By Cristin Ross
It’s just a case of mistaken identity — or is it?
Louisiana author Reggie Anne Walker-Wyatt has some theories about the life and times of outlaw Jesse James. Those theories — including her claim there was more than one outlaw using the moniker Jesse James during the late 1800s and that the real James may have faked his own death and changed his name — that will be on display during the Rusk Pioneer and Heritage Festival, along with the photographic evidence that backs them up.
“All I’m asking is that people keep an open mind,” she said. “Look at my photos and information and then decide the merits of my theory. Why wouldn’t these men try to “die” and then start new lives? They were all very unique men.”
Walker-Wyatt began chasing the truth about J. Frank Dalton — who claims to have been the real Jesse James — when her great-great-grandmother Margaret Louisa Bass related a family tale that Dalton and the Youngers, members of his gang, stayed at the family plantation during the Civil War. When the author found documentation of her relative’s story in a book written by Cole Younger in 1903, she was intrigued enough to start unraveling the real story.
“It’s like a giant puzzle,” she said. “Each little bit of information that can be verified gets us that much closer to seeing the whole picture. It keeps me very busy.”
She collects information, stories, family histories from all over the South and compares new data to what she’s already been able to verify. Some stories are seriously historic, she said, and others border on the completely absurd.
“One of the more interesting ones I’ve come across is when they staged Jesse James’s funeral, they sewed a pig up in a suit and buried that instead,” Walker-Wyatt said with a laugh. “You get all kinds of information, you just have to use your own judgement as to which rabbit hole you want to go down.”
Some of the more believable nuggets Walker-Wyatt has managed to unearth include photos proving Cole Younger visited Florida at least once and of a young J. Frank Dalton in a Confederate Union uniform with Col. Isaac Harrison.
“We have to think of the broader scheme,” she said of the pair. “They got around, they were both Southern patriots, they were intelligent, innovating men, not just the common outlaws we’re led to believe in. They had a much bigger agenda.”
Her efforts to preserve these parts of Louisiana’s oral history led her to publish “Chasing Rivers, Trains & Jessie James,” the first of a trilogy following James and his connections to Southern families and locations.
The Rusk Pioneer and Heritage Festival will be held Oct. 10-11 at the Rusk depot of the Texas State Railroad.
By Cristin Ross
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