Friday, March 25, 2011

James Gang Believed To Have Been In Sleepy Eye


(Picture of Jesse and Frank James in 1872)


In the year 1876, on July 7th, Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and Hobbs Kerry robbed the Missouri Pacific Railroad at what is known as the "Rocky Cut" near Otterville, Missouri. Kerry, known as their raw recruit, was arrested soon after and he willingly identified his accomplices.

The Rocky Cut raid set off for stage of the final act in the history of the James-Younger Gang; for what is to be known as the famous Northfield, Minnesota raid. The target was to be the First National Bank of Northfield, located far outside of the gang's usual territory, which had  previously only included the South and the Border States. The bank of Northfield itself was not unusually rich. According to public reports, required of all national banks, it was a perfectly ordinary rural bank. Bob Younger had stated (once caught) declared that they had selected the bank because of its connection to two Union generals and Radical Republican politicians: Benjamin Butler and Adelbert Ames. Ames had just stepped down as governor of Mississippi, where he had been strongly identified with civil rights for freedmen, and had recently moved to Northfield, where his family owned a mill and a large amount of stock in the bank. One of the outlaws "had a spite" against Ames, Bob said. Cole Younger said much the same thing years later.

Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell took the train to St. Paul and Minneapolis at the beginning of September 1876. They divided into two groups, one group going to Mankato, Minnesota and the other group going to Red Wing, on either side of Northfield. They purchased horses and scouted the terrain around Northfield once they got there. On September 7, 1876, around 2 p.m., they attempted to rob the bank. Three outlaws entered the bank, and the other five stood guard outside. The citizens of Northfield realized a robbery was in progress and took up arms. Shooting from behind cover, they discharged a deadly fire onto the outlaws, killing Miller and Chadwell, and wounding the Youngers (particularly Bob, who suffered a shattered elbow). They also shot Bob Younger's horse. One of the outlaws shot Nicholas Gustafson, a bystander, dead in the street. Inside the bank, cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe and was murdered in cold blood for his resistance. 

The surviving outlaws rode out of town and took to the woods. After several days of dodging the pursuing Minnesotans, who had joined posses and picket lines by the hundreds, the gang had only reached the western outskirts of Mankato. They decided to split up. (Despite persistent stories to the contrary, Cole Younger told interviewers that they all agreed to the decision.) The Youngers and Pitts remained on foot, moving west, until finally they were cornered in a swamp called Hanska Slough, just south of LaSalle, Minnesota and west of Madelia, Minnesota. In the gunfight that followed, Pitts was killed and the Youngers wounded further. The Youngers surrendered, and pleaded guilty to murder in order to avoid execution.

The James brothers, on the other hand, secured horses and fled west across southern Minnesota, turning south just inside the border of the Dakota Territory. In the teeth of hundreds of pursuers and a nationwide alarm, they successfully returned to Missouri. The James-Younger Gang, however, was no more.
Somewhere in the town of little 'ol Sleepy Eye someone may own the gun which once belonged to Jesse James or to his brother Frank James.  As I stated in the tale of the James brothers, they did survive the Northfield Bank robbery and were fleeing toward westward towards the  Dakota Territory.  The tale on Sleepy Eye however, cannot be proven, but it is a tail worth repeating;

Following the attack by the James and Younger gang on the Northfield Bank on September 7th, 1876, the outlaws fled through Mankato, most of them then going toward Hanska and Madelia where they were captured in a few days. Frank and Jesse James continued on westward from Mankato, apparently aiming for the Pipestone area.  That escape route lends credence to stories told by local residents.

The one tale worth repeating is when a man stopped in Sleepy Eye at Carl Berg’s Hotel (SE corner of Main and Sixth, now Second Avenue W.) and asked for food for himself and for his horse.  He offered to pay by offering to giving Berg his gun.  Barter was common and because news traveled slowly the village of Sleepy Eye had not yet heard about the Northfield robbery the man was safe with this bartering act.

When the news did arrive, with a description of the robbers, it was clear to Berg that he probably had been host to one of the James brothers.  He had the gun for a long time, according to his son Alvin, and eventually sold it.  Who bought it?  Where is it now?

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