Few personalities in American history are more enshrouded in the mists of legend than Jesse James. Rightly or wrongly, much of the post-bellum South, struggling with poverty and mourning the lost cause of the Confederacy, saw in Jesse and his brother Frank and their cohorts in crime, the Younger brothers men who, like themselves, had suffered at the hands of northern aggression. Unlike most Confederates, the Jameses and the Youngers had not surrendered, but had continued the fight by robbing Yankee controlled banks and railroads. Such was the myth, in any event. Less romantic minds in the North and the South alike, however, viewed the James-Younger Gang as thugs who, even during the late War, had ridden outside the bounds of the law and, at least in the post war period, were vicious criminals.
Their admirers and detractors alike, though, found the gang’s notoriety exhilarating. Many in the South and Midwest, in fact, cherished and clung to their local stories about the James-Younger Gang robbing this local bank or that business establishment, even when the hard evidence proved the outlaws were nowhere near such vicinities at the times of the crimes in question.
Mississippians were not immune to this fascination with Jesse and his outlaw crew. Local traditions have long associated the James Gang with various parts of the Magnolia State, from Silver Creek, way down in Lawrence County, where Cole Younger was supposed to have had an illegitimate child, to Corinth, where Jesse and the boys were said to have robbed the Tishomingo Savings Bank in 1874. One story, though, has the outlaws, not robbing a Mississippi bank, but going bear hunting! According to self-professed James Gang member Kit Dalton, who told the story in 1914 in his book, Under the Black Flag, it began this way. The James-Younger outfit crossed words with some horse race judges in Louisiana when Cole Younger decided some home-cooking had cost him the winner’s purse. A shoot-out ensued that resulted in the deaths of the judges, whereupon the gang collected what Younger felt was his due, along with, as Dalton put it, “compound interest.” The outlaws then high-tailed it across the Mississippi River well ahead of any posse that might have dared to pursue the infamous highwaymen. Let Dalton, who died in 1920 and is buried as a Confederate veteran at historic Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee, tell what happened next::
Three weeks following this unfortunate incident we were in Clarksdale, Mississippi, visiting relatives of the James boys, who received us most cordially and caused us to meet a Mr. Bobo, a famous bear hunter, who gave us the glad hand of welcome and arranged a bear hunt in our honor. It was our first experience in that kind of sport and though we enjoyed listening to the yelping pack, there was little fun in trying to keep up with it through the terrible forests of canes and bamboo. We were scouts of many years' experience, but we had never encountered a Mississippi jungle before, and I will never tackle one of them again unless that were the sentence passed on me by the authorities for some of my misdeeds of the long ago.
In the chase we rounded up one bear—that is, Mr. Bobo and the dogs did, for not a bear in all Mississippi jungle-land could get through one of those almost impenetrable canebrakes easier and with less damage to himself than our honorable host.
When the bear was brought to bay behind an upturned tree root, the dogs were crowding in on him, and I have no doubt but for Mr. Bobo's interference would have made quick work of him. But he had taken us out for the chase and wanted one of us to have the pleasure of bagging the little black rascal. The lot fell to Wood [Hite, one of the James Gang], who dispatched him with one shot from his big pistol.
Let the reader be aware that Kit Dalton has been called a fraud by some and may well have been. He may have never ridden with the James-Younger outfit. But he did get it right about the affray at the Louisiana horse-track – at least the Chicago Tribune agreed on that point. It recounted that incident, which took place in 1869, in detail in an 1875 feature entitled, “The Younger Boys.” Even if Dalton lied about his participation in the Bobo bear hunt, it is reasonable to believe the Jameses and Youngers hunted with Bobo. Other sources place Jesse James in Coahoma County on other occasions and indicate he had connections there.
In any event, who are we to second guess Kit Dalton over a century after he told his story? After all, to paraphrase a former Mississippi governor, if you can’t trust an outlaw, who can you trust?
The story of the James Gang’s Mississippi bear hunt is set out in greater detail in the author’s book The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. In addition to The Bear Hunter, he is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles and two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2018 James T. McCafferty