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Reading 1: Renegades and Outlaws
One of the legacies of the Civil War in Kansas and Missouri was a new culture of lawlessness. Some of the gangs that operated in the middle border states between the Civil War and the start of the 20th century were connected by blood ties; others by personal relationships. Gang leaders often recruited their younger brothers and family friends as members. The heritage and tradition of outlawry were handed down from generation to generation.
The story begins with William Clarke Quantrill. Before the Civil War he was known as a tough fighter who liked power. He supported slavery, but played a double game. In Lawrence, Kansas, he used the name "Charley Hart" and posed as an abolitionist. When he was in Missouri, he met with and supported pro-slavery groups. He made many trips back and forth between the two states, stealing horses in Missouri to sell in Kansas and kidnapping free African Americans in Kansas to sell into slavery in Missouri. When war came, he joined the Confederate army and organized guerilla troops that soon became famous as renegades. "Quantrill's Raiders" traded border raids with the pro-Union "Jayhawkers" guerillas and shot Union sympathizers in their homes, fields and towns. On August 21, 1863, they murdered 142 people in Lawrence, Kansas. Angered by such undisciplined violence, the Confederate commander of the area, Gen. James Totten, expelled Quantrill from the army and declared him an outlaw.
Leaders in the Union Amy then made a terrible mistake. In an effort to stop the violence, they ordered all the people living in a large area in Missouri along the Kansas border off their land, forcing them to leave most of their possessions behind. Many of these people fled to Kansas. This evacuation was meant to punish Quantrill and his supporters, but it antagonized even Union sympathizers. And it did not stop Quantrill's raiders. They not only continued their murderous ways, but they also gathered new recruits.
Among the members of Quantrill's band were Frank James and his younger brother, Jesse, who had once proved his toughness by killing eight men in one day. Jesse James claimed he was forced into outlawry because his family had been persecuted in the war. Because they too had felt persecuted by the Union army, local people did not inform on him or his gang members. The James' first cousins, Cole and Jim Younger, were also part of Quantrill's gang. The Youngers came from a well-off, pro-slavery family. When Union forces killed their father and burned down their house, they were eager to retaliate. When Quantrill was killed by Union guerillas in 1865, Jesse James took over the gang. He followed the pattern Quantrill had established: "hard riding, hard shooting, using a network of hideouts, [stealing money and other] loot as an objective, and murder without compassion." The James and Younger gangs rampaged through the countryside of the middle border from 1866 to 1882. They also became the training school for later outlaws, including the Dalton brothers.
Questions for Reading 1
1. Why did Quantrill move back and forth between Kansas and Missouri? How would you describe his behavior as a private citizen? as a Confederate army officer? At what point do you think he became an outlaw?
2. Why was he discharged from the army in disgrace? How do you think Quantrill justified his killing of Union sympathizers?
3. What unintended results came from the Union Army order evacuating people from the Kansas/Missouri border region?
4. What do you think of Jesse James's claim that he became an outlaw because he had been persecuted? Discuss your answer with your classmates.
Reading 1 was compiled from Paul I. Wellman, A Dynasty of Western Outlaws (1961; reprint Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986); and Richard White, "Outlaw Gangs of the Middle-Border: American Social Bandits," Western Historical Quarterly 12 (October 1981): 387-408.