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home : columns : ron kuecker
October 18, 2019

9/11/2019 3:30:00 PM
James gang should not have messed with Northfield

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

It was this exact time of year when the great Northfield raid took place. The gang of Jesse and Frank James, three Younger brothers and three independents took their robbing, shooting and general terrorism north to Minnesota. They focused first on a bank in Mankato, then switched their attention to Northfield when they thought they had been recognized.
Bad decision boys!
Although many of the Northfield "men folks" were out hunting prairie chickens, a big thing early each fall of that era, enough remained "in town" to make the gang wish they had never heard of the First National Bank of Northfield.
They rode into town on fancy horses, probably purchased after they arrived here by train. The horses, no doubt, must have had thoroughbred and Tennessee Walker backgrounds because they drew attention everywhere they went. Add that to the whitish linen dusters they wore and they must have been quite a sight.
Little did they really know about the people of Northfield. A community that started two independent, private colleges, St. Olaf and Carleton, plus having one of the biggest banks outside the Twin Cities should have clued them up.
This town is filled with strong independent people. They might put up a fight if they could start two new colleges in 1874, just two years before they "cased" the area.
The gang gathered outside the small town in the woods west of the city. Then they split into three groups.
Frank James, Charlie Pitts and Bob Younger would enter the bank. Cole Younger (the most sensible of the group) and Clell Miller would set up outside the bank. Jesse James, Jim Younger and William Stiles would protect the bridge so they could escape back into the "Big Woods."
Then things changed drastically for the gang of eight.
In the bank
Workers in the bank refused to open the safe. It was later discovered the safe was closed but not locked. One ran out the back door shouting the bank is being robbed even as he was shot in the shoulder.
The part-time cashier, Joseph Heywood, also the part-time treasurer of Carleton College, was shot and killed for his refusal to open. Then, prodded by Cole Younger outside the bank, the three ran out into the street.
It became a melee of shouting and shooting for the next seven minutes. Miller and Stiles were shot dead by citizen rifle fire, Bob Younger's elbow was smashed by a bullet and others received wounds from fowling pieces (shotguns) gathered from a hardware store.
The remaining six outlaws escaped on five horses, headed south to Dundas and crossed the bridge over the Cannon River there. Over the next 10 days they made it to an area southwest of Mankato during a period of cold rains, muddy roads and few crossings other than at guarded bridges.
Gang splits
Ultimately, they split into two groups. The Youngers refused to leave behind their wounded younger brother, Bob, who was slowing their escape. They were joined by Charley Pitts. The James brothers rode off to the west on two of the best horses.
As the James boys made good their escape many along their suspected route to South Dakota claimed they saw them. In Cottonwood County I have talked to people north of Jeffers that stated they had slept in one of their old barns. In Murray County, home of my youth, some near Chandler claimed they passed through that area. Both places would have been valid routes.
Eventually they came to the Big Sioux River and followed it down to Sioux Falls. They then used the river system to aid their escape to Missouri and ultimately to Tennessee where they hid out for many years.
In my next column I will describe the capture of the three Younger brothers and the killing of Charlie Pitts west of Madelia in the Hanska slough. I will also try to touch on the Big Woods area of Minnesota.
Other wildlife stuff
This last week some of the findings of the well-known Minnesota August Roadside Survey by the Minnesota DNR were released. I don't know of anyone who was surprised by the pheasant count in our area.
They are down, down despite the best efforts of some to bring up the numbers of pheasants. I can think of even one researcher, who thought the late, cold, wet spring would benefit the hatch by delaying it. Are you kidding me?
The count is now called an index and tries to baffle us with percent changes, 10 year and long-term averages. Hey, we're not seeing many birds out here, haven't seen them for many years, and as long as we have deficiencies in winter cover, a preponderance of warm weather, late emerging prairie grasses and a lack of insect production in nearby leguminous, flowering plants; we won't have many pheasants.
MWA dies
I received a sad bit of news from a Ducks Unlimited friend last week. The Minnesota Waterfowl Association (MWA) has disbanded.
I have been a big supporter of the MWA during its many years (around 50), even through their mishandling of state funds due to improper oversight.
They taught us how to reclaim shallow lakes by controlling water levels, still in use today. Most important was their successful, legislative effort to allow some lakes to be managed as wildlife lakes and others to remain as good fishing lakes.
Hey fellas, it was a good run. You helped a lot!

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