Diorama of the James Farm in Museum

Jesse James Farmhouse

I have a bit of personal attachment to the Jesse James story because the house we built in Richmond, Missouri backed up to the cemetery where Robert (Bob) Ford was buried. Ford was the man who shot Jesse James in St Joseph. His tombstone reads, Robert Ford, “The man who shot Jesse James”. While in Richmond, we used to take interested visitors to visit Ford’s grave out behind our house. In this post I’m going to focus on the history of the house. I will likely do another post later about Jesse’s life. It is just too much info for one post.
The Jesse James Farm, which is located a couple miles east of Kearney Missouri, was built in 1822. The farm was purchased in 1845 by, Robert James, a Baptist Minister, his wife Zerelda and their infant son Frank. In 1847, the couple welcomed another son to the farm, when Jesse was born.
In the very late 1840s Reverend James decided that he would journey west to minister to the gold hunters during the gold rush. Less than six months later, word arrived in Kearney that Reverend James had died of sickness in Colorado. At this point, since Robert James had no Last Will and Testament, the property and all assets went to the children (3 at this point, as sister Susan had been born in 1849). This meant that Zerelda was now destitute with no form of income. The children were taken away and sent to live with Robert’s brother who also lived in the area.
It’s unclear in my research, but it appears that Zerelda still owned the farm, but with no income, had no way to support the operation of it. It appears that she went to live with or near Robert’s brother so she could be closer to her children.
It did not take long for Zerelda, likely looking for a way to get her children back, to marry again. This solution did not turn out so well as Zerelda’s new, wealthy husband, Benjamin Sims, would not allow the three James children to come home and live with the newlyweds in the farmhouse. The good news for Zerelda (I guess) is that Mr. Sims only lived a year or two into the marriage being killed in 1854 after being thrown from a horse. It was only a year after the death of Mr. Sims that Zerelda married again, this time to Dr. Reuben Samuel. With Dr. Samuel, the family was reunited and lived at the James farm.
Eldest son, Frank James, left home during the early days of the civil ride with Bushwhacker units, most notably serving under William Quantrill. (Make sure and purchase your copy of my first book, “Moonlit Mayhem: Quantrill’s Raid of Olathe, KS”). Jesse was only 14 when the war started and was initially rejected for membership in a bushwhacker unit due to his age. Jesse would ride with one of the units much later in the war for a very short time.
Most are aware that after the war, both the James brothers began a life of crime, most notably bank robberies. It was for these offenses that in 1875, the Pinkerton agency came to the farm on a tip that Jesse and/or Frank were there. Creeping onto the property under cover of darkness, the Pinkerton’s threw a round bomb (think Molotov cocktail) into the room where the Dr. Samuel, Zerelda, and their young son Archie were spending the evening.
The bomb smashed through a window where a servant kicked it into the fireplace where it exploded sending shrapnel throughout the room. Zerelda’s arm was maimed and later amputated, while Archie was killed. This is the event that propelled the James brothers into Robin Hood like status, i.e., they were heroes who were only robbing the banks to try and make society pay for the death of their stepbrother.
Frank eventually surrendered to the authorities and served a small amount of jail time while awaiting trial. A trial that would never take place. Read my previous Facebook blog on the Jackson County Jail published on April 21, 2021, for more information on Frank’s short but very pleasant incarceration in that local jail. As mentioned previously, Jesse was killed by Bob Ford in April of 1882.
After Jesse’s death, he was buried at the farm where his mother and later brother Frank lived and would lead paying visitors on tours of the property. Rocks from Jesse’s grave were sold during those tours for 25 cents each. When the bucket of rocks for sale was empty, the residents would simply go down the creek on eastern edge of the property and get some more rocks, telling tourists they were from the grave. After Frank’s death, his son, Bob, continued the tradition buying items such as pistols, boots, hats etc. and selling all of them as if they belonged to Jesse.
Clay County bought the farm in 1978 and restored the farmhouse. (See the images for information about the structure itself) There is a $9 admission fee which includes a short movie, a walk through the museum and then a walk around the outside of the farmhouse. Visitors can look into the cabin by looking through screen doors, but no entry is allowed in the actual farmhouse. The rooms are very small so visitors can easily see into the structure.
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