If there is ever a real
shootout staged during a gathering of the James-Younger Gang, the
bullets will be flying between the descendants and wantabe relations
of Jesse Woodson James. The Younger Clan seems to have all of its
family tree in order.
In recent years I have taken
much pleasure in working with West Texans who strive to learn about
their ancestry. Never – I repeat, never – have I experienced such
combative demeanor among folks claiming the same ancestor. It seems
that several different men claimed to be Jesse Woodson James and who
occupy graves from Texas to Missouri.
The James-Younger Gang, a
loosely organized group of several hundred persons living nationwide,
swooped into San Angelo last week for their annual meeting (or
showdown) to swap family information, folklore or other tidbits of
knowledge about the infamous outlaw gang that terrorized the mid-west
in years following the Civil War.
“Jesse James has become an
icon in American history,” said writer-historian Phillip W. Steele of
Springdale, Arkansas. Steele served as co-chairman of the “family
claimants” gathering on Friday morning with Eric James, a distant
relation to the bandit. The San Angelo gathering was the first that
Eric James had ever attended, he said.
Steele said his interest in
Jesse James and the James-Younger outlaw band developed when he
listened to stories being told at night while staying on his
grandfather’s farm. He admits having no kinship to the outlaw, but
says the story has intrigued him for a quarter-century. When the
courts allowed Jesse’s grave to be opened in 1995, Steele was one of
15 people selected as official witnesses.
“There was 10,000 people and
five television film crews at the graveyard when we arrived at 5:30
a.m.,” he said. Among items found in the grave was a .38 caliber
bullet, some tuffs of human hair, some teeth and a tie tack, the same
shown in a photo of Jesse taken at the funeral parlor before burial.
Steele said the purpose of the
James-Younger Gang organization is to bring people together who are
interested in learning about that period of history and to separate
fact from fiction. It appears that there is perhaps more fiction
surrounding Jesse James and his exploits than there is fact.
Several people stepped up to
the microphone to tell about their relationships to either the James
or Younger families. A member of the Mims family briefly told about
that group coming to America from Wales, and that the name at one time
was spelled “Mimms.”
Frank Younger and his wife,
Sharon, of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, told of their
relationship to the bank robbing Youngers. Despite one of her
relatives serving as a bank teller in the bloody Northfield, Minn.
Raid, and later as a bank official who captures another bank robber
years later, she and her husband had a good time telling their story.
The fun ended when Texas
author Betty Duke of Liberty Hill, between Burnet and Austin, started
talking about her great-grandfather, J. L. Courtney, whom she believes
to be Jesse Woodson James. Mrs. Duke wrote a book about her beliefs,
including that Courtney is buried in Falls County, Texas, a place
where he came to retire to a peaceful life in old age.
Retired California Superior
Court Judge James Ross was not amused or happy with Mrs. Duke’s
presentation. He has challenged her claims for years, saying that DNA
tests of exhumed remains taken from Jesse James’ grave in Kearney,
Missouri in 1995 prove the old bandit died there and didn’t wander
away. There have been many imposters over the years, including the
late J. Frank Dalton who claimed to be Jesse. He is buried in
Granbury. Another imposter, John James, died in a mental hospital
after traveling around the country with a tent preacher. The
preacher’s daughter was in attendance Friday, but did not make any
However, Mrs. Duke came
prepared. She challenged each person claiming direct kin to Jesse
James to provide blood for DNA testing. In fact, she had blood
sampling kits with her. Matters got even more out of hand when a
video she planned to show gave problems, using up some of her allotted
30 minutes. When she was nearly finished, the judge demanded a minute
of time and took several to read about DNA testing from a lawbook.
There was grumbling, and another speaker offered his 30 minutes to
allow the woman to show the video, which featured a Missouri official
saying the exhumation in 1995 did not prove conclusively that the
remains were that of Jesse’s corpse.
Perhaps next year’s meeting
will reveal some new facts about the James bunch. However, I doubt
it. Facts are hard to come by when there is little or no cooperation
Thanks for coming to San
Angelo. I hope your journey to the James boys “Peace Ranch” in
Sterling County was informative, entertaining and peaceful. I’ll be
seeing you Out Yonder.