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