Jesse James: Biography, Facts, & Things You Didn't Know About The Wild West Legend

By Karen Harris
American outlaw Jesse James, circa 1870. (MPI/Getty Images)

Between 1866 and 1879, Jesse James terrorized the people and wallets of America. From Minnesota to West Virginia, he robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches, becoming one of the most successful bank robbers in U.S. history.

Jesse James's Early Life

Baptist minister Robert James probably would have been surprised by his sons' chosen career path, but he died three years after Jesse was born on September 5, 1847 in Missouri, so he didn't get much say in the matter. Jesse and his brother, Frank, actually started out as soldiers, though not exactly honorable ones. While Jesse was too young to fight in the Civil War, Frank fought for the South, terrorizing Union households, attacking Union supporters, raiding encampments, and stealing supplies with a band of Confederate guerrillas.

In retaliation, the Union Army sent a group of militiamen to the James family farm to rough up Jesse and torture his stepfather, and Jesse vowed revenge. Although he was just a skinny 16-year-old, he joined a guerrilla group led by William "Bloody Bill" Anderson in spring 1864. Under Bloody Bill's leadership, Frank and Jesse James took part in numerous raids and attacks, including the Centralia Massacre, where Bloody Bill's guerrillas slaughtered two dozen unarmed Union soldiers.