Ghost stories from SLO County: The ghost of Jesse James lies low in the area

Times PastOctober 24, 2013 

These articles originally appeard in The Tribune on Oct. 19, 2003 and Oct. 26, 2003.

How would the ghosts of Frank and Jesse James be for a Halloween treat?

The James Boys once resided in our county.

Othor McLean used the pen name "Angus." He lived in a tiny house off Spring Street in Paso Robles. He didn't have a phone.

I'm certain that he felt that if he had to put up with that modern convenience, he wouldn't get any writing done. I, for one, would have been incessantly calling him.

He was the best folklorist our county has ever had. He was also a scholarly historian of the American Southwest.

Angus firmly documented the presence of Frank and Jesse in this county.

I have written about the James Boys before, but it's time to let the master folklorist speak.

McLean begins with a typical campfire question:

"Did the ghosts of Frank and Jesse James ever return to the site of the old James adobe on the La Panza Ranch, there in the river flats below the Old Oak Grove? Could be -- and why not?

"The James Boys did in fact visit their Uncle Drury James while he and his young wife, Louisa, were living in the Adobe, back there in the fall of 1868 on through the spring of 1869, just before Drury moved his 'expecting' wife into their new house in the embryo town of El Paso de Robles in the summer of 1869.

"So there is a factual base for the legend of Frank and Jesse in California, a legend obscured by the passing years.

"And so, just what are the facts?

"Drury Woodson James, a brother to Robert James, the father of Frank and Jesse, came to California in the Gold Rush year of 1849; but after one winter in the mines of the Sierra he decided there must be a surer way of acquiring wealth than gophering for it in the ground.

"Having acquired a little credit, Drury set about buying cattle from rancheros in the central and southern part of the new state, then driving them to the Sierra, to sell to the beef-hungry miners there. This proved to be a rather profitable venture, one Drury carried on for a decade or more.

"In 1860, Drury James and his partner John D. Thompson bought 10,000 acres of 'government land' along the old San Juan River in eastern San Luis Obispo County. This became the nucleus of the combined La Panza and Carissa Ranchos which, in time, covered more than 50,000 acres.

"Somewhat later, Drury built the La Panza adobe which was by the standards of the time a rather impressive structure. Then in 1866, Drury James married Louisa Dunn and brought his young bride to the La Panza Ranch, to live in the adobe.

"Following the robbery of the bank in Russellville, Kentucky, on March 20, 1868, in which Frank and Jesse James were believed to have taken part, the boys took off for California, for a visit with Uncle Drury, thus avoiding a confrontation with lawmen of Kentucky and the Midwest.

"Frank and Jesse James were in California for the better part of a year, as guests of their uncle. During this time they rode with the ranch vaqueros, or took (trips) around the country, doing a little exploring on their own. Possibly they took a trip up into the Mother Lode Country, seeking the grave of their father, Robert James, who died in 1850, shortly after he arrived in California.

"It was on one of these excursions that Jesse carved his name on the painted walls of one of the sacred shrines of a people long gone, thus incurring the Curse of The Feathered Snake.

"It was in the summer of 1869 that Drury James moved his wife into Paso Robles. By then Frank and Jesse were restless and anxious to return to Missouri. So Uncle Drury bought them tickets on a steamer, destined for the East Coast by way of The Horn. Thus ended the saga of Frank and Jesse James in California.

"On December 7, 1869, Frank and Jesse James were involved in the holdup of a bank in Gallatin, Mo., in which a bank cashier was killed, shot down 'in cold blood, ' purportedly by Jesse himself.

"This holdup was the beginning of over a decade of outlawry by Frank and Jesse James which received nationwide publicity, up to, and including, the melodramatic death of Jesse in 1882, shot down in his own home by a trusted confederate.

"It was during the 1870s and 80s at the time his nephews were at their most notorious best, that Drury James was deeply involved in the politics of California, first local politics, then statewide.

"Understandably his political backers developed a strong allergy to any connection between candidate Drury James and his errant kinsmen, denying any relationship at all between Drury and the outlaws of the Midwest.

"This served to becloud the whole story of Frank and Jesse's trip to California almost from the start.

"As to the old adobe there on the La Panza Ranch:

"In 1869, Drury James and his partner, John D. Thompson, sold the La Panza Ranch to Jim Jones and Jake Schoenfeld. Thompson returned to his native Kentucky, and Drury bought an interest in El Rancho Paso de Robles, going into partnership with the Blackburn Brothers.

"Jones and Schoenfeld also acquired the adjoining Carissa Ranch, they set up their ranch headquarters on the Carissa Ranch, the two ranches being operated as a single unit.

"For the better part of the next two decades, the James Adobe was still habitable, but often vacant, or occupied by transient families, allowed to stay in the building in the hope they would keep it from falling into complete disrepair.

"Then about 1890, a fire gutted the interior of the adobe, leaving only the adobe walls standing.

"There is always an eerie aura about the ruins of any old building; doubly so when that building did, in fact, have something of historic note in its heyday.

"Deep black shadows cast by the giant valley oaks in the moonlight; the sepulchral whiteness of the lime-plastered walls of the old adobe reflecting in the moonlight. And not too far from the Old Oak Grove with its dense black shadows. Perfect settings for spectral sightings.

"Travelers along the road which skirted both the old adobe ruins and the Old Oak Grove began reporting shadowy horsemen who disappeared into the darkness without leaving tracks, also phantom figures darting in and out of the old adobe ruins, spectral beings who could never be directly confronted.

"Add to these spectral sightings, the keening wails of Indian spirits in and around the Old Oak Grove where in ancient times Indians congregated to harvest the acorns which were a staple in their diet.

"That the old adobe had in fact been the home for a while of an uncle of the notorious Frank and Jesse James was known to local families.

Part 2: Ghosts of James brothers lie low in the area

An old adobe still sits on the La Panza Ranch, not far from where Highway 58 enters the Carizzo Plains. During the 1860s the adobe served as ranch headquarters and home to Drury James, the uncle of the notorious Frank and Jesse James. Frank and Jesse spent one winter there. These facts were known to local families in the vast and lonely hill and high desert plains country of southeastern San Luis Obispo County.

The late Angus MacLean was the master folklorist of our county.

This week in Times Past, we are continuing Angus' account of the "ghosts of Frank and Jesse James" as our annual Halloween Story:

"However, the details were in time beclouded, and the part that Frank and Jesse played while there was in time blown out of all proportion to the fact. Also, nearly two decades following the purchase of the La Panza Ranch by Jones and Schoenfeld, the place was to spawn its own phantoms.

"Some of the occupants of the old adobe in those later years were in fact of the miscreant class, men not averse to a little outlawry of their own, which did in itself add to the tales of dark deeds there."

This was especially true in those hectic days of the La Panza gold rush of 1878, and the decade following while law enforcement was hard to come by in the still sparsely settled region.

"Jesse James did upon occasion mention somewhat nostalgically his trip to California, to the 'Laponsu Ranch' of his uncle, giving some substance to the tale of the James' Boys having been in California.

"By the turn of the century, the whole story of Frank and Jesse's trip to California had become so beclouded in myth as to leave little for serious historians to work with.

"Then came the 'penny dreadfuls' with their fanciful tales tacked onto the names of historic figures. Amongst these fictional settings were tales of daring-do committed by Frank and Jesse James while using their uncle's California ranch as a point of rendezvous.

"These tales were picked up by movie producers, and improved upon by imaginative script writers.

"Then came the postwar depression of the early 1920s, and the even more depressed years of the 1930s, with men out of work and seeking the pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow.

"Someone resurrected the tale of Frank and Jesse James' trip to California, and the fact that an uncle of theirs had once owned the La Panza Ranch.

"Add to this, tales of outlaws using the vacant building during the years of the La Panza gold rush. There was also that mysterious cross rough-hewn into the bark of an ancient oak there in the Old Oak Grove, to stimulate tales of buried treasure.

"Any tale of outlaws having used some place as a point of rendezvous is bound to spawn speculation as to buried treasure there. Eager treasure seekers swarmed over the ruins of the old adobe, poking into corners and digging along the walls.

"Understandably the management of the La Panza Ranch took a dim view of this search for buried treasure with its accompanying vandalism. Ranch hands were kept busy 'running the trespassers off, ' using force when mere words failed to bring about a hasty removal.

"Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. The very fact that the ranch ownership tried to keep these interlopers off their land served to enhance these tales of buried treasure there. Though trespassers were ousted when found, others took their place.

"Both the site of the adobe and the Old Oak Grove were not too far from the old county road. It was hard for the ranch hands to police the area completely (and prevent the vandalism which has destroyed so many of California's rural adobes).

"Once again, phantom horsemen were sighted in the moonlight, or on a late evening or an early morning, riding past the site of the old adobe. The shades of Frank and Jesse James returning to the home of their uncle after so many years.

"It was not until comparatively recent times that descendants of Drury James were willing to verify that Drury was a brother to Robert James, the father of Frank and Jesse, and to acknowledge that Frank and Jesse did in fact spend the winter of 1868-'69 on the La Panza Ranch while it was still owned by James and Thompson.

"As to all that buried loot -- well, I'm afraid that will have to be discounted completely as mere wishful thinking.

"At the time Frank and Jesse came to California, they were but neophyte outlaws, young men tagging along with a criminal element they had become acquainted with during their years with Quantrill's raiders.

"Any money they may have acquired in those earlier holdups had no doubt been spent long before their arrival in California. While here, they were dependent on the generosity of their uncle, and he paid their fare when they left for home in Missouri.

"Local law enforcement officers knew the identity of Frank and Jesse -- knew they had been at outs with the law back in the Midwest."

But as long as the boys behaved themselves while in California, no one wanted to embarrass Drury James, who was well liked and respected.

"It would seem Frank and Jesse were on their good behavior while in San Luis Obispo County. All local tales about them were innocuous enough. Jesse it would seem had been something of a show-off with his six-gun; but his targets were ground squirrels and rabbits.

"The irrevocable turning point in the lives of Frank and Jesse James came in December of 1869, after their return to the Midwest. It was that holdup of the bank in Gallatin, Missouri, in which a bank teller had been "shot down in cold blood" (possibly by Jesse himself) that left Frank and Jesse James marked men.

"As to those other miscreants who may have used the old adobe as a hideout back there in the 1870s and '80s, the probability is that any loot they may have acquired through holdups or cattle rustling was spent in the cantinas of various towns around the country -- not buried near the ruins of the adobe, or in the Oak Grove.

"When it comes to tales of a California uncle having some part in the outlawry of the James boys well, that would seem to be out-and-out fiction.

"By 1868, the time Frank and Jesse came to California, Drury James was in his forties, a man of some wealth, legitimately acquired, and holding a respected and influential place in the community. He would have had everything to lose, and nothing to gain, by becoming involved with his nephews in their outlawry.

"Old-timers who knew Drury James personally in his later years always spoke highly of him as 'a fine old Southern gentlemen.' A man of integrity who held the respect of his peers. In fact, back there in the 1870s, Drury James had been considered as a possible candidate by the Democratic Party for the position of governor of the state of California.

"Now back to them-thar ghosts-whose ghosts were they and why? Why should the shades of those notorious outlaws Frank and Jesse James even bother to come back and haunt the crumbling ruins of the Old James Adobe, there on the La Panza Ranch? Why wouldn't these phantom riders follow the trails of their own daring-do back there in the Midwest where for over a decade they held undisputed reign? Logic says ghosts should haunt the scenes of conflict which contributed to their becoming ghosts in the first place.

"There is nothing to indicate Frank and Jesse were ever in any sort of jam while here in California. Fact is, it appears this was one of the comparatively tranquil periods in the otherwise hectic careers of these two men whose outlawry earned them an immortality of sorts in the folklore of a people, an immortality that placed them on a par with such romanticized miscreants as Robin Hood and Dick Turpin.

"There was a touch of nostalgia when Jesse mentioned his trip to California, to the 'Laponsu Ranch' of his uncle. So perhaps if the ghosts of Frank and Jesse James do from time to time return to the site where once stood the Old Adobe, it is but a wistful seeking to relive what apparently was one of the happier times in their lives."

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