Did a Famous Outlaw Visit WNC?

Jesse James is one of the most famous outlaws in American history. Many movie and television shows have been made about him. How much of what has been written about him that is factual is always disputed. Frank L. Fitzsimons, in his book “From The Banks of Oklawaha” Volume Two, indicates that James once traveled to Henderson County, North Carolina. This may seem strange, but up until the Civil War, more people moved from WNC to Missouri than any other state.

You could visit the McCrary Cemetery in Daviess County, Missouri and think you are in Fairview. Almost every tombstone has the last name of one of the old Fairview families. People in the first half of the 1800s did not move individually to other states. They moved in groups of five or more families at a time. Why would they do this? It gave them a support group. They were not out in the middle of nowhere by themselves. If a group knew each other, they helped each other get settled, and instead of being in a group of strangers, they had friends and family to help them become established in a new community.

Jesse James was born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 5, 1847. Daviess County was fewer than 50 miles from where James was born and raised. This area of Missouri was known as “Little Dixie.” Missouri, like Kentucky, remained in the Union during the Civil War, but a large segment of its population backed the Confederacy. Union and Confederate armies made up of Missouri residents operated and fought each other in the state.

Jesse James’s father, Robert S. James, was a minister who died in California during the 1840s gold rush. James’s mother, Zerelda Elizabeth Cole (1825–1911), was born in Woodford County, Kentucky. She was married three times. Her first husband was Jesse James’s father. They were married in Kentucky, where he was a hemp farmer. After he died, she married Benjamin Simms. This was an unhappy marriage. Simms disliked Zerelda’s children and was mean to them and her. He was thrown from a horse and died as a result. Zerelda then married Dr. Reuben Samuel. He was said to be a quiet, passive man who let his strong, outspoken wife run things.

Missouri was in a bad position when the Civil War broke out. It was a border state, and its residents were divided. Many considered themselves Southerners, especially in rural areas. The St. Louis area leaned toward the Union, as did the southern Ozark region.

Jesse James’s older brother, Frank, joined the Confederate forces in the war. In the summer of 1863, Union solders raided the James/Samuel farm. They tortured Jesse James’s stepfather, Dr. Samuel, by repeatedly hanging him from a tree then taking him down just before he died. They grabbed 15-year-old Jesse James and thrashed him. Jesse hated anything “Yankee” for the rest of his life.

A few years later, Jesse James began his career as a bank and train robber. A lot of people admired him for robbing Yankee banks and trains.

Jesse James married Zerelda Mims, a cousin. He had a home just outside Nashville, Tennessee, for most of the time he carried on his career in crime. Jesse and Zerelda had two children that lived to be adults. Jesse Edward James was born near Nashville on August 31, 1875. He died in Los Angeles, California, on March 26, 1951. Jesse James’s daughter, Mary Susan James, was born in Nashville on August 17, 1879. She married Henry Lafayette Barr and died on October 11, 1935, in Kansas City, Missouri. When the two James children were born, they were given the aliases of Mary and Tim Howard.

Jesse James’s time in Nashville makes the story of his visit to Henderson County in November 1876 more possible. The distance between Nashville and Asheville is 295 miles. If you add 20 miles from Asheville to eastern Henderson County, it is still only 315 miles. That’s much closer than northwest Missouri, which is more than 1,000 miles away.

He had been raised around people from Buncombe County, and I am sure he had heard many stories about the area. With his son having just been born, he may have been looking for a place for his family to live in safety. Perhaps he thought he could live in the open in Henderson County where no one would know him or his family.

The tale from Frank L. Fitzsimons’s book describes a day, around noon, in November 1876. An old mountain man was sitting on the porch taking a brief nap before lunch. The dogs woke him up as a stranger rode up on his horse. The old man told the stranger to light and set a spell. He seldom had strangers show up at his isolated farm. The stranger appeared to be in his late 20s, slender and well built. He got off his horse and walked to the porch and sat down. It appeared the stranger and his horse were both tired and worn out.

The old man could tell by the way the stranger was dressed and the brand on his horse that the stranger was from the west. The stranger said his name was Tom Howard and that he had gotten lost in the mountains. He told the man his horse was worn out and all he wanted was a few days of rest until his horse could regain its strength. The man told the stranger he could sleep in the loft above the one-room cabin with his son.

The first night, the 14-year-old boy and Tom Howard climbed into the loft to sleep. Howard brought his only possessions with him—a rolled blanket tied to his saddle and his saddle bags. He fixed his cold, blue eyes on the boy and told him, “Don’t you never lay a hand on those bags and you and I will get along dandy.”

Tom Howard stayed for weeks. He helped around the farm. He paid generously for his keep with gold and silver. He helped the family any way he could. Howard rarely left the place but always took his saddle bags with him when he did.

The boy was curious about Tom Howard. After six weeks had passed, Tom Howard was careless—he left his saddle bags in the loft and left the house. The boy saw his chance. He stepped softly to the saddle bags and opened one. He found a large, folded paper and pulled it out. He saw a picture of Tom Howard, clean shaven, with the words “Wanted Dead or Alive. $10,000 Reward!” But the name on the paper was Jesse Woodson James.

The boy heard a snarl behind him, dropped the poster and turned around. “I’m a mind to kill you,” Howard said. The boy was too frightened to speak or move. Howard told him, “Name this to a body and I will. I will shoot your guts out.” Howard grabbed the poster and his saddlebags and went down the ladder. The boy collapsed on the floor and covered his face with his hands A short time later he heard the man gallop off on his horse. The stranger was never seen in Henderson County again.

Years passed and one day the boy—now a grown man—was at the Bat Cave Post Office. A newspaper came through the post office with a big headline: “Jessie Woodson James had been killed.” The famous outlaw had been shot and killed by Robert Ford while living in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the name of Tom Howard.

Bruce Whitaker documents Fairview-area genealogy. To get in touch with him, contact the Crier at [email protected] or 828-771-6983 (call/text).

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