Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

Controversy in the Air

Because of their geography, the Missouri and Kansas territories were becoming boiling pots of controversy. As continental expansion dominated, many of the old Georgian and Carolinian families, who had been slaving families since the colonial days, began moving west to meet the promises of fertile land offered by Manifest Destiny. In migrating, they brought their traditions ergo, their slaves with them. As they settled, they found in their vicinity others whose Northern upbringing detested the use of slaves. The Southern cropper met resistance in a land he had thought was open for any American lifestyle; the Northerner, on the other hand, loathed "the dubious practice," as they called slavery, taking place across their road.

In the nation's capital, the floor of the Senate became a forge of debate as its members stormed over the issue, sometimes quite violently. Unionist parties made it clear that they did not want new American soil spoiled by the selling and ownership of human flesh. Southerners, as they had long before the establishment of the United States, failed to conceive the problem and, affronted, took it personallly. Less than a hundred years old, the venture of a single union enduring much longer wavered on what seemed an uncompromising battleground. Civil war loomed.

But, as hot as any senator's seat became, its temperature was incomparable to what was actually occurring in the wheat fields beyond the Mississippi River. An A&E Television Networks presentation called In Search of Jesse James explains the era of the upheaval: "(It was) the most desperate period this nation has known...a place where the violence of the Civil War was most terrible. Killing began on either side of the Kansas-Missouri border long before South Carolina secessionists fired upon Fort Sumter. Bands of pro- and anti-slavery men attacked each other's farms, families, homes and towns across that border with escalating butchery.

"When the war began officially, many of the Southern raiders banded together under loose military leadership and continued to fight as they had learned; they were the irregulars, guerrillas, romanticized in the South as shrewd, hit-and-vanish avengers. Northerners looked upon them as murderous horseback pirates operating outside the bounds of military honor. They committed acts of stunning viciousness."

When the South seceded in April, 1861, and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln declared war against the insurrectionist Confederate principles, Frank James, then 18 years old, marched off to fight for the South. He joined the marauding band of cavalry under William Quantrill an avowed rebel which was causing havoc to Northern-minded towns in Kansas. Jesse, only fourteen at the time, yearned for his chance for manhood. Day by day, his anger grew having to remain at home, scything wheat, while awaiting his chance to be a soldier of the Confederate States of America.

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