Family Legend

“One of my ancestors through my mom’s side was a gunslinger with Jesse James.  At one point, he found Jesus either through a sidewalk preacher or the local minister’s beautiful daughter, depending on who’s doing the telling.  After that, he left the gang, changed his name, and became a preacher, and got married.  The only record we have of him is a black-and-white picture, two holsters holding six-shooters on his hips and a Bible in his hand.  Nobody knows what his name was before, because if he told anyone before he died, the law would come after him, or so the story goes.

He kept up practice with his guns, though, and once saved someone one of his old gang buddies kidnapped. I’ve never heard it told the same way twice; it might have been his wife, the schoolteacher, the mayor’s young son, the mayor, someone else entirely, or it might have never happened.  You know how family stories grow with the telling.”

This story has been passed down through Mary’s family since the late 19th century. She explained that although it is uncertain exactly where her ancestor settled either before or after his name change, it was probably somewhere in Texas or New Mexico (Jesse James and his gang were based largely out of Missouri, but they were active across much of the south and midwest, so this is entirely possible) and that she believes her family has roots several generations back in Texas and Oklahoma. Her grandfather on her mother’s side grew up in South Carolina, but moved around a lot when he was in the Marines. He met her grandmother for the first time while stationed in California and married her several years later when they were both doing religious work in Japan. Mary’s mother (their second child of four) settled in San Diego County where she grew up, and eventually her grandparents joined them.

This legend is really interesting to me for several reasons. First, it has probably survived and been passed down because it contains story elements that would be pleasing to almost any American audience, even if that audience was not connected with the story. The story of Jesse James has long been glamorized in Hollywood as something dramatic and exhilarating and it’s no secret that violent and transgressive behavior provides audiences with a naughty thrill. To have a connection to that story would be exciting. However, the story is also one of redemption, which is another story element that appeals to American audiences. People love a comeback story and a gunslinger who finds God and even saves a person who had been kidnapped by his old gang buddies fits the bill perfectly.

It is also interesting that she notes in her telling that there are certain elements that she has never heard the same way twice. This is often true of oral tradition- stories tend to grow and change as they are passed along and the particular elements they contain at the time of the telling are often more indicative of an element about the teller or the environment than they are of the story itself.

Most interesting, however, are the minute similarities between the story of her ancestor and the story of her grandfather. She explained that when he was in the military and stationed in Japan, he had a “literal come-to-Jesus moment” with the Chaplain, went to Bible school, and devoted much of his life to religious work- building churches and community centers with Mary’s grandmother. It is possible that he simply followed in his ancestor’s footsteps, whether that occurred to him at the time or not, and it is also possible that, as oral tradition is wont to do, over time the story of his ancestor acquired elements of his own story, so that the man became less an outlaw and more a little like his descendant, a good man with an exciting life.