Image by No-longer-here from Pixabay

I am participating in Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.  This is week 2 and the topic this week is Legends.

Most families have some sort of story or legend about their ancestors, some really cool tale about famous people their family members knew, about a family fortune won and lost, about some horrific sea journey made under duress.  Maybe your family claims native American ancestry.  Maybe your ancestor fought in a famous Revolutionary War battle.  Whatever it may be, most of us have these myths in our family.  Some turn out not to be myths at all, while others turn out not to have any bit of truth to them.

As for my own family, when I was younger, I heard that we might have some Native American heritage but I have yet to find that.  I have an ancestor whose last name was Wooton but he changed it to Ooton.  They say that he had a falling out with his dad and dropped the “W”.  That may be true, or maybe it was just a quirky pronunciation to which modern spelling adapted.  I found an interesting legend about my husband’s family on the internet.  It was convoluted, but it was something about a man who was a baron overseas and forced to leave his home country due to politics or religion. He settled on the Isle of Jersey where his wife died, he came to America, he buried his treasure in the ground during the Civil War and it was never seen again.  Entertaining?  Certainly.  True?  Well, to be honest, I never actually researched that far back on this particular line. It has the appearance of being one long tall tale.

One intriguing tale that I will research though, is the association of my husband’s maternal grandmother’s family with Jesse James, the outlaw.  This is one of the more common family legends out there.  (Considering that this man was a bank robber and criminal, it is interesting how a myth has built up around him.) Will this turn out to be “just talk”, or is there some truth that one of my husband’s ancestors actually did know Jesse James when he was young and maybe grew up with him as kids?

First, there’s place.  Where did the James family grow up?  What area of the country?  Next, there’s time.  In what decade did the James children grow up?

Jesse James was born in 1847 in Clay County, Missouri, near the city of Kearney, northeast of Kansas City. Jesse was about 3 years old when the 1850 census was taken.

Sure enough, Jesse and his brother Frank and sister Susan are in Clay County, Missouri with their parents, Robert and Zarelda in 1850.

1850 U.S. census, Clay County, Missouri, population schedule, Platte Township, p. 351b (stamped), dwelling 732, family 732, family of Robert James : digital images, Ancestry ( accessed 14 January 2021); from National Archives microfilm publication 432, roll 396.

In 1860, Jesse and his family are living in Clay County, Missouri.  Zarelda has remarried a man named Reuben Samuel.  Jesse should be about 13 years old.  His entry on the census has been marked (before microfilming!) with an arrow.  Apparently, someone was excited to find the entry.

1860 U.S. census, Clay County, Missouri, population schedule, Washington Township, p. 969 (stamped), dwelling 920, family 920, Jesse James in family of Reuben Samuel : digital images, Ancestry ( accessed 14 January 2021); from National Archives microfilm publication 653, FHL 803614.

By 1869, Jesse James was in the news as an outlaw and eventually, the governor of Missouri set a reward for his capture.  He probably did not answer the census taker’s questions when they came around in 1870.  His family, though, is still living in Clay County, Missouri.

My husband’s family, meanwhile, is living in Jackson County, Missouri, just south of Clay County.  His great-great-grandmother, Amey Odile Gates, was born in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, about 30 miles away.  She was 8 years younger than Jesse James, born in 1855.  In 1860, the Gates family was living in Sni-A-Bar Township, Missouri which is approximately 25 miles away.  She was married in 1874 in Sibley, Missouri which is 16 miles from Kearney, Missouri.  (These distances are “as the crow flies” and do not take into account any roads existing at that time.)  Amey and her husband John Ames made their home in Fort Osage, south of Sibley.

This information does place the Gates family (later the Ames family) in the right place at the right time to have heard the news of the James-Younger Gang.  The robbery of the Liberty Bank was relatively close to their home in Jackson County. Amey was about 11 when that robbery took place in 1866. Her age makes her a bit too young to have been a playmate of James himself.

Looking through sources, I realize that there were quite a few men involved in the gang at different times.  Many of these men grew up in this general area, including Jackson County.  These men are also about the same age as Amey and her siblings.  I may have been so focused on just finding the association with Jesse James that I have overlooked his accomplices.  I have my work cut out for me with thoroughly researching everyone involved in these notorious crimes in Missouri and the background of their families. 

This family legend may have some validity to it.  At this point, all I can do is more research.  I enjoy the hunt and the history lesson.

Search Smart!

Sara N. Martin

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