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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

WHO WAS J. FRANK DALTON, ANYWAY?

by C. F. Eckhardt
It’s now reasonable to conclude that Jesse Woodson James was shot to death in St. Joseph, Missouri, in April of 1882, that he was first buried on the James/Samuel farm in Clay County, Missouri, and that 20 years later he was reburied in the Mount Olivet cemetery in Kearney (old Centerville) Missouri. Evidence recovered from the grave in Mount Olivet cemetery matches, in every historical respect, the remains of Jesse James. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from a tooth shows a pattern consistent with the mitochondrial DNA from a direct descendant of Jesse’s sister Susan.

Over the years those who claimed J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James accumulated a mountain of what they considered ‘conclusive’ circumstantial evidence that Dalton was in fact Jesse. There’s a major problem with circumstantial evidence, as any prosecutor or defense attorney will tell you. When physical or forensic evidence contradicts circumstantial evidence, circumstantial evidence is worthless. It doesn’t make any difference how many people support the defendant’s alibi that he was somewhere else at the time of the murder if his fingerprints are on the knife. This leaves us with a minor mystery—who was J. Frank Dalton, anyway?

Dalton was certainly of an age to have been acquainted with Jesse James even though he wasn’t Jesse, and he did know quite a bit about Jesse James. A lot of what he knew wasn’t what Joe Average would have known, even if Joe grew up in the same time and area as Jesse. There were also a lot of gaps in his knowledge. When Homer Croy, author of JESSE JAMES WAS MY NEIGHBOR, interviewed Dalton, he didn’t know Frank James’ full name. (It was Alexander Franklin.) He also didn’t know who Red Fox was. Red Fox was a thoroughbred stud for which Jesse paid the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. You’d think a feller would remember a horse he paid 50 grand for. (According to legend, Jesse sold Red Fox to none other than Captain Richard King. Red Fox and a fast-break mare he bought from a young man named Sam Bass are supposed to be the founding sire and dam of the King Ranch Red quarterhorses.)

There are indications that J. Frank Dalton was a James Frank Dalton who was born in or near Goliad, Texas sometime around 1847. Beyond that nobody knows much about him outside the fiction he concocted about being Jesse James. It’s just barely possible that he was a very obscure James Gang member known as Bud Dalton. The terms ‘just barely possible’ and ‘very obscure’ are used purposely, because there is only one mention of a Bud Dalton in connection with Jesse James, and that reference is in itself open to question. It’s connected to a bit of Oklahoma legend/folklore known as ‘The Brass Bucket Treasure Story.’

The Brass Bucket Treasure tale isn’t much known outside Oklahoma, but there it ranks roughly alongside the Lost San Saba Mine story in Texas and the Lost Dutchman Mine story in Arizona. According to the tale, in the 1930s a ‘very old man’—such tales usually begin with ‘a very old man’—gave a young Lawton, Oklahoma, police officer a couple of maps or charts purporting to show the way to a vast treasure buried in the Wichita Mountains by the Jesse James gang in the 1870s. Allegely this stuff was ‘Mexican loot’—gold and gems stolen by the gang in Mexico.

There is no historical evidence that the James gang ever raided in Mexico, in the 1870s or at any other time. Allegedly the loot amounted to about $2,000,000 in the currency of the time. That’s more money than can be proved the James gang or anyone associated with the James gang ever stole, counting all James gang robberies, in the entire career of the gang. Why Jesse and the boys would have stolen $2,000,000 worth of gold and gems in Mexico and then buried the loot in the wilds of the Wichita Mountains is another question that needs to be answered, but—according to the ‘very old man’—that’s exactly what they did.

The young policeman began to follow the charts. He dug up, at points indicated by the charts, a number of interesting artifacts—which were what the charts said they would be and where the charts said they would be. It was obvious the artifacts had been buried for a number of years. One of the things he dug up was half a brass bucket. On this bucket someone had stamped an agreement to organize a ‘bounty bank.’ One of the names was Jesse James. Another was Frank James. A third was ‘Bud Dalton.’

It is a matter of historical record that Frank James bought and lived on a farm east of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, within sight of the Wichita Mountains. Frank and Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Coles James Samuel, was returning to Missouri from a visit to Frank at his farm in Oklahoma when she died on the train.

It is a matter of local legend, neither supported nor denied by historical record, that Frank didn’t do much farming on that farm. Instead, he did a lot of wandering. One account has him ‘wearing out five or six horses’ in a series of full-gallop nocturnal rides along some obscure trails in the vicinity of his farm. Why anyone would dash at a flying gallop by moonlight down obscure trails when the law wasn’t chasing him eludes most reasonable explanations, but legend provides an answer. He was looking for something special—something he’d seen by moonlight at a wild gallop perhaps 30 years earlier. Only by moonlight at a wild gallop could he expect to recognize it.

There is considerable indication that Frank, at one time, dug up a cache of about $6,400 that he and Jesse buried years earlier. Some accounts insist it was $64,000. After digging up the money he didn’t sell his Oklahoma farm and return to Missouri permanently. Though he lived in Missouri, he returned to his Oklahoma farm on a regular basis until he died—and he didn’t do much farming. He did a lot of wandering in the Wichita Mountains, to the west of the farm.

For the record, the area Frank wandered is now West Range of Fort Sill. Not only is it illegal to wander out there, it’s downright unhealthy. That area has been the impact area for tank and artillery service practice since about WW I. There are a lot of unexploded artillery and tank rounds stuck in the dirt out there. Kick one wrong and they’ll scrape what’s left of you off the surrounding rocks.

Frank James didn’t do all that wandering in the Wichitas for the fun of it. He was definitely looking for something. Legend holds he found part of it—the $6,400 (or $64,000, depending on which version you choose to believe) cache. He also didn’t quit looking when he found it! That would definitely indicate there was more to find.

What was Frank looking for? Was it what has become known in Oklahoma folklore as ‘The Brass Bucket Treasure?’ The maps and charts that led their possessor to the brass bucket also led him to at least one cache of money.

And then there’s that obscure name on the bucket—Bud Dalton. J. Frank Dalton knew a lot about Jesse James, and not all of it was things that were widely publicized. From what he did know, he almost had to be associated with the James gang at one time in his life. Was he the ‘Bud Dalton’ on the brass bucket? Unfortunately, that’s a question that can’t be answered by exhumation and mitochondrial DNA.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

June 15, 2007 column



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