Frontier Legends

Published: March 17th 2012
Edit Blog Post

Jesse James HouseJesse James HouseJesse James House

The house where the famous outlaw was killed.
My target for today is St. Joseph Missouri.

This relatively small town looms large in western lore.

The lore is based on real events.

Today, I explore some of them.

Jesse James House

The first site I saw is the Jesse James house.

Jesse James was a legendary outlaw who robbed dozens of banks and at least six trains.

His life has been much mythologized, so people forget how brutal he was in real life.

He committed at least six murders.

He ultimately married his second cousin Zee and moved to St. Joseph to start a family.

He was living here under an assumed name when a member of his own gang, Charlie Ford, shot him on April 3, 1882 to claim a large reward offered by the local railroads.

The reward was never paid.

The house became a tourist attraction soon afterward.

It is now operated by the local historic society.

The house is incredibly small with only four rooms.

The entrance has a small museum of Jesse’s life.

He grew up in Missouri.

When the Civil War started, he joined a guerrilla militia
Jesse James 'bullet hole'Jesse James 'bullet hole'Jesse James 'bullet hole'

This is not actually a hole from the bullet that killed Jesse James. This hole is from early visitors chipping off parts of the wall, thinking the bullet hit it.
called Quantrill’s Raiders.

They officially fought for the Confederacy, but really fought for themselves.

Jesse learned the skills for his later career while in the group.

After the war he formed his own outlaw posse with his brother Frank.

The second room is the parlor, the room where Jesse was killed.

He had put down his gun to hang a picture on the wall.

The killer snuck up behind and shot him in the head.

He was killed instantly.

The wall now has a hole in it.

For a long time, people believed that the fatal bullet exited Jesse’s head and hit the wall.

People chipped away pieces for a (morbid) souvenir.

For the same reason, the floorboards where Jesse’s blood dried ultimately had to be replaced.

Ironically, the room had a trap door for escape at the time.

The trap door is still embedded in the floor.

The third room tells the story of the famous DNA test.

In 1993, a professor of archeology, James Starrs, got permission to exhume Jessie James body to run a test to
James bedroomJames bedroomJames bedroom

The bedroom where Jesse James spent the last months of his life. The room barely has enough room for the bed
confirm it was really him.

The test was covered worldwide and hundreds of people showed up to witness it.

The museum has pictures along with a bullet from the Civil War that was recovered from the body.

The DNA test confirmed James identity.

Since Jesse James was a Confederate veteran, the body was reburied by the Daughters of the Confederacy with full military honors.

The final room is Jesse’s bedroom.

Most of the room is taken up by a huge bed, which was shared by Jesse, his wife, and two kids.

I’m surprised they could all fit.

Pony Express Museum

After Jesse James, I saw the Pony Express.

This fast horse based mail service looms large in western myth.

The real story is told in the Pony Express museum, which is housed in the original stables.

The first thing that surprises visitors is that the Pony Express was a private venture to make money.

It was founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell in 1860.

At the time they owned a stage company that delivered supplies throughout the
Pony Express StablesPony Express StablesPony Express Stables

The original stables of the Pony Express, now a museum
Great Plains.

They delivered mail along with supplies.

They were contacted by the congressional delegation from the newly admitted state of California.

At the time, delivering mail to California took three weeks.

The congressmen convinced the businessmen to start an express delivery service, and for the government to give them a mail contract.

They promised letter delivery in only eleven days, and proceeded to do so.

The secret was a series of long relays, where riders changed horses when the horses got tired, and riders handed off the mail pouch when they wore out.

A series of stations were set up along the route for this purpose.

Unfortunately, the service was expensive to run, so it lost bucket loads of money.

Even more unfortunately, the completion of a telegraph line to California made the service obsolete after only a year and a half.

Still, a legend had been born.

The museum is highly interactive for one of this size.

The museum has a replica of the original supply station in the original stables.

It has a replica of a change station,
Stables workshopStables workshopStables workshop

It took a lot of work to keep the Pony Express running
basically a log cabin with a horse barn in the woods.

It has a map of the different mail routes at the time, showing how they compared to the Pony Express.

It has an entire display on horse selection, where the visitor needs to evaluate different breeds for the mail service.

The museum has a display on people who rode for the express.

They had to be hardy outdoorsmen.

The express ran through thunderstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, and all other weather.

Most were either teenagers or in their early 20s.

They earned roughly $200 a week (which was a lot of money on the frontier).

Believe it or not, the company kept no records about who was on their payroll, so most riders are unknown.

In its eighteen months of existence, the speed of the Pony Express featured in at least one important event.

It had a small but crucial role in the lead up to the Civil War.

California was dominated by unionists but also had southern sympathies.

The Pony Express delivered news of Lincoln’s election within a week of the
Pony Express way stationPony Express way stationPony Express way station

Model of a rider exchange station along the Pony Express
vote, which California leaders used to keep the state in the Union.

This ensured that the silver supply from Nevada financed the Union war effort instead of the Confederacy.

How did a service which existed for so short a period of time ultimately loom so large in popular history?

It’s primarily due to a man who claimed he rode for the express as a teenager: William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill.

Parts of his story match the facts of the time, enough that historians debate the subject to this day.

What certainly happened is that Buffalo Bill served in the Union army as a scout, and then started the Wild West show that became the source of many western myths.

A recreation of the Pony Express featured in the show, making it a popular western legend.

Missouri River Flood

My next item for today was a drive into Nebraska.

This was much harder than anticipated.

Lots and lots of rain had fallen on northern Montana in the last few months, on top of high snowfall.

This normally wouldn’t affect me at all, except that all that
Pony Express LetterPony Express LetterPony Express Letter

An actual letter carried by the pony express.
rain had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was the Missouri River.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the flood control dams on the Missouri, had a choice to make.

Open the dams early to get a moderate flood that runs for many months, or open them later to get a short flood which is a total deluge.

They opened the dams early.

The Missouri rose high enough to flood roads in the vicinity, including the interstate I need to get to Nebraska.

I ended up having to detour into the corn fields of Iowa.

Near the river, the road went through rolling bluffs which were fairly pretty.

The rest went through flat fields even more boring than central Missouri.

Once in Omaha, I got the next nasty surprise of the day.

Researching hotel websites showed the city was suffering from a massive case of the festival effect (see Jungle Paradise).

I’m enough of a sports fan that I should have remembered that Omaha hosts the College World Series at this time of year.

Reading my guide book, there is nothing in Omaha compelling enough to justify the hassle of finding
Pony Express dime novelPony Express dime novelPony Express dime novel

One of many books about Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express, which helped make them a western legend
a room, so I pushed on.

I finally stopped at Lincoln, the next major town along the interstate.

This drive was as mind numbing as Iowa, and I was glad when it was over.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Jessie JamesJessie James
Jessie James

Not from life
Frank JamesFrank James
Frank James

Not from life
Pony Express ridersPony Express riders
Pony Express riders

Very few riders for the Pony Express are definitively known. Here are a few of them.
Buffalo BillBuffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill

The evidence that a teenage Buffalo Bill really did ride for the Pony Express.
California gold coinsCalifornia gold coins
California gold coins

The Pony Express sent news of Lincoln's election, ensuring California stayed in the union. The state's gold was thus used to make coins like this for the US government.

The invention that put the Pony Express out of business
The legend lives onThe legend lives on
The legend lives on

Pony Express themed souvenirs

Tot: 1.99s; Tpl: 0.024s; cc: 29; qc: 96; dbt: 0.0394s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.6mb