Robert Sallee James (1818 – 1850)
Robert Sallee James was the father of the famous outlaw Jesse James. He was a hemp farmer, slave owner, and Baptist minister from Kentucky who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. Robert James was orphaned at age nine and went to live with his married sister Mary Mimms. In 1838 he enrolled at Georgetown College, Kentucky. While a student there, he met Zerelda Elizabeth Cole. They married on December 20, 1841.
After James received his diploma in 1842, he and Zerelda moved to Clay County, Missouri. They lived with Zerelda’s mother and stepfather until their first child, Frank, was born in 1843. James then acquired a farm and started purchasing slaves to work in the fields. By 1850 James owned at least five black children and a black woman.
James became a preacher at New Hope Baptist Church. He was known for his passionate sermons and his ability to attract new members to the congregation. He received no income for his preaching.
The Gold Rush of 1849 enticed many people to seek their fortune out west. In 1850 James joined other men from Clay County and traveled to the mines. His purpose, he claimed, was to preach to the miners. He became ill and died unexpectedly in a camp named “Rough and Ready” in August 1850.