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For as long as I can
remember, I've heard that my paternal great-grandfather, known as James L.
Courtney in Texas, was really the famous outlaw Jesse James. This is in
part my story, but primarily it is the story of the man I knew as Grandpa
I will refer to my great-grandfather throughout this writing as Grandpa,
because the family knew him as Grandpa Courtney. Grandpa told his
daughter Ida, my grandmother, his true identity, and she passed that
information down to her children. Then my father, Jesse W. Dorsett, kept
the story alive by telling his children. Now it's my turn.
As a child, I had no reason to doubt the story, but as I grew older, I
began to question the family account. History reports that Jesse was shot
dead by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882, at age 34 and was buried in Kearney,
Mo. Grandpa lived to be 96 and is buried in Blevins, Texas. I decided to
chalk up the story as yet another one of those Texas tall tales. It
wasn't until years later that I discovered the family story about Grandpa
being Jesse James is probably true.
In 1995, I became interested in genealogy and recalled Daddy saying that
in 1871 Grandpa rode up to the home of Thomas Hudson Barron (an early-day
captain of the Texas Rangers) with saddlebags full of gold on both the
horse he was riding and the one he was leading. On October 31, 1871,
Grandpa married Barron's daughter, Mary Ellen, and they settled in
Blevins, Texas, about 30 miles south of Waco.
Grandpa and Mary Ellen had eight children - six girls and two boys. He
farmed, raised cattle, hunted and was an avid beekeeper. From all
appearances, he was just an ordinary farmer - that was what he wanted
everyone to believe. But as my research showed, "ordinary" he was not:
1. Grandpa paid $800 in gold for a 160 acre tract of land that he
purchased from Barron in 1874.
2. When someone would ride up to his house after dark, Grandpa would blow
out all the coal-oil lanterns and lie down across the doorway with his
3. He had gold and silver buried in different locations, and maps with
encoded messages documenting their location.
4. George Roming of El Paso personally saw at least 30 bars of gold,
weighing 15 to 20 pounds each, stacked on a shelf in Grandpa's barn.
5. He had five-gallon buckets of silver dollars sitting around his house.
6. He had more than $50,000 in "greenbacks" in one of his trunks that he
made his son count every day.
7. When a new piece of farming equipment appeared on the market, he
8. He purchased large farms for each of his eight children when they were
9. Later on in his life he owned automobiles (Fords). When any minor thing
would go wrong with one of them, he paid cash for a new one.
10. His shooting prowess was legendary. He could shoot the head off of a
chicken while riding his horse at a full run.
According to the family history, Grandpa fought for
the South during the Civil War. So I was stunned when J. L. Courtney's
military records showed that he was a Union soldier. Jesse James was a
Confederate guerilla and served under William Clarke Quantrill and William
"Bloody Bill" Anderson. These men were known for their hatred of the
Union, so it didn't make sense that Grandpa could have been Jesse James if
he had really been a Union soldier. However, information gathered from
James L. Courtney's military records and Grandpa's diary indicated that
Grandpa was not J. L. Courtney, the Union Soldier. See the details in the
section on this site listed as
James L. Courtney's Union
Pension Index Record:
(filed July 22, 1899)
Tracing one's genealogy can be difficult at times, especially when aliases
were used. One thing that bothered me was not knowing what happened to
the real James L. Courtney. But I think I've figured it out. Census
records and other documents indicate that the real James L. Courtney
changed his name to James L. Haun sometime between 1865 and 1870. In
1865, he was living with his parents, Stephen and Dianah Courtney, in
Miami County, Kansas. But by 1870, the Courtney family had become the
Andrew Jackson Haun family. I believe that when James L. Courtney took
the alias James L. Haun, Jesse James took the alias James L. Courtney. It
is interesting to note that Bloody Bill Anderson and his family, like the
Hauns, lived in Council Grove, Kansas.
I believe that Jesse James took the Courtney name as his alias because it
was a name with which he was very familiar. Three Courtney families lived
near the James/Samuel farm in Missouri's Clay County. When Jesse's
father, Robert James, died, Jesse's mother married Dr. Rueben Samuel. An
ordained Baptist preacher, Robert James had baptized and married many
Courtneys. Jesse James is also said to have had a childhood friend named
James Courtney, who attended Summersette school with him in Clay County.
There is also evidence that the Courtneys were related to the James/Samuel
As of this date, no one claims to know what compelled the Courtneys to
change their name to Haun.
The evidence I have presented thus far indicates there is a strong
possibility that Jesse James and James L. Courtney were one and the same.
For me, the old saying about "a picture being worth a thousand words" has
taken on a whole new meaning. Photos of Grandpa and his family compared
to historically accepted photos of Jesse James and his family are
amazing. They speak for themselves.
Three different groups of professionals in the facial identification field
have examined the photos in questions and have concluded with varying
degrees of certainty ranging from reasonable to high, that the faces in
question match. Photos of Grandpa's mother compared to known photos of
Jesse's mother are remarkable. How many ladies could have been running
around Missouri looking just alike, wearing the same dress and missing an
Much of my story shown on this page was previously published in the
October 2000 issue of Wild West Magazine, pages 60 through 66.