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A Horse, Of Course

Don Blazer

Some say Jesse James lived by the gun and died by the gun. That’s accurate….but not nearly all the story. Jesse James lived by the horse and died by the horse. That’s the story…the one you really want to know.

Jesse James was a bold, merciless murderer and robber. He robbed banks, trains, stagecoaches and he eluded the U.S. Cavalry, sheriff’s posses and Pinkerton detectives. He did all that because he had the horses.

Jesse James and his brother Frank rode with William Clark Quantrill’s guerillas during the Civil War. With Quantrill he learned the importance of horses, developed into an expert horseman and adopted the position that the best-mounted most often win.

The legendary career of murder and plunder began on Feb. 14, 1866 in Liberty, Missouri and would last for 16 years as lawmen made every possible effort to capture him. But they failed to catch James because his horses easily out-maneuvered and out-ran his pursuers.

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody often compared his own horses to those of Jesse James. Cody claimed that his horses Tucker, Brigham or Duke could out pace James’ horses Stonewall, Ebony or Skyrocket.

Bragging about his own horses, Cody said, “That’s why the James boys are making fools of you,” he told authorities. “They ride superior horses.”

One of Jesse’s favorite horses was a mare named Katie. She was a high-spirited, fleet-footed bay, which Jesse liked so well that at first he refused to ride her during robberies. Jesse left Katie home during one robbery that didn’t go so well. He was dumped from his horse, almost caught and chased for days by Sheriff Tomlinson, also a former Quantrill rider. Unhappy about not catching Jesse, Tomlinson decided to take the mare Katie as a consolation prize.

Tomlinson returned the mare to Jesse’s farm shortly after he received a letter from Jesse in which the outlaw threatened to kill Tomlinson unless he got his mare back.

Jesse rode Katie from then on until during a raid on Gads Hill, Missouri she broke loose and ran off. Jesse simply borrowed another horse from a nearby farm, leaving the farmer a note saying, “If you can catch my mare, keep her in exchange for your horse.”

Each of Jesse’s horses distinguished themselves. Ebony, a solid black Thoroughbred traveled quickly at night, while Skyrocket was a better day horse.

Stonewall, named for Andrew “Stonewall” Jackson, was always dependable and eventually became Jesse’s favorite. In 1875 Jesse posed astride Stonewall for a photograph.

The horses owned and ridden by the James brothers during their countless raids were always of high quality. Jesse even had several imported from Kentucky because he wanted mostly Thoroughbred blood. The horses had great stamina and were able to galloped day and night, plunge through heavy underbrush and across prairies. Well schooled, his horses remained calm and collected even during the wildest of battles.

Jesse retired from the outlaw life for awhile and lived near Nashville, TN where he became a respected citizen of the area and got involved in horse racing, even riding in many races. Among the horses he raced were Jim Malone, Jim Scott and Tadpole. A strawberry roan Thoroughbred mare named Red Fox was his best runner, seldom ever beaten.

But Jesse went back to robbing and looting, and in April of 1882, he and two cohorts, Bob and Charley Ford were planning a daring raid.

It was a hot day, and Jesse had been out caring for his horses. He returned to his house, took off his coat, and turned his back on the Ford brothers as he began dusting a photograph of his horse Skyrocket. On a pre-arranged signal, the Ford brothers drew their pistols and shot Jesse James to death.

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