When Missouri enters the Union the balance between slave and free states is threatened. The Missouri Compromise allows Maine to separate from Massachusetts and be admitted as a free state; Missouri enters the Union as a slave state; and the remaining territory of the Louisiana Purchase, north of the 36-30 parallel, is closed off to slavery.
Jesse James is born in Clay County, Missouri, son of Baptist minister and slaveholder Robert James and his wife Zerelda. Jesse is almost five years younger than his brother Frank and two years older than his sister Susan.
President James Polk reports to Congress on the discovery of an "abundance of gold" in the California territory. Soon thousands of Americans are journeying west in hopes of making their fortunes.
Robert James leaves Missouri for California, ostensibly to preach in the gold mining camps. A few months later, he will die of cholera.
The Compromise of 1850 allows California to join the Union as a free state, but leaves the question of slavery to be decided by settlers in Utah and New Mexico.
Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act becomes law. Overturning the Missouri Compromise, the law opens the question of slavery in those two territories to popular vote. As a result, "border ruffians" will cross the border from Missouri to fight for slavery in Kansas. Northerners respond by forming the Republican Party to oppose slavery's extension anywhere it does not currently exist. Both pro- and anti-slavery forces will send settlers into the Kansas territory, and the conflict between them results in a period of violence known as "bleeding Kansas."
Anti-slavery activist John Brown moves to Kansas, where several of his sons have settled.
Zerelda James marries country doctor Reuben Samuel.
The Republican Party puts forth its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, who loses the election to Democrat James Buchanan.
On May 21, a crowd of 800 pro-slavery Missourians ransacks the town of Lawrence, Kansas.
Three days later, John Brown and his sons will kill five pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas.
Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln runs against Senator Douglas. Although Lincoln loses the election, the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery attract widespread attention.
A Missouri gang kills nine anti-slavery farmers in Kansas.
Forces led by John Brown attack two homesteads in Missouri and free 11 slaves there. Brown later guides the slaves more than 1,000 miles to freedom in Canada.
John Brown leads an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Brown is caught, convicted, and hanged.
Abraham Lincoln is elected president in November, and in December, South Carolina becomes the first Southern state to secede from the Union.
The Confederate States of America are formed in Montgomery, Alabama with Jefferson Davis as their selected president.
Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated as the president of the United States. In Missouri, a convention assembles in St. Louis to decide whether the state should secede. Despite support from militantly pro-slavery governor Claiborne Jackson, secession is eventually rejected by a vote of 98 to one.
Secessionists capture the federal arsenal in Liberty, Clay County, Missouri.
Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and two days later Lincoln calls for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion. These events revive secessionist feelings in Missouri.
Eighteen-year-old Frank James travels to the nearby village of Centerville and joins the state militia, which soon comes under the control of Confederate supporter and former governor Sterling Price. Frank, like the rest of his family, supports slavery and the Southern cause, and he is soon part of an army battling U.S. troops across Missouri.
After successfully taking the key Western Missouri town of Lexington, Price's forces are driven off by a federal army commanded by Fremont.
The tide turns against organized Confederate forces in the state. A provisional government keeps Missouri in the Union, Fremont declares martial law, and Price pulls back to southwestern Missouri.
Union troops drive Sterling Price's army out of Missouri, but pro-Confederate "bushwhackers" begin a guerrilla war against Union forces and civilians that will last for years.
Frank James, sick with the measles, is captured by U.S. soldiers and then allowed to return home after taking a loyalty oath. But his Confederate allegiance does not change.
The battle of Antietam ends General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North.
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation frees all slaves throughout the Confederacy but not in slave states like Missouri that have remained in the Union.
Frank James leaves the family homestead and joins a group of "bushwhackers." Union troops later raid the farm and torture his stepfather until he reveals the location of the guerrillas. Frank and Jesse's mother Zerelda is arrested and released after signing a loyalty oath, but she has no intention of abiding by its terms.
Lee's second invasion of the North ends in defeat at the battle of Gettysburg, and Union general Ulysses Grant captures the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Although the tide of overall war has turned against the Confederacy, savage fighting continues within Missouri.
Frank James participates in a raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in which bushwhackers slaughter 200 civilians. In retaliation, a Union commander orders almost everyone living in four Western Missouri counties to leave. Union troops march through the zone, burning crops and farms.
Sixteen-year old Jesse joins the bushwhackers. Eventually he links up with William Anderson, a guerrilla so brutal and murderous he earns the nickname "Bloody Bill."
Jesse is shot by a farmer while trying to steal a saddle. He rejoins the bushwhackers in September.
Bloody Bill Anderson, the James brothers, and the rest of their bushwhacker band commit repeated atrocities in and around the town of Centralia, slaughtering unarmed Union soldiers and collecting their scalps. Meanwhile, Union forces overcome Sterling Price and his army at Pilot Knob, Missouri.
Union forces set a trap for Anderson, killing him and many of his men. Bloody Bill's body is put on display in a local courthouse. Price suffers a decisive defeat at the battle of Westport, and his army withdraws from Missouri for good.
Abraham Lincoln is re-elected. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who has recently captured Atlanta, Georgia, takes Savannah just before Christmas.
Zerelda James and her husband are banished to Nebraska by Union forces. A Missouri constitutional convention frees the state's slaves and begins work on a new constitution.
Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
Five days later, on April 14, President Lincoln will be assassinated at Ford's Theater.
Still fighting as a bushwhacker even though the Civil War is over, Jesse James is shot in the lungs by Union troops.
Voters approve the new Missouri constitution. It grants civil rights to the state's freed slaves and requires potential voters to first take an oath stating that they have not committed any one of 86 disloyal acts against the United States. The net result of this requirement is the disenfranchisement of three-quarters of Clay County's white males. Confederate sympathizers are removed from political and judicial offices across Missouri.
Zerelda James and her husband return to the family homestead in Missouri. Recovered from his wound, Jesse joins them in October, and Frank returns not long after.
In an armed robbery, $58,000 is taken from the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty. This is the first American bank robbery to take place in broad daylight during peacetime. The bushwhackers are suspected.
In response, Missouri's governor calls out the state militia. But the bank robberies will intensify over the next few years, as will the political warfare between Unionist "Radicals" who advocate civil rights for blacks and "Conservatives" who resist changes to the old social order.
Jesse's bushwhacker mentor Archie Clement is gunned down by the state militia in Lexington; Jesse's fury over this will only grow in the coming years.
Another bank robbery takes place in Richmond, Missouri, and the perpetrators kill several town residents. Several suspects are lynched; although Frank and 19-year-old Jesse are rumored to have participated in the robbery, the authorities do not pursue them.
Jesse and Frank gather with other bushwhackers, including Cole Younger, to plan a robbery in Russellville, Kentucky. The robbery results in the shooting of a local, the capture of one bandit by Louisville detectives, and the death of a second at the hands of a posse in Missouri.
As the year wears on, the Ku Klux Klan will begin spreading terror against freed slaves and Unionist civilians in nearby Lafayette County.
Republican Ulysses Grant is elected president. Frank Blair, leader of Missouri's Conservatives, is the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket.
Jesse and Frank rob a bank in Gallatin, Missouri, shooting the cashier. Jesse thinks the man they killed is Samuel Cox, who had hunted down Bloody Bill Anderson, but it is in fact a man named John Sheets. For the first time, Jesse's name appears in the newspapers in connection with a bank robbery.
The Kansas City Times prints a letter from Jesse protesting his innocence and claiming that ex-Confederates like himself are the real victims in Missouri.
The paper's editor, John Newman Edwards, is a former Confederate soldier trying to boost the fortunes of those who had supported the Southern cause.
Jesse and Frank head to Texas. They will return in February 1871.
The Radical Republican candidate is defeated in the Missouri governor's race, marking the beginning of a shift in the balance of political power. The voters also pass a referendum re-enfranchising former Confederates.
Jesse and Frank rob a bank in Corydon, Iowa, with two other ex-bushwhackers, boasting of their deed to an assembled crowd. The bank hires the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which sends Robert Pinkerton, son of the agency's founder, to hunt the bandits. He and the local sheriff apparently track the bandits into Missouri, where Frank is wounded in a gunfight, though he and the other outlaws make their escape.
Jesse writes a letter to The Kansas City Times again protesting his innocence and blaming Radical Republicans for suggesting that he is a criminal.
Jesse, Frank, and their associates rob a bank in Columbia, Kentucky, once again murdering an unarmed cashier.
Three masked gunmen rob the crowded Kansas City Industrial Exposition and are subsequently lauded by Edwards for their "feat of stupendous nerve and fearlessness."
An anonymous letter thought to have been written by Jesse appears in the Times; the author claims that "we are not thieves -- we are bold robbers ... [we] rob the rich and give to the poor."
Ulysses S. Grant wins re-election, while Democrats dominate Missouri's races.
The James brothers and their gang stage their first railroad robbery, mutilating the tracks and then leaping on board the Rock Island, Iowa train after it crashes. They describe themselves to passengers using phrases from the anonymous letter.
Missouri's Democratic governor offers a $1,000 reward each for the capture of Frank and Jesse. Almost all other rewards offered by the governor for the capture of criminals are for $300 or less.
Edwards, now working for The St. Louis Dispatch, writes a 20-page supplement glorifying Jesse as a Confederate hero taking on tyrannous Northern Republicans.
Jesse and his gang rob a train in Gads Hill, Missouri, leaving behind a composed press release to be sent to the Dispatch.
The Pinkerton Agency, which has been hired to stop the train robberies, sends a detective named Joseph Whicher to Clay County to track down Frank and Jesse. He goes to their farm and is later found dead. Other Pinkerton detectives engage in a gun battle with the Younger brothers, members of the James gang. John Younger is killed. One of the detectives and a local ally of the Pinkertons are also killed. Agency head Alan Pinkerton vows vengeance on the James brothers. Meanwhile, their banditry has become a political issue, with Unionists denouncing Democrats for failing to capture the brothers.
Jesse marries his first cousin, Zerelda "Zee" Mimms, who is named for Jesse's mother.
The gang robs a train in Muncie, Kansas, and makes off with almost $30,000.
Believing Frank and Jesse are in residence, Pinkerton organizes a raid on Zerelda's home. Several locals join the detectives in the assault, but they retreat when an incendiary device hurled into the house explodes by mistake, wounding Zerelda and killing Jesse's eight-year-old half-brother Archie. The attack generates widespread sympathy for the James brothers, and Edwards does his best to fan the flames, at the same time seeking amnesty for any crimes Frank and Jesse might have committed. Jesse and Zee move to an area near Nashville, Tennessee, and live under assumed names.
The Amnesty Bill is narrowly defeated.
Daniel Askew, who lives near Zerelda and who assisted in the Pinkerton operation, is gunned down in his yard.
Zee gives birth to Jesse Edwards James. His father writes letters to the Nashville paper, promoting himself as a Confederate stalwart.
The Bank of Huntington is robbed in a small West Virginia town; Jesse may have participated.
Jesse, who has continued both to rob and protest his innocence in letters to newspapers, leads his brother and a gang of ex-bushwhackers including Cole Younger on a robbery of the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield has drawn their attention as the home of Mississippi's former Republican governor, Adelbert Ames. But the raid is a fiasco; armed citizens shoot two of the robbers dead and hunt down the others. Younger and his brothers are captured, another member of the gang is killed, and only Frank and Jesse make it back the 500 miles to Missouri, eluding a manhunt conducted by thousands of Minnesotans. The James brothers return to the Nashville area, where they and their wives will live quietly for a few years under assumed names.
A disputed election marred by violence against African American voters pits Republican Rutherford Hayes against Democrat Samuel Tilden. The Compromise of 1877 puts Hayes in office, but Reconstruction is ended, along with federal protection for Southern blacks.
Frank and his wife Annie become the parents of a son, Robert. Frank is happy to retire from crime and settle into the quiet life of a farmer, but Jesse becomes restless and yearns for a return to outlaw action.
Having gathered a new gang together, Jesse takes them to Glendale, Missouri, and robs a train there. He leaves another press release, but it seems pointless, empty of any political content. Even John Edwards stops answering Jesse's letters. The election of 1876 has begun a period of political ascendancy for Democrats, and ex-Confederates have little reason to complain.
Unwilling to stop his criminal activities, Jesse masterminds a series of robberies across multiple states that result in the death of more unarmed civilians.
Thomas Crittenden, the new Democratic governor of Missouri, declares war on the James brothers and offers $10,000 each for their capture. Jesse, whose hunger for attention is now mixed with an increasing paranoia, flees the Nashville area in the aftermath of a robbery and returns to Missouri, where his train robberies continue. At his last robbery, in September, Jesse denounces the railroads for funding the reward for his capture and says, "If we are going to be wicked, we might as well make a good job of it." In November, he moves his family to St. Joseph.
Bob Ford, whose brother Charlie has been part of Jesse's recent gang, meets with Governor Crittenden, who promises a pardon and the reward money if Ford will kill Jesse. Bob agrees.
While Jesse is dusting a picture on the wall of his living room, Bob Ford shoots him in the back of the head. The Ford brothers are convicted of murder and promptly pardoned by the governor.
Frank surrenders to authorities and is subsequently acquitted. Later in life, he forms a traveling show with Cole Younger called "The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West."
Frank will die in 1915 at Zerelda's old homestead; Jesse's mother herself passed away in 1911, having spent years charging tourists a quarter apiece to take pebbles from Jesse's grave in her front yard.
My American Experience
Since 1921, dozens of movies have featured a character based on Jesse James, depicting him in very different lights. Which portrayal do you think is the most historically accurate? Do you have a favorite?