Was Louisiana a safe haven for Jesse James?

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

Jesse James

Cole Younger
Jesse James and his brothers and Cole Younger and his brothers comprised the most well-known outlaw gang in American history. No other band of criminals has been featured in movies, television, literature, and folklore as much as the James-Younger gang.

Legends abound in northeast Louisiana about the outlaws, usually promoting them to Robin Hood-like status as they save poor widows from foreclosure, bet on race horses, and generally have a high old time with fellow Confederate veterans around Carroll Parish (now East and West Carroll).

Local tradition holds that the James and Younger families spent time in the area between the Ouachita and Mississippi Rivers during Reconstruction, mostly lying low when pursuit by the law got too hot to return to their regular stomping grounds. The stories are numerous enough to fill a book, but largely remain unwritten.

Stories are told of great grandfathers who met Jesse James, always in friendly encounters. Oak Grove holds an annual Jesse James festival with a parade, beauty pageant, and shootouts. Admirers name sons and trailers parks after Jesse and Frank James. But how true are the stories?

Since newspapers were scarce in the area during Reconstruction and to publicly advertise the outlaws' presence would be foolhardy at best, scant written record supports the anecdotes. Still, the volume of stories is compelling, although the few that exist were not reduced to paper until the early 20th Century.

A 1945 tour guide developed by writers employed by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) listed numerous James-Younger sites in northeast Louisiana, including purported hideouts. By his own admission, Cole Younger fought in northeast Louisiana during the Civil War. He participated in raids on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River opposite Vicksburg and remained in the vicinity after the conflict ended. Younger family members and other raiders apparently spent time during in Louisiana after the war.

On several occasions Cole Younger claimed he was in northeast Louisiana when robberies took place elsewhere in the country. In his book, Cole Younger, by Himself, he declares he lived at the Bass Plantation in Carroll Parish (now East Carroll):
"At the time of the Richmond [March 2, 1867] and Savannah, Mo., [May 23, 1867] bank robberies, in which, according to newspapers and sensationalists, I was largely concerned, I was living on the Bass plantation, three miles below Lake Providence, in Louisiana. Capt. J. C. and Frank Lea, of Roswell, N. M., and Tom Lea, of Independence, Mo., were living in the same house with me, any one of whom will vouch for the truth of my statement that I was not anywhere near either of these towns at the time of the robberies in question, but was with them at the plantation referred to above.

The Lea name is well known to those who study James-Younger. Brothers Joseph and Frank Lea lived near the Youngers in Missouri and along with Cole and his brother-in-law John Jarrette fought under William Quantrill and then as part of a unit loosely attached to General Jo Shelby in northeast Louisiana. That the people of Louisiana embraced the outlaws when they were wanted dead or alive elsewhere may be attributed to their efforts during the war to keep the Yankees out of the area.

In his book and in a letter published in the November 30, 1874, St. Louis Republican, Cole Younger claimed he was in Carroll Parish, Louisiana, from December 1, 1873, to February 8, 1874, and thus could not have participated in three alleged James-Younger crimes conveniently covering the time span of a stage heist near Arcadia, another near Malvern, Arkansas, and a bold train robbery at Gads Hill, Missouri. Younger named Captain Joseph C. Lea in his alibi.

Younger's sister Josephine and husband John Jarrette moved from Missouri to Louisiana after the Civil War, probably because of ties developed to the area while fighting Union troops. The 1870 U.S. Census recorded John and Josephine Jarrette, along with their two children, living near Floyd. Cole Younger mentioned Floyd several times in his book. The 1945 WPA guide even pinpointed Jarrette's home for tourists as he was a well-known member of Quantrill's raiders and the James-Younger gang.

In an undated letter written sometime after 1884, Jim Younger gave his friend Cora McNeill a few alibis for robberies that had been pinned on the gang:
"Take Stones Bank for instance. We are accused of robbing that when Stone and all his family have been our friends, from our birth. Stage and gads hill train robbery. Bill Dicenson (Dickerson), and the masonic lodge at Floyd La. Know that we were there, and made oath to that effect." Jim Younger's alibi provides more credence to the hypothesis that at least part of the gang was in north Louisiana just prior to the three January 1874 robberies.

After the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota bank robbery where Cole Younger was arrested and Jesse and Frank James barely escaped, the Kansas City [MO] Journal of Commerce noted "It is said that [John] Jarrett's family reside somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Providence, Louisiana."

In one of the few Louisiana newspaper articles to mention the James or Youngers, the November 24, 1876 issue of the Ouachita Telegraph in Monroe cited Jarrette as a brother-in-law of the Younger brothers who: "lived, we believe, some two years ago, near Delhi, where he was visited, since the war, by one or two of the Youngers He was compelled to leave that vicinity because of being suspected as one of the murderers of a German stock-trader near Delhi. He was, we believe, a member of Quantrill's partisans during the war." Many locals are positive the gang frequented the region. The State of Louisiana has a display at its Poverty Point World Heritage Site describing how the James-Younger gang spent time in the area. It would be interesting to know what the outlaws thought of the odd-shaped prehistoric mounds near Epps, just a few miles from where Cole Younger declared he lived when robberies were being attributed to him and the gang elsewhere.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com