gang in 1879 the brothers resumed robbing, and in 1881 the governor of Missouri offered a $10,000 reward for the brothers' capture, dead or alive. Ultra-rare ALS signed with his alias “Tho. Howard,” one faintly-lined page both sides, 5 x 8, March 2, 1882. Written only one month before his murder, while in hiding, James seeks to buy a farm and start a new life. In full, “I have noticed that you have 160 acres of land advertised for sale in Franklin co. Neb. Please write at once and let me know the lowest cash price that will buy your land. Give me a full description of the land etc. I want to purchase a farm of that size provided I can find one to suit—I will not buy a farm unless the soil is No. 1. I will start on a trip about 8 days to northern Kan. & Southern Nebraska and if the description of your land suits me I will look at it & if it suits me I will buy it from the advertisement in the Lincoln Journal. I suppose your land can be made a good farm for stock & grain. Please answer at once.” James signs at the conclusion, adding his current address “No. 1318 Lafayette St. St. Joseph, Mo.”Incredibly, the text of this letter can be found, in full, in the rare book entitled Outlaws of the Border: A Complete and Authentic History of the Lives of Frank and Jesse James, written by Jay Donald and published in 1883. After the quote of the letter, the author writes, “To this epistle an answer came, speaking in most glowing terms of the land, and of the social, religious and educational advantages of the neighborhood. And but for the secret stratagem of the Ford Brothers, Jesse might now be farming in Nebraska.”
A copy of this book accompanies the letter. After his gang took a bank in Northfield, Minnesota in 1876 and all but Frank and Jesse James were killed, both Frank and Jesse, at the urging of their wives, decided to live the straight life. This letter shows James’ attempt to buy a farm and leave his old ways behind. Because he didn’t have enough money to buy the farm, he planned one last bank job. All of his earlier gang members were either dead or in prison, but Jesse, ironically, recruited Bob and Charlie Ford, the men who would soon kill him, to help rob the Platte City Bank. However, the $10,000 reward on the head of James proved to be too appealing. While Jesse stood on a chair to adjust a picture in his house, Bob Ford killed James with a single bullet to the back of the head on April 3, 1882. A few months later, Frank gave himself up. Tried and acquitted three times, he retired to a quiet life on his family's farm.
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