Who was Frank James?
I have a few book signings scheduled this month in Big Horn County, and many people there are curious about outlaw activity in the area during the late 1870s. One of the most provocative questions in the Big Nose George Saga is whether the famous outlaw, Frank James, brother of Jesse, was in the region at that time, and was one of the Powder River Gang. The escapades of the two James brothers are poorly known after the September 1876 Northfield, Minnesota raid and before the October 1879 Glendale, Missouri train robbery, a three-year cloud of mystery obscuring their movements.
A few sources suggest their presence in Mexico, Texas, and other states/territories, but little evidence supports most claims. Carl Breihan, noted authority on the James brothers, does mention Frank’s role with Big Nose George in 1878, and an overwintering episode in southwestern Wyoming with Jesse from late 1878 to early 1879. Breihan’s story is based on interviews with scores of personalities who may have known pieces of the outlaw history first-hand.
My book argues that Frank was indeed part of the Powder River Gang in 1878. At least three contemporary settlers in the Big Horn country claim knowledge of Frank’s presence there in the time before and/or shortly after the Elk Mountain murders, including O.P. Hanna, T.J. Foster, and May Davis-Howard.
Members of the gang itself, and legal authorities in Carbon County, also believed Frank James was in Wyoming. Big Nose George claimed James was a gang member, and the court accepted Parott’s testimony as truth in his trial. In addition, Carbon County indicted James, along with the rest of the gang, for the murders of Robert Widdowfield and Tip Vincent.
One of the unfortunate outcomes was that the Parott case was costly to Carbon County so much so that they may have chosen not to pursue an extradition request for Frank James from Missouri in the early 1880s. If James had been ordered to stand trial in Wyoming, history may have partially resolved the question of Frank’s whereabouts in that three-year cloud of history.