The Day the James Gang Visited Rockdale, Maybe
Editor's Corner - Mike Brown
Rockdale Reporter - 2016-03-03
It’s been reprinted many times over the past 40 years, both in The Reporter and other
publications, about the day “Jesse James visited Rockdale.”
From time to time it keeps getting re-discovered as new, and people will call us and say
“did you know?...” Yes, we know. Here’s what we know.
In 1974 The Reporter ran a story quoting, as the sole source, a letter from Ruth Williams
Wildman, who lived in Houston.
Mrs. Wildman said her father, Edward Williams came to Texas from Mississippi and settled
in Rockdale as a 21-year-old in 1880.
(Rockdale was then six years old.)
Mr. Williams opened a wagon yard, located where the vacant former Phillips & Luckey
Funeral Home is today, on the corner of Bell and Burleson.
He said on a cold winter day in 1880 five men rode in. They bought a barrel of corn for
their horses and Williams locked their saddles and bridles up for the night. He
remembered one saddle had a Winchester rifle buckled to it.
The men said they were going to send a telegram, but did not return for their property
until the next day.
They came back and began to ride out of town when one of the horses began to act up. Two
of the men traded horses.
Williams said the horse which had acted up was a fine-looking animal and as the men began
to ride off he remarked: “I’d sure like to own that horse.”
To which the horse’s rider remarked: “You and a lot of others.”
Then the man pulled his coat back, showed Williams a big side gun and said: “They don’t
allow this in this town, but I’d like to see them help it.”
Then they rode off. Williams said a businessman in Rockdale went by the name of Bell.
About six months to a year later Bell decided to leave town.
Bell went to Williams before he left and told him the five men who had come to his wagon
yard that day were Jesse and Frank James and three of their gang.
Bell — that wasn’t his real name — said the five had spent the night and some of the next
day with him. Bell said he had been a part of the James Gang and they had spent the visit
reminiscing about old times.
Williams said he “always knew” the men were the James Gang and that Frank was the one who
showed him the gun and Jesse was the one who swapped horses with Frank.
Great story. Is it true? Sounds plausible. Those little details have a ring of
authenticity, the horse acting up, the swagger—“You and a lot of others; I’d like to see
them help it.” So the question becomes, is there any record of the James Gang in Texas in
Frank and Jesse re-formed the gang after it was almost wiped out in the botched
Northfield, Minnesota, raid in 1876.
In 1880 the new gang was operating in Kentucky and Tennessee, living mostly in Nashville.
It’s well documented they held up a stagecoach full of tourists and a store in Kentucky
during that year.
Late in that year they fled to Alabama. By 1881 they were back in their home state of
Missouri. The next year Jesse was assassinated by Bob Ford in St. Joseph.
But there’s a tantalizing newspaper story May 11, 1880, in the Kansas City Daily Journal.
It says Jesse was in Mexico the previous year.
Hmmm...Texas is between Missouri and Mexico, of course.
So, take your pick. Was Williams accurate or was it just another tall tale sighting of a
And wouldn’t you like to know who Bell was?