Times Past

Dan Krieger: Infamous brothers once stayed in the area

At one time there was a barely discernable inscription marked “Jesse James — 1869.”

The old-timers I interviewed in the 1970s and ’80s referred to the many centuries of rock painting and graffiti at the “Point of Rocks” stretching from the east side of the Temblor Range into the San Joaquin Valley parallel to Highway 46.

When I searched for the inscription, it was either scraped or weathered away. What is certain is that Jesse James once lived with his uncle on the close La Panza Ranch.

The late Angus MacLean of Paso Robles was the master folklorist of the rugged La Panza mining region.

MacLean’s “The Ghosts of Frank and Jesse James and Other Stories” (San Luis Obispo: Bear Flag Books, 1987) deals with the presence of the James brothers in our region.

Angus wrote about why the James brothers came to the Central Coast in 1868:

“Drury Woodson James was a brother to Robert James, father of Frank and Jesse, and the boys’ arrival in San Luis Obispo would seem to coincide with the time Drury was building his Paso Robles house and while he still held his partnership in the La Panza Ranch.

“It is generally accepted as a fact that following the holdup of the bank in Russellville, Ky., on March 20, 1868, Frank James hid out with friends in Kentucky. Then, when the manhunt had quieted down, he made his way to St. Louis where he got word to his mother to meet him.

“After a brief visit with his mother, Frank continued his journey west, going by train to the end of the line (the Transcontinental Railroad was being built at that time), then the rest of the way by stagecoach.

“He arrived in Paso Robles some time in the early summer of 1868, and went on out to the La Panza Ranch where Drury James and his young wife, Louisa (Dunn), were living at that time.

“Meanwhile, following the Russellville holdup, Jesse James had made his way back to Missouri and hid out with friends there for a time before taking a train to New York City.

“After a few weeks in New York, Jesse decided to head for California, too, and on June 8, 1868, he sailed from New York on the steamship Santiago de Cuba, bound for Panama. He crossed the isthmus and took another steamer for San Francisco.

“The length of the James boys’ stay in California is not known, but there is an unaccounted space of about 20 months between the Russellville holdup on March 20, 1868, and the bank robbery in Gallatin, Mo., on Dec. 7, 1869. It is generally assumed that much of this time was spent in California.

“The Museum Graphic published in St. Joseph, Mo. (spring, 1957), has what would seem to be the most complete and most carefully researched account of this trip.

“ ‘The Lives and Adventures of Frank and Jesse James,’ by Joseph H. Dacus and published in St. Louis in 1882, shortly after Jesse’s death, has a believable account of Frank and Jesse’s trip to California, and of the circumstances leading up to it.

“Unfortunately, the writer appears to have been taken in by the dime novels of the time when it comes to the boys’ exit from California. Mr. Dacus gives a bloodcurdling account of Jesse shooting up a whole town full of bad men in Nevada, an account that could put even the movies to shame.”

The Museum Graphic article states “that when the boys got homesick for Missouri, Uncle Drury took them to San Francisco and bought them steamship tickets by way of Cape Horn.”

Both Angus MacLean and I agreed that this sounds more plausible than the shoot-’em-up version.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.