Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
When Frank and Jesse James appeared in the family history of Tony Johnson, he turned to DNA. Tony wanted to learn and know the truth of his family’s story. The story was told to each generation for over 150 years.
In 1975, I had a high school project requiring me to build a family tree. I reached out to my grandmother, Effie Ramsey. She shared what she knew. Then quickly, she referred me to her cousin, Cleburne G. “Pat” Pound of Seminole, Oklahoma.
Grandmother Effie said Pat was our family historian. He spent most of his life doing family research. Pat visited places throughout the country. He wrote letters to various history centers and libraries. Numerous genealogy chronicles published his work.
I met with Pat first. Then we corresponded through letters. Every year, Pat shared more information with me. My family records started to come together, especially the records for our Pound cousins and James ancestors. This was before the use of computers for record keeping.
Pat knew how to educate. Not too long ago, one of Pat’s daughters mentioned to me how amazed she was that her classmates would waste a summer break visiting a place like Disneyland. Why didn’t they go to cemeteries? Or rummage through dusty courthouse basements, like she and her father did?
In no time at all, I took up the torch to be educated, too. I had two full storage crates of material, plus what Pat had accumulated. Suffice it to say, my torch fizzled out rather quickly. I was finishing high school. I had my career before me. I put away the documents for almost 30 years.
Now, it is the 21st century. My own son is heading to college. My wife says that I really need to get a hobby. She does not know. Already I am dusting off the old records, documents, and research. I am looking at them with fresh eyes.
Throughout Pat’s research, a famous name pops up time and again. The name repeats itself through Pat’s interviews with family and with townspeople, stories especially about my third great-grandfather, Jeremiah James of Franklin County, Arkansas. The family stories tell that Jeremiah was related directly to Frank and Jesse James.
Moreover, among Primitive Baptist ministers in Pat’s own Pound family, this story was family lore, too. It was Jeremiah’s daughter, Nancy J. James, who married into the Pound family. These men of the cloth shared stories of the James gang being at their home, visiting their blacksmith shop, and being related to wife and sister-in-law, Nancy Jane (James) Pound.
Here are some notes and quotes from Pat’s notes and files:
- “Our James family ties in to the above James family (Robert and Zerelda James) in Virginia. In our home, my brothers and sisters and I grew up in the knowledge that we were related by blood to the outlaws Frank and Jesse James, the connection being through our father’s mother, Nancy Jane James, whose father, Jeremiah James, was said to have been a first cousin to the bandits.“
- In 1945, Pat received a letter from William Thomas James. The writer was the 80-year-old grandson of William Russell James, a brother of Jeremiah James. In the letter, William Thomas James confirms that his ancestors were cousins to Frank and Jesse James.
- “Another verification of our connection with the James family of Logan County, Kentucky, was Mr. Walter Harris, late historian of Franklin County, Arkansas, legislator, school teacher, and author of a history of Franklin County. A few years ago, he took me to the grave of great-grandfather Jeremiah James. On the way, he said, ‘I guess you know that you are kin to some pretty famous people, don’t you?’ I remarked that I did, and he proceeded to tell me the same thing that W. T. James had.”
- “Our Grandfather, Isaac S. Pound, a Primitive Baptist preacher and a blacksmith at Alma, Crawford County, Arkansas, was awakened one night at midnight by two men who needed their horses shod. My grandfather told them that he did not usually shoe horses at that time of night. They told him he would when they told him who they were. They were Frank and Jesse James. He shod their horses.” This Isaac S. Pound married Nancy Jane James, joining the James and Pound families together.
So now, in the 21st century, I have a computer, Google search, and Ancestry.com to enhance my research skills. I also have our persistent family story. I am pursuing new leads.
In my revived research, I came across Mary Helen Simon, Pat Pound’s sister. She lives in Colorado and just recently turned 93 years old. I flew out to meet her. I wanted to hear the stories that she and Pat heard in their childhood.
I told Mary that I wanted to prove the family lore about Frank and Jesse. With that, I started looking for a male relative who bore the James surname. It took a couple of years. I finally found the family line that was descended from Jeremiah James’ brother. Amazingly, their five generations grew up in Arkansas in the same location as Jeremiah.
Receiving approval to have a DNA test performed on one of these James cousins, I purchased a Y111 test from Family Tree DNA. Impatiently I waited for the test results.
At the same time, I also contacted Eric James of “Stray Leaves” fame. I inquired about having DNA compared to known members of the Frank and Jesse James family.
Eric already had the uniform results of the principle lines of the James family on file. The James conducted their own DNA study between 2002 and 2006. Eric said the results were private for now, except for the troubled DNA of Sam Walton, a James family descendant; and for the Ross DNA of Judge James R. Ross, Jesse’s great-grandson. Knowing the DNA of Judge Ross revealed the Ross family history that Judge Ross never knew. Eric write about this in his book, Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I, Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence. The James DNA results done between 2002-2006 have not yet been made public. For now, Eric could not reveal their DNA profile. But Eric did offer that, if an outside DNA profile was submitted for comparison, he could confirm or deny if the external profile was a match or not.
I thought I was impatient while waiting for the initial test results from Family Tree DNA. I quickly realized that I was anxious again, now waiting to hear from Eric after I had sent off my cousin’s alleles for his comparison and review.
Sadly, the results were not positive, but that is what research is all about. Genealogy is about proving the data, the family stories, and the lore. Suffice it to say, that now that I have become our family historian, my cousins are a bit skeptical about my information. Of course, they will always believe that Frank and Jesse are in our blood, if not at least in our hearts.