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This Day in History: How Armed Citizens Put an End to Jesse James’ Crime Spree

By: José Niño

U.S. history textbooks enjoy demonizing the latter half of the 19th century, the Gilded Age, and the poorly named “Wild West” period of those decades. Despite what most conventional historical and Hollywood narratives depict, this was actually a safe and prosperous time period.

One factor that contributed to the Old West’s security was the heavily armed presence of settlers in the region. Of course, the Old West had its fair share of areas with gun control, such as Tombstone, Arizona, where the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place, but there were also plenty of jurisdictions that allowed people to keep and bear arms.

Hollywood films have given various outlaws of this time considerable notoriety. Although outlaw activity was not as rampant as Hollywood would like us to believe, certain outlaws, namely, Jesse James, stand out above the rest. As the ringleader of the notorious James-Younger gang, James and his band of outlaws have gone down in history for their high-profile robberies across the Midwest and the South.

But one of their criminal escapades did not turn out as expected. Fresh off a robbery in Otterville, Missouri, the James-Younger gang set their sights up north on Minnesota.

On the fateful day of September 7, 1876, the gang arrived in the town of Northfield, Minnesota. The outlaws were recognized by their conspicuous linen dusters (designed to conceal their weapons), their majestic horses, and arrogant demeanor as they walked down the streets of Northfield.

Wasting no time, the James-Younger gang broke into the First National Bank and started letting bullets fly. Bank clerk Joseph Lee Heywood courageously refused to open the bank vault to the outlaws. Heywood would later pay the ultimate price at the hands of one of the gang members.

The gunfire spilled over into to the streets, but the robbers were caught by an unexpected surprise: armed citizens. While the gang was trying to extract their ill-gotten goods, the citizens of Northfield caught wind of their crime.

Several daring citizens took up arms and began opening fire with jaw-dropping accuracy. What the James-Younger gang thought would be another walk in the park turned into a catastrophe.

Armed citizens completely turned the tables on the outlaws by killing two of them—Bill Chadwell and Clell Miller—and wounding the rest of the gang. What’s more, a posse went out, hot on the outlaw gang’s tracks and eventually captured the Younger brothers in what has become in one of the largest manhunts in American history.

Jesse James survived the citizen uprising, but the resistance his gang experienced at Northfield marked the end of the James-Younger gang’s criminal dominance. The gang dissolved, and Jesse James’s influence continued to decrease until his death at the hands of Robert Ford in 1882.

Tragically, an innocent civilian, Swedish immigrant Nicholas Gustafson, fell victim to the outlaw’s shooting spree. To this day, the citizens of the Northfield commemorate this turbulent event, where several brave individuals exercised their right to self-defense to maintain the peace.

Historians have done countless students a disservice by filling their heads with Hollywood-style myths and leftist narratives that denigrate our right to self-defense. Let the truth be told that gun rights are more than just an armchair philosophy. They save lives in the real world.

The citizens of Northfield should wear this historical event like a badge of honor!

José Niño is a Venezuelan-American political activist based in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.