A Mother’s Love: A Look at Zerelda Samuel, the Mother of Jesse James by Pat Wahler

To a native Missourian like me, the tale of Jesse James is a familiar one. After all, the Show-Me state was Jesse’s birthplace and home for most of his life. To this day, it isn’t unusual to see billboard signs at various locations claiming to be a place where Jesse visited or slept or hid a fortune; a quite effective way to attract tourists.

While I had a reasonably decent knowledge of Jesse, I knew next to nothing about his family. Curiosity about them sent me down countless research rabbit holes as I hunted for information which would eventually grow into my novel featuring Jesse’s wife, Zee. Yet during the course of exploring a fascinating topic, I discovered another woman. One who, I suspect, may have had a profound impact on shaping the course of Jesse’s life.

His mother, Zerelda Cole James Simms Samuel.

Zerelda, born in 1825, married her first husband at the age of sixteen. Robert James, a young preacher, soon purchased a farm for them in Kearney, Missouri. In short order Zerelda presented him with children. Three of them survived to adulthood: Frank, Jesse, and Susan.

Not long after Susan’s birth, Robert left his young family for the gold fields of California. He stated his intention to spend eighteen months preaching the gospel, although many of his neighbors speculated it might be more likely he’d fled from his strong-willed wife’s tart tongue. Whatever his reasons had been, within six months, Robert James died from an unspecified fever, leaving a widow in dire straits. Without a will, inheritance laws dictated property bypass Zerelda and go directly to Robert’s children. The court appointed a legal guardian for the minors, and a trustee to administer the estate.

Zerelda had been effectively cut out of any decision-making, and she knew only one way to solve such an intolerable situation. Marriage. A wealthy widower and neighbor nearly twice her age fit the bill. Zerelda set her sights on Benjamin Simms, marrying him in 1852. Her newfound financial security did not, however, mean happiness. Benjamin disapproved of what he saw as his wife’s indulgence of her young children. The couple separated, and a few months later, Benjamin died.  

Once again, Zerelda sought marriage as a way to be rid of the court’s involvement in her affairs. In 1855, she married a family friend, Dr. Reuben Samuel. Not only did the quiet and meek Dr. Samuel consent to take guardianship of her children and property, upon his wife’s insistence, he also signed an agreement guaranteeing her ownership of the farm if he should die before her. For the time, this was an unusual bargain. Zerelda had learned her lesson. She intended to hold the reins of her life.

Additional children would come along, all of whom were raised at the knee of an outspoken and intelligent mother with an iron will. A woman who didn’t hesitate to assert her views. Zerelda had seven enslaved people on the farm, and she fiercely backed the Confederacy. During the course of war, Federals came to her farm, trying to get information on her son, Frank, who had joined guerillas led by William Quantrill. Reuben Samuel was tortured and sixteen-year-old Jesse horse-whipped in the interest of making them talk. This incident helped stoke the family’s fury. Soon afterward, Jesse ran away to fight with his brother, and like a lioness, Zerelda would continue to defend the activities of her boys. 

The post-war years found Frank and Jesse hot to avenge their mistreatment by Federals and the South’s defeat by robbing banks and trains. Zerelda dug in her heels too, offering her sons an alibi if the situation required one. Anyone who uttered a word against them brought a version of the same refrain— “They didn’t do it,” or “I’m proud of them.” Her notoriety extended beyond her community. Zerelda’s farm became a place where Jesse, Frank, and their cronies could safely lay low, for there were many interested in capturing the most infamous outlaws of the Old West.

Especially Alan Pinkerton.  

Pinkerton’s detective agency was hired to stop the James gang’s train hold-ups. He sent an agent to Kearney to sniff out the territory. When the agent asked a neighbor whether the James brothers were in the area, the neighbor offered sage advice. “The old woman would kill you if the boys don’t.”  

After repeated failed efforts to catch their prey, several detectives during cover of night threw an incendiary device through a window of the house in Kearney. They hoped to smoke out the occupants and catch the gang leaders. But Frank and Jesse weren’t at home, and the plan went disastrously wrong. The device exploded. One of the Samuel children died, and the blast mangled Zerelda’s right arm so badly, a doctor had to amputate it—without anesthesia.

The public rallied around the family, and the Pinkerton agency fell into disgrace. Alan Pinkerton gave up the hunt he’d once hoped to win.

In 1882, Jesse James died from a gunshot wound fired by his new gang member, Bob Ford. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Ford had secretly made a deal with Thomas Crittenden, governor of Missouri. Crittenden, eager to rid Missouri of the James brothers, offered Ford reward money and a pardon to execute the outlaw.

Zerelda and many others were outraged over the governor arranging a murder. In spite of her grief, she personally appeared to testify at the coroner’s inquest. Her sobs and cries of fury were quoted in a number of newspaper accounts.

After a funeral attended by hundreds of people, Zerelda insisted Jesse be buried under a coffee tree just outside her bedroom window at the farm in Kearney. Ever-fearful of graverobbers, she kept a shotgun by her bed at all times. No one who knew her ever doubted she’d use it.  

Once again in financial straits, Zerelda found new ways to help make ends meet. She told stories, hawked old guns she claimed had once belonged to Jesse, and sold pebbles from her son’s grave to curiosity-seekers. When the pebble supply ran low, she’d replenish the stones from a nearby creek bed.

As years passed, Zerelda’s demeanor didn’t soften. Stella James, wife of Jesse’s son, wrote of her new grandmother-in-law, “She had always given orders, but she had never taken any. Dr. Samuel was a small, meek, and quiet man, and I suspected that Zerelda had always worn the pants.”  

Headstrong to the end, Zerelda Samuels passed away at the age of eighty-six on the train ride home after a visit to her son, Frank.

This thumbnail account holds clues to what Zerelda’s impact may have been, even as it helps us understand the forces that molded her. While no person can be held responsible for decisions made by others, children are impressionable creatures. With a boldly opinionated mother and no strong father figure, what Zerelda said or did would almost certainly contribute to the formation of Frank’s and Jesse’s beliefs and values. It would be a mistake to assume Zerelda turned Frank and Jesse James into outlaws, but it’s difficult to argue against the notion that this mother’s love may have opened the door for the evolution of her notorious sons.





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Pat Wahler is the author of Western Fictioneers’ Best First Novel of 2018 and Walter Williams Award winner, I am Mrs. Jesse James. She is an avid reader with a passion for historical fiction, women’s fiction, and stories with heart. Pat lives in Missouri with her husband, a Peek-a-poo pup named Winston; and Bogey, a tabby with plenty of attitude. A fan of good books, history, humor, animals, and the arts, Pat draws inspiration from family, friends, and the critters who relentlessly supervise each moment she spends in front of the keyboard.

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