Exploring Jesse James Country in Northwest Missouri

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The summer sun beat down on the brown and parched grass as we made our way across the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney Missouri, a small community of 5,400 about 40 minutes northeast of Kansas City. We were in the oldest part of the cemetery where the engravings on most markers had vanished with the daily onslaught of nature’s elements.

Yet despite the blazing heat and the ravages of time around us, bright yellow flowers had recently been left on the grave site of Jesse Woodson James.

It’s been more than 130 years since Missouri’s best-known bad guy was gunned down in his home in St. Joseph, but the fascination with his life and legend are as strong as ever, as evidenced by the tender tribute left by a recent visitor to his grave. Thus, a tour of Jesse James country in northwest Missouri is a must for many bucket lists.

In Your Bucket Because...

  • You’ve seen all of the movies and want to experience the legend for yourself.
  • You’re a bit of a bad boy yourself or find yourself attracted to them.
  • Good for those who like history, museums and mysteries.

Jesse James’ Birthplace

The place to start, of course, is where the James legend started – on the family farm in Kearney. Forty of the original 200 acres of the farm where Frank and Jesse James were born remain intact, and the house has been authentically restored. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of James family artifacts including guns, saddles, boots and quilts.

Although Interstate 35 is less than five miles away, and modern homes have been built along the paved James Farm Road in Clay County, the rolling hills and massive walnut trees on the property create a peaceful setting that belies the violence that emanated from this land.

The James Gang made history on February 13, 1866 in nearby Liberty when they pulled off the first daylight bank robbery in the United States, making off with about $60,000 and killing a William Jewell College student in the process. Today’s 30-minute tour of the bank “tells the real story, not the Hollywood version, and people find that most fascinating,” said Michelle Poytner, historical interpreter at the museum.

Jesse James in St. Joseph, Missouri

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Jesse James Home has since been moved a few blocks to sit directly behind the Patee House hotel, where Zee and Jesse’s children stayed following the murder.  Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Jesse James Home has since been moved a few blocks to sit directly behind the Patee House hotel, where Zee and Jesse’s children stayed following the murder. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Jesse and his wife, Zee, and their children moved often, living for a while in Nashville, TN, and in several locations in Kansas City, always under an alias. It was just before Christmas 1881 that they rented a little white house with green shutters and a white picket fence on Lafayette Street in St. Joseph.

It was here on April 3, 1882, while Jesse was standing on a chair straightening a picture, his cousin and gang member Robert Ford shot him in the back of the head. Zee and their children were in the next room.

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Today you can still see the bullet hole in the wall just below the picture Jesse was straightening. Perhaps the most fascinating exhibit, I thought, was that documenting the 1995 exhumation of Jesse that put an end, through DNA testing, to decades of rumors that Jesse had lived out his life incognito in other parts of the country. The exhibit includes hardware from the original casket, a casting of Jesse’s teeth and skull, and the bullet that had remained in Jesse’s lung after a skirmish with Union forces near Lexington, MO in August 1865.

Jesse was buried under a coffee bean tree on the farm in Kearney, where his mother sold tickets to tour the house and stones from Jesse’s grave. In the 1930s, his body was moved to the Mount Olivet Cemetery and reburied here again in 1995 after the DNA tests. The simple grave, located between two evergreen shrubs, is in the northeast corner of the cemetery, next to that of his mother, stepfather and other members of the James family. There are no signs identifying the location of the grave.

Frank James’ Jail Cell

But the James story doesn’t end in Kearney. After Jesse was assassinated, and fearing for his own life, Frank turned himself in and spent six months in jail in Independence at what is now known as the 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum. People brought him gifts and furnished his cell with a Brussels carpet, fine furniture and paintings. Today, visitors can see Frank’s furnished cell, complete with a picture of William Shakespeare, one of his favorite authors, hanging over his bed.

After Frank’s natural death and cremation in 1915, his ashes were buried in Hill Park Cemetery at 20th and Maywood in Independence. His wife, Independence school teacher Anna Ralston, is buried by his side.

Practicalities

  • Speak like a local: The town in which Jesse James was born and is buried is pronounced Car-knee.
  • Fly in to Kansas City International Airport (MCI) and rent a car. All sites mentioned are within an hour’s drive of the airport.
  • Admission is charged for all sites, with the exception of the various cemeteries.
  • To understand why locals loved and protected Jesse and Frank James and what motivated them to rob, read the book “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” by Ron Hansen.

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