Jesse & Frank James

Jesse Woodson James was an American outlaw, a bank and train robber, leader of the James-Younger Gang, and an enigma.  He was also the nephew of one of the founders of Paso Robles, Drury Woodson James, a cattleman, rancher, and the man who had the vision to turn Paso Robles into a health resort.

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Drury Woodson James

While Frank and Jesse’s uncle was occupied with the busy life of ranching in California during and after the Civil War period, Missouri was ‘in the midst of some very ugly border clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions’ which may have been one impetus for the boys to enter a life of crime.  Frank and Jesse joined a guerrilla band and like many other guerrilla fighters during the era of Reconstruction, they continued their exploits as thieves and murderers. Hard riding, shooting, and killing became a way of life for the James’ brothers.  In February of 1866 they turned their lifestyle to bank robbery.

There is a factual basis for the legend of Frank and Jesse James being in Paso Robles but through the years, the legend has been obscured.  It is generally known, however, that the James boys did stay with their Uncle Drury on his La Panza Ranch east of the budding town of “Hot Springs” through the winter of 1868-1869, the reason for their visit probably being more than a social call.

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Jesse and Frank James

In the Spring of 1868, when a bank robbery in Russellville, Kentucky was attributed to both Frank and Jesse, the boys headed out to California.  The story is that Frank James traveled by train and stagecoach and arrived at their uncle’s ranch ahead of Jesse.  Jesse, arriving in the summer of 1868, chose to travel via the steamer, Santiago de Cuba, bound for Panama and on another steamer to San Francisco as he was apparently recovering from a bullet wound to his chest.

According to legend, Jesse’s health did improve while in the Paso Robles area due to the mineral waters’ healing properties.  There are several stories of both boys attempting to work as cowhands on the La Panza Ranch.  One interesting story was related by Charles D. Morehouse, Jr., a cowboy on the ranch back in the 1860s and 70s.  Charley told of a young cowhand named “Scotty” who worked on the ranch in 1868-69.  “Scotty was a loner and wasn’t very sociable with the other cowhands.  Also he wasn’t very good at roping cattle, but he was an excellent shot with a six-gun.  On the trail he could pick off rabbits with his six-gun while riding along.  He even traded his almost new rawhide lariat for an older one of Charley’s as he…didn’t have much use for it.” 

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The Drury James Adobe on the La Panza Ranch.

During their stay in California, it is believed that the James brothers may have traveled somewhat, perhaps in search of the gravesite of their father, Reverend Robert James, who had come to minister to the miners during the Gold Rush but who had died by 1850, possibly from cholera.  The brothers may also have explored much of the county.  Some say that a scratched out inscription, JES JAMES-1869, was found on one of the Caneros Rocks along the San Luis Obispo-Kern County line.

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The cover to The Ghosts of Frank & Jesse James and Other Stories by Angus MacLean

It is told that early in 1869, Drury James bought the boys steamer tickets bound for New York. The actual length of the James boys’ stay in California is not known but there is the unaccounted space of about 20 months between the Russellville holdup on March 20, 1868, and their next robbery in Gallatin, Missouri. “On December 7, 1869, Frank and Jesse James were involved in a bank holdup in Gallatin, Missouri, 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.” (Angus MacLean)