Wednesday, July 11, 2012

...and the family legend of Jesse James

Almost anyone who has seriously worked on family history, other than just compiling a lot of dates and places, has woefully asked…. “if I had only asked more questions” --  questions of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles as they were reminiscing and telling stories.  When you’re a little kid, you don’t think about asking probative questions…in fact, most kids are probably a little bored sitting around listening to relatives relay all those old stories.  In my case, if I had only known that someday those stories would be important to me…but now, after many of the oldest storytellers in the family are gone…I find myself thinking, “why didn’t I ask more questions.”  It may feel like it’s too late, but it’s not entirely hopeless.

Louis N. Metzner, about 1891
Genealogical facts are relatively easy to uncover – names, dates, places – but when you’re trying to prove some of those old family stories, that is when the search can be a bit more troublesome.  One branch of the family has some stories that are real doozies!  I never asked the right questions when I was a kid – just assumed they were tall tales.  Now I’m curious about those tall tales.  How did they get started and are they really so “tall”?

The two big stories swirling around in the family for years was that a great-grandfather, Louis Napoleon Metzner (1872-1930), ran away from home and lived with Jesse James’ mother. The other was that the same great-grandfather went into the hotel business with William Frederick Cody aka Buffalo Bill Cody.  There is no evidence that either of these accounts are true.  Jesse’s mother, Zerelda, lived in Clay County, Missouri until she died in 1911.  That’s a long way from St. Louisville, Ohio where Louis N. Metzner was living as a boy (he moved to Ft. Wayne, Ind. in 1891).  And Louis never went into the hotel business.  He always worked for the railroad doing runs between Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Now his brother Jasper is another matter.  Jasper (1856-1938) seemed to have a bit of the wanderlust.  According to Fort Wayne newspapers, he periodically took trips out west – for business and pleasure. My suspicion is that Jasper perpetrated some of these family tales. 

Typical dime novel published at
the time Louis & Jasper were boys.
Library of Congress

Both Jasper and Louis were adolescents during a very dynamic time in American history.  They heard stories of the Wild West, gunslingers, Indians, and outlaws, and probably read some of the popular dime novels of the time that told stories of the escapades of the likes of Jesse James, Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick.  One can only imagine the daydreams of these two boys growing up in a small farming community in Ohio. Jasper and Louis eventually went to work for the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad, with their home base in Ft. Wayne. For Jasper, it was a job he held from 1878-1900. Then, in 1900, he went into the laundry business in Ft. Wayne. Curiously, he left the running of the business to a partner and took a job as conductor on the Choctaw, Oklahoma, and Gulf railroad, leaving his wife and four children back in Ft. Wayne. It's not clear why he took that job -- perhaps to help support the new laundry business...or maybe it was an opportunity to feel part of that "romantic" west that he had read about as a youth. 

Eagle Laundry ad, 1922

At the time Jasper was working for the C, O & G -- the rail ran from Arkansas through Oklahoma. By 1902 it had reached Amarillo, Texas. That year Jasper went back to Fort Wayne to take over the operation of the Eagle Laundry, but that didn’t stop his sojourns west.  According to Fort Wayne newspapers he took a number of trips west, including a 6-week trip from Nov. 1903 to April 1904 which was reported as a “prospecting trip.”  Not prospecting for gold – it appears he was seeking business opportunities.  One report stated that he wanted to “establish a laundry business in Indian Territory.”  It doesn’t appear that that ever happened however.

As for the family connection to Jesse James, all that can be found is that Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda Samuels, died in a Pullman train car just outside of Oklahoma City in 1911.  She had just finished visiting with her son, Frank, of the once-infamous James gang, in Fletcher, Oklahoma.  Perhaps in the two years that Jasper worked on the railroad in Oklahoma, he met Zerelda on one of his trains – or perhaps he heard stories of her riding the C, O & G.  Of course, we will never know... and no matter how hard one might try to find some truth to the family myth of Louis (or Jasper) and Jesse James’ mother, nothing points to it being true.  Darn!

Next time I’ll try to unravel the Buffalo Bill family myth, which could be slightly more plausible than our Jesse James tale.

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