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The Legend of Jesse James

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Jesse James was a legend in his own time throughout the Dakota Territory. Born in Missouri, he was sixteen when he joined the Confederate guerilla band of Bloody Bill Anderson. After the war, Jesse and his older brother Frank felt humiliated by the Union victory. They organized a gang and carried out bank robberies. Jesse craved attention. He began writing his own press releases and leaving them in the gang’s wake. He used newspapers to build his reputation as a Robin Hood, helping Missourians he thought were being crushed by the North. He said, “We are not thieves. We are bold robbers.”

The James brothers teamed up with Cole Younger. The James-Younger gang functioned from 1868 to 1876. They robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in at least eleven states. They often hid out in Dakota Territory.

One of Jesse James most famous exploits took place in what is now South Dakota. On the run from the law, the story is that he urged his horse into an eighteen-foot leap over Split Rock Creek. One horse expert notes that humans have made jumps of twenty feet, so eighteen feet for a horse could be possible. However, no one has tried to recreate that accomplishment.

On this date in 1876, the James-Younger gang rode into Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield was a growing community, boasting two colleges, a railroad line, and many prosperous businesses. It also had a bank. Several gang members created a diversion, galloping into town while shooting their pistols in the air. The townspeople dove for cover and three gang members walked into the bank. The teller stalled for time while another teller ran out the back door. Although shot and wounded, he was able to sound the alarm. Citizens opened fire on the gang, killing one and wounding others. It was all over in seven minutes. Jesse was the last one out of the bank. He and Frank quickly decided to go their own way, escaping to Dakota Territory.

The James Brothers were so notorious that Missouri Governor Thomas Crittendon mentioned them in his inaugural address. Capturing them was his top priority. He said, “No political motives can be allowed to keep them from justice.” Jesse James was killed by a fellow outlaw in 1882. Frank surrendered to Governor Crittendon. He was tried for robberies and acquitted. He died in 1915.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Northfield Historical Society. “The Bank Raid.” http://www.northfieldhistory.org/the-bank-raid/ Accessed 8/24/2021.

Shooting Iron. “Jesse James: American Outlaw.” https://shootingiron.org/jesse-james-american-outlaw/ Accessed 8/24/2021.

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