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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

‘Get your guns, boys!’ How the citizens of Northfield foiled the James-Younger gang

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A short documentary from the Minnesota Historical Society describes the failed Northfield bank raid.

When the James–Younger gang rode into Northfield on September 7, 1876, with the intention of robbing the First National Bank, they did not expect any trouble from the local citizens. Unbeknownst to them, the townspeople would soon be nationally applauded for defending their town from some of the period’s most notorious outlaws.

The James-Younger gang was from Missouri. After a decade of local robberies, they decided to go where no one would expect to find them. The Younger brothers—Cole, Jim, and Bob—traveled to Minnesota, as did McClelland “Clell” Miller and Charlie Pitts. Though never proven, it is generally accepted that Jesse and Frank James took part in the crime that followed. The eighth man is thought to have been Bill Chadwell, whom authorities initially mistook for a Minnesotan man named Bill Stiles.

The gang rode into Northfield at 2:00 pm on September 7. Frank, Charlie, and Bob entered the First National Bank while Cole and Clell positioned themselves outside of the bank door to bar townspeople from entering during the robbery. Meanwhile, Jesse, Jim, and Bill waited in Mill Square to guard the gang’s escape route.

J. S. Allen, a forty-year-old local man, noticed the strangers. He walked towards the bank to see if he could catch a glimpse of what they were up to inside. As soon as he reached the doorway, Clell grabbed Allen, pointed his revolver at him, and told him to stay quiet. Alarmed, Allen broke free and reportedly shouted, “Get your guns, boys! They’re robbing the bank!”

Their cover blown, the gang rode up and down the streets firing their pistols at doorways and warning confused onlookers to get inside. Henry Wheeler, a medical student, grabbed a gun and ran to a third-floor window of the nearby Dampier Hotel. From there, he took careful aim and shot Clell Miller, who fell from his horse and died. On the other side of the street, Anselm Manning, the owner of a hardware store, crept around the corner and fatally shot Bill Chadwell.

Nicolaus Gustavson, a recent Swedish immigrant who could not understand the robbers’ orders to get off the street, got caught in the crossfire and was shot in the head. He died several days later.

With two gang members dead and more townspeople shooting and throwing rocks, Cole screamed at the robbers in the bank to hurry up. Inside the bank, however, things were going just as poorly as they were outside.

The robbers had burst into the bank with their pistols drawn and demanded to know which of the three employees was the cashier. The cashier was out of town, so none of them answered. Frustrated, Frank grabbed Joseph Lee Heywood, the bookkeeper, and demanded that he open the safe. Heywood replied that the lock was on a timer and could not be opened. He lied; the lock was open during business hours but the bolts remained in place so that it appeared locked.

Frank fired a shot above Heywood’s head, trying to scare him into cooperating. Noticing an opportunity to flee amid the confusion, Alonzo Bunker, the bank teller, sprinted for the back door. Charlie Pitts shot him in the shoulder but Bunker kept on running until he reached the doctor’s office.

Hearing Cole’s desperate shouts from the street, Bob and Charlie grabbed the spare change they found on the counter and headed outside. Infuriated by their failure, Frank paused long enough to turn back and shoot Heywood in the head, instantly killing him.

Just minutes after riding into Northfield, the surviving outlaws retreated from town. They left behind two dead gang members and fifteen thousand dollars still sitting in the bank. For two weeks, hundreds of volunteers combed southern Minnesota searching for them in what was then the largest manhunt in U.S. history.

On September 20, the sheriff of Watonwan County and five local volunteers found the Youngers and Charlie Pitts near Madelia. Pitts died in the confrontation and the Younger brothers were sentenced to life terms in Stillwater State Prison. Jesse and Frank James managed to escape and for the rest of their lives denied ever having been in Minnesota.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/06/2016 - 09:50 am.

    Why Northfield?

    There may have been a motive for robbing the Northfield bank besides going where no one would be expected to find them.

    The James boys were notorious Confederate raiders back in Missouri. Their activity may not have had an entirely political motivation, as they continued their raiding sprees after the war.

    One of the owners of the Northfield bank was former General Adelbert Ames. Ames, whose family had long-standing business interests in Northfield (Malt-O-Meal was originally produced by the Ames Mills), had just stepped down as the Radical Republican military governor of Mississippi. He never liked Mississippi, and was living with his family in Minnesota at the time of the robbery. One of his fellow investors in the bank was his father-in-law, former General Benjamin Butler, whose name still raises hackles ‘way down in Dixie.

    Since it doesn’t appear that the James gang pulled off any, or many, more robberies on their way to Northfield, it’s likely that this was some sort of revenge plot for them.

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