© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The James Gang in ND


The anniversary of Frank James’s death in 1972 is reported as either this past Sunday or tomorrow, so today’s story lands somewhere in the middle.

A sign in Missouri states: Young Jesse James was plowing the fields near this location in 1863 when Federal Soldiers surrounded him and demanded information about the location of his brother, Frank, and Quantrill’s guerilla camps. When Jesse refused to answer, the soldiers beat him. Running to the house, he found his step-father, Dr.

Samuel, had been hanged by the soldiers. Filled with hatred and revenge, Jesse soon joined the guerilla forces. Jesse was only 17 when he joined 19 year-old Frank and a group of pro-Southern bandits. While Jesse is the most infamous, many say Frank was the real leader of the James Gang; an account by James Buttree of Grand Forks seemed to favor that notion. The Buttree family was living on a farm near Grand Forks when one Sunday in 1880, two men on horseback rode up their homestead shanty. James Buttree was only eleven at the time, but they made a big impression on him.

“They were mounted on beautiful bay horses of 1,100 or 1,200 weight. They asked if they might rest and feed their horses and get some dinner. Of course, we were delighted to have them with us; strangers were always welcome, more than welcome; their presence was always a diversion from the monotony of being so much alone....

“They had double-barrel shot guns...lashed to their saddles, along with blankets, oats in sacks for the horses, and iron sugar stakes with lariats for staking the horses out to grass...They were dressed exactly alike: brown-striped trousers, tucked into high-top boots, were supported by heavy leather belts; each belt had two holsters carrying old style Colt 44 revolvers. The guns were worn in front with butts to center – or the cross-arm draw...I might say that when guns were considered, not much escapes the attention of the small boy. They wore blue flannel shirts laced in front and loosely tied black sailor ties, black slouch hats...

“As they stepped in and shook hands, they held back their identification, waiting for father to move first. Father said, ‘We are Canadians. We came out from Ontario in the spring.’ “The taller of the two then stated, ‘We are brothers; our name is James; we live in Missouri near Kansas City.’... Ontario having been mentioned, (Frank) knew we had never heard of them... he boldly told us the truth, and we were none the wiser.

“Mother thought Frank James was a very interesting young man; he had...a fund of information as well as being a fluent conversationalist. My memory of this visit is very exact, not only because of the guns and general picturesqueness of the men, but Fred and I had to wait for dinner...

“Shortly after dinner they saddled their horses and led them to the door before taking leave. They offered to pay for their entertainment, but their thanks were accepted instead... Frank did all the talking and most of the smiling and laughing. Jesse was a stoic. His only speech was when he shook hands and said, ‘Good bye.’ They mounted their horses and rode away to the west.”

(For James Buttree’s full story, read: The Way it Was: The North Dakota Frontier Experience; Book One : The Sod-busters, Everett C. Albers and D. Jerome Tweton, Editors)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm