"See the Bullet Hole"--The Birth and Death of an Outlaw

June 17, 2010

On the way to our first genealogy destination, we stopped at the James Family Farm and Museum, childhood home of Jesse and Frank James, in Kearney, Missouri.

Original structure is on the left. Added-on rooms to the right.

The cabin, built of log and clapboards, is quite small, and was originally built in 1822. The Reverend Robert James brought his wife Zerelda and son Frank there in 1845, and Jesse was born here in 1847. After the Reverend’s death (he had gone to California after gold was discovered and died there), Zerelda remarried (twice, ultimately). She began giving tours of the farm after 1882, a practice continued by Frank after her death, and later, Frank’s son and Jesse’s grandsons. The home contains many items belonging to the James family, including two beautifully made quilts crafted by Frank’s wife, Annie, who seems to have been a gifted seamstress. In the 1890s, Zerelda added two ready-made rooms to the original structure, purchased from the Sears catalogue.

Jesse was originally buried on the family farm, but was later moved. Replica of original headstone.

In addition to the family’s home, there is a small museum which contains more James family items, including Jesse’s and Frank’s saddles, the family Bible with entries made by Zerelda, the boots Jesse was wearing when he died and the tombstone of Frank James’ treasured horse, Dan. It seems that when Dan died, Frank had him buried on the farm some distance from the house. Frank included Dan’s grave in the public tours he gave, but as he aged, he found it harder to make the walk to it, and the horse’s tombstone was moved closer and closer to the home. No one knows now where the horse is actually buried!

Later in the trip, we visited the house in which Jesse James was shot to death at age 34 in 1882. He was living with his wife and two children in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the name of Tom Howard. Jesse’s tiny white house still bears the scars of that shooting: a hole in the wall, subsequently enlarged by treasure hunters, and gouges in the wood floor where more treasure hunters carved pieces of blood-soaked wood out of the boards! The home also contains artifacts from Jesse’s coffin—his grave was exhumed in 1995 so that forensic scientists using DNA testing could determine if the body buried in his grave was really him. (It was.)

The home where Jesse was shot

While looking out over the peaceful acreage at the James farm, I wondered what made Jesse and Frank become outlaws. Until this trip, I knew virtually nothing about the Jameses—and still know only a little. I wondered if Jesse and Frank intended to become what they became—but how could they have?

We hadn’t planned on visiting either where Jesse James was born or died…it just happened. Lives can be like that, too.  Sometimes when you’re on a road, you don’t know where it will lead. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices to make along the way.

Outside the James Museum

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  1. Wow.... that was interesting. Does make you wonder why people end up like they do, doesn't it?

    Enjoying "touring" with you. Where to next? ;-)

  2. Thanks, Teresa. I think I've got one more installment of the great Missouri trip coming up--I'll pack a lot into that one, probably! Stay tuned.

  3. Kathy, I have to admit I know almost nada about the James' brothers, so I had to look it up the other day after I read this. I do wonder why we turn out the way we do, and why, for instance, I repetitively do the same things over and over in my own life, and seem to take my time learning certain lessons.

    That said, you've gotta wonder about the life behind closed doors of a family where the mother was willing to give tours of her home shortly after the death of her notorious son. What kind of ghoulish imagination must she have had?

  4. Oh Kathy you were right in my neighborhood so to speak. Wish I had know we maybe could have hooked up.
    I live in Liberty, which is right south of Kearney and site of the 1st daylight bankrobbery by the James Gang.

    If you ever come through again give me a call at 816-225-7243

  5. Meredith--I know what you mean! There was a lot of violence and tragedy around the James family, and Zerelda was destitute with small children to raise more than once. She lost a child and part of her right arm in an attempt by the Pinkerton agency to capture Jesse and Frank. I would imagine experiences like that would tend to take the sentimentality out of life.

  6. Marthann--I wish I had known before the trip! I would have loved to meet up with a fellow Imaginary Traveler/Journaler! We had a great time. We thought Missouri was beautiful and the people were very nice. And it was not nearly as crowded as our respective homes of FL and CA--a very nice change!

  7. Sounds like you are having/had a wonderful time! Love the history lesson on Jesse James too. Isn't it neat finding out how people lived back then?

  8. It is fascinating to see how people lived in the past. So different in some ways, and in some, so much the same.