by Clay Coppedge
myth has it that Old West outlaw Jesse James was a folk hero, the
Robin Hood of his day. Along with his brother Frank and cohorts like
the Younger brothers, he robbed from the railroads and the banks and
was a friend to the poor.
Maybe so. Maybe not.
The question people here have is this: Did the James Brothers ride
through Bell County?
Did they perpetrate any of their dastardly deeds in Bell County?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Did Frank and Jesse James check in at the Stagecoach Inn in Salado
under their own names?
Maybe, but the register supposedly proving this was supposedly stolen
in the 1940s. (Talk of Jesse James is invariably full of the qualifier
"supposedly" and this piece is no exception.)
the James and Younger brothers spent some time in Texas is not in
dispute, and local legends of the James and Younger brothers in Bell
and surrounding counties abound.
One concerns an incident in the 1870s at the old Bishop farm near
H.C. Farrell lives not far from the site of the old Bishop house on
the east side of Cedar Creek. Farrell said last week when asked about
the story that the old house is no longer there, a victim of one too
many floods on Cedar Creek, but the story remains, passed down through
his wife's family and recounted in Temple attorney and local historian
Jim Bowmer's book "The Unknown Bell County."
The story goes that once, in the 1870s two strangers on horseback
approached the old Bishop place just about supper time, seeking food
and lodging. As Bill Bishop showed the two young men to the barn so
they could stable their horses he commented on their "fine Missouri
Bishop was told somewhat tersely that the horses were bought in Denton,
thus disavowing any connection with the James' home state of Missouri.
While showing the men to the "visitors room," Bishop noticed that
one of the men was missing an index finger.
This upset Mr. Bishop, who stuttered so badly when he was excited
that he could not speak. He tried to communicate to his wife what
he had noticed by drawing a picture of a hand in some flat dough where
Mrs. Bishop was rolling bread. He then marked out the index finger.
The missing index finger is significant because Jesse James was widely
believed to be missing one of his fingers. Of course, modern historians
don't agree on which digit Jesse James was missing, or if he was even
missing one at all, but it was accepted as fact in his day.
When the two men left the next day, they left behind some gold coins
as a show of appreciation for the Bishops' hospitality.
A U.S. Marshall came by a couple of weeks later looking for some outlaws
who had robbed a stage-coach near Salado,
adding somewhat derisively that some people claimed it was Jesse James
who had robbed that stagecoach.
From records of the James and Younger brothers' deeds, it is unlikely
they robbed a stage in Salado,
though some accounts have them robbing a stagecoach near Austin
(or San Antonio) in
April (or May) of 1874.
Another story has it that Frank and Jesse stopped at Owl Creek to
bury their ill-gotten gains - supposedly from the Austin (or San Antonio)
bank robbery - obviously planning to pick it up at a later date. Their
nefarious activity was observed by a local man, who wisely kept himself
concealed while the outlaws went about their business.
In the years that followed, the man dropped by the spot often to confirm
its location. His plan was dig it up when he felt it was safe, but
he died without ever attaining a sufficient feeling of safety.
Another story about Jesse James in Bell County has the outlaw stopping
by one of the Cabaniss ranches near Salado for food and lodging in
the 1870s. He always left a $10 gold piece as a show of appreciation
(and possibly hush money) but the woman who lived there, Mrs. Maggie
Nutt, wouldn't even touch the money, believing it was tainted. Instead,
she left it for a kindly woman who worked for her to dispose of as
she saw fit.
There are also stories of Frank James and Cole Younger coming through
here after their long rider days were done.
In Lampasas, it is believed
that Frank James operated a leather shop there briefly.
When the Great Frank James and Cole Younger Wild West Show - yes,
there was such a thing - made a stop in Killeen
Cole Younger mentioned riding through the country during his outlaw
years. No one asked him to supply any specifics and he didn't volunteer
the past century, nearly everything ever written or reported about
Jesse James has been disputed, including his death.
Half a dozen men claimed, or their families have claimed, that Jesse
faked his death and lived to a ripe old age. His grave in Missouri
was dug up for the sake of DNA testing, but even those results are
All of this puts us in mind of J. Frank Dobie, who wrote: "History
has no more business interfering with legend than legend does with
history, and where history is doubtful, legend is assured."
That is certainly the case when talking about Jesse James.