Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Samantha. Samantha Wonders, “Who was Jesse James?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Samantha!

He steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He leads a band of merry men on covert, often illegal missions. Who are we talking about?  Most would name Robin Hood. Others might think of the famed outlaw Jesse James! 

Sometimes, when many people tell a story over and over, the line between truth and legend becomes blurred. This is why many people think of Jesse James as a modern-day Robin Hood. Despite this, most historians agree that Jesse James was not much like Robin Hood at all. 

Then what is the true story? Who was Jesse James? He did steal from the rich—in fact, he was one of the most feared bank robbers around. But there’s no evidence that Jesse James ever gave to the poor. More likely, he gave to himself and his band of loyal gang members.

Jesse James was born in 1847. His parents, Robert and Zerelda James, were farmers. His father was also a reverend and a slaveholder. That put them on the side of the Confederates when the Civil War broke out.

The James family lived in Missouri, which was a border state between the North and South. Still, people there certainly took sides and fought against each other. Jesse’s older brother, Frank, joined a band of Confederate guerilla fighters who terrorized Union supporters in the state. 

Soon, Union soldiers came searching for Frank. They attacked the James farm, leaving behind destruction and an angry Jesse James. That’s when he decided to join in the guerilla fighting like his brother. Jesse took part in many brutal attacks during the war. And his violence didn’t end with the war in 1865.

Jesse James, with help from his brother Frank, organized former guerilla fighters into a band of robbers. They joined with the Youngers, a group of four brothers also involved in crime,  to form the James-Younger Gang. The outlaws robbed banks, stagecoaches, and trains. Jesse James proved he was never afraid to hurt others in a robbery.

In 1874, Jesse James married his first cousin, also named Zerelda (Zee). They soon had two children. Zee pushed Jesse to give up his life of crime for the safety of their family. Jesse agreed to do so, but planned to pull off one last bank robbery first. 

For this last robbery, Jesse James planned to team up again with his brother, Frank. They also brought in Robert and Charley Ford, another set of brothers. They didn’t know that the Fords were secretly working with the governor of Missouri. They planned to put an end to Jesse James and collect reward money.

On April 3, 1882, Robert Ford shot Jesse James in his own home. James’s wife and children were in the next room. James died from a gunshot wound in the back of his head. He was only 34 years old. James was buried on his family farm. Later, he was moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery to be next to his wife, Zee.

Was Jesse James a modern-day Robin Hood? Probably not. But he is one of the most well-known outlaws of the 19th Century. Today, people remember James in songs, stories, and movies. What other famous outlaws can you compare him to? Or do you think Jesse James was one of a kind?

Standards: C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.R.10

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