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The Outlaw Trail
Submitted by Amy Acheson on Mon, 08/13/2012 - 2:05pm
Since 1948, folks have come from all over to the Defeat of Jesse James Days to witness the reenactment of the attempted bank raid — those pivotal seven minutes in history when Northfield heroically defended itself against the notorious James-Younger Gang. The celebration draws roughly 150,000 people each year. It’s the largest volunteer-run festival in Minnesota.
“It’s a story about loyalty,” said Dan Freeman, narrator for the reenactment, speaking of the integrity of the brave Minnesotians who rose to the challenges of the robbery in September 1876.
According to Freeman, The outlaws miscalculated one critical detail in their plans when they decided to rob the small milling town of Northfield: the character of its people. “Northfield was founded on high ideals and moral standards,” he commented. “Hero Joseph Lee Heywood, the bank officer, refused to open the vault even after repeat threats upon his life and would ultimately die before betraying the trust of the townspeople vested at the bank.” After the attempted raid when gang members escaped, people throughout southern Minnesota would rally together in support, forming the largest posse in U.S. history —a thousand men — to the cause.
Stories still echo down the Outlaw Trail, passed on through the generations, about what took place here in our neck of the woods. The stories take on a life of their own and no doubt include some folklore, but many known facts have been documented by historians. Here is that story.
THE RIDE IN
The gang was believed to have been all over southern Minnesota about a month prior to the raid. They visited many places to familiarize themselves with the terrain locating river bridges that would serve useful in their escape. By traveling in small numbers, in pairs, or alone, they were able to lessen suspicion. They often posed as cattle buyers, rode the finest of horses, and were seen as affable, well-mannered gentlemen.
The gang converged on the bank separately, congregating beforehand on the west side of town, in a heavily wooded area that is now a city park. They also visited some local diners and a saloon before approaching the robbery site.
THE NORTHFIELD RAID
Most of the gang remained outside in various locations to guard, while three of their men entered the bank announcing the holdup.
Joseph Lee Heywood threw a wrench in the gang’s plans when he told them the money vault could not be opened because it was on a timed lock. Northfield citizens rallied together bravely to fight off the bandits in response to a merchant’s shout: “Get your guns boys, they’re robbing the bank!” After the smoke cleared, two of the robbers were dead as well as Heywood and an innocent bystander on the street, Nicolaus Gustavson. Six of the injured gang fled by horse in a southwest direction.
THE ESCAPE TRAIL
Fleeing from Northfield, the gang made its way through Dundas, quickly stopping to wash their bullet wounds near the Archibald Mill. Once a fine, 3-story flourmill, its limestone structural remains can still be found. The gang demanded a horse from one man, got a saddle from another and thundered down the dusty road toward Millersburg. Here, the proprietor of the Millersburg Inn, then the Cushman Hotel, recognized some of the men from their stay the night before. The proprietor noted their ragged condition, but word had not yet spread of the raid, so he allowed them to ride on, down Old Dodd road through the hills to Shieldsville that curves around Mazaska Lake. By then a telegraph reporting the raid had reached the county seat. A Faribault posse knew a shortcut and arrived just before the gang at Haggerty’s saloon, but missed the gang — there was some shots fired as they quickly rode through. An original ledger book can be found at the Rice County Historical Society that lists all the posse names requesting reimbursement for supplies.
Skirting around the town of Kilkenny, the gang stayed in a barn for a few days to hide out and recover. An area farmer was ordered by the gang to serve as a guide to Waterville. He brought them to what is known today as “Younger Crossing.” About this time, one of the gang members lost a horse in a shootout against some more posse. Another encounter with posse at Klondike Hill/Elysian forced the gang to travel by foot. In Marysburg the gang supposedly heard church bells ringing early one morning as they passed south of town.
Just outside of Mankato, the gang captured farm hand, Jeff Dunning and forced him to provide directions around the town.
The gang’s next move was Blue Earth River Crossing. Watching for guards at night, they squeezed by yet again. At Minneopa Falls smoke was seen by the posse. The gang had a chicken cooking over a fire. When the posse got there no men were found but the bird was still warm! The gang then traveled near Oscar Sorbel’s farm. When Sorbel saw the men, he became suspicious, and he took a closer look at the tracks left behind. Noting a toe print in the mud from worn-out boots, he concluded they were the ragged outlaws. He rode into Madelia to give warning to the Sherriff that the gang was near. Last, Hanska Slough is where the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts were finally captured down by the Watonwan River, by the posse called the Madelia Seven. The James brothers had split off earlier and escaped to South Dakota. There is some debate whether they were there at all, but ironically they showed up at their Missouri homes shortly thereafter the events all took place. They were never put on trial because the Younger brothers would not reveal those names.
There will always be some mystery surrounding the James-Younger Gang here in southern Minnesota, but one thing is abundantly clear: the bravery and integrity of the heroes of Northfield live on.
This article was previously published by Southern Minnesota Magazine and was written by Amy Acheson.
References and sources:
Robber and Hero, The story of the Northfield Bank Raid by George Huntington
Faithful Until Death, by John J. Koblas
Captured at Madelia, Watowan County Historical Society
NALO – National Outlaw and Lawmans Association
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