1876 was a year of great change in America’s history. America celebrated its 100th birthday with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, George Custer was killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden for the presidency. Tilden won the popular vote, but Hayes won the electoral college vote and became the 19th president of the United States.
Northfield in 1876 was a growing Southern Minnesota community. By this time the town had two colleges and saw the completion of a railroad through town. The town also had many prominent business leaders and a healthy bank. It was the bank that drew the attention of America’s most notorious bank and train robbers: the James-Younger Gang.
In late August 1876, the James-Younger Gang headed for Minnesota. The gang consisted of brothers Jesse and Frank James; brothers Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger; Clell Miller; Charlie Pitts; and Bill Stiles. Upon arriving in the state, the gang divided into scouting parties of two, three, and four men. Looking for possible sites to execute their plans, they considered banks in Minneapolis, Red Wing, St. Peter, and St. Paul, as well as Madelia, Mankato, Lake Crystal, St. James, Garden City, and Northfield.
On September 4, the gang rode into Mankato to rob the 1st National Bank of Mankato (the gang’s first choice). However, the gang decided to abort the robbery and headed for its second choice, Northfield. Little did the gang members know that this decision would end all of their careers as outlaws and result in the deaths of three gang members and two Northfield citizens.
On September 7, 1876, eight bandits rode into Northfield to rob the First National Bank. It was a sunny Thursday afternoon. What would later be called a “textbook James-Younger robbery” began with three of the gang members entering the bank at 2 p.m. and announcing that they were holding up the bank.
The desperadoes ordered the three bank employees to open the safe, but were told that the door was locked and couldn’t be opened. Meanwhile, local citizens on the street began to arm themselves after a merchant discovered the robbery in progress and shouted, “Get your guns, boys — they’re robbing the bank!”
Upon this discovery, two gang members sprang to their saddles and began firing their pistols and yelling for everyone to leave the area or be shot. This forced the remaining robbers to enter the fray. The first to fall was a Swedish immigrant named Nicholas Gustafson. He was wounded in the head and died several days later.
A Swift Defeat
When it was over after just seven minutes, two robbers were dead in the street and two more were badly wounded. The remaining six outlaws fled southwest, triggering the largest manhunt in U.S. history. Frank and Jesse James were not caught after the failed raid, but the Younger brothers were captured, and Charlie Pitts was killed two weeks later during a furious gunfight near Madelia, Minnesota.
Day of Heroes
A number of townspeople are remembered for their actions that day: J.S. Allen, the merchant who first sounded the alarm; A.R. Manning, who used a single-shot rifle to shoot a horse, wound Cole Younger, and kill Bill Stiles; and Henry Wheeler, who killed Clell Miller and wounded Bob Younger with an old single-shot army carbine he found in the lobby of the Dampier Hotel. Acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood was shot and killed because he refused to open the bank vault and betray the trust of the bank trustees.
Each year on the weekend after Labor Day, the town comes together to celebrate the defeat of the James-Younger Gang. It is the courage of these ordinary citizens and many others that are honored during the celebration.
The Defeat of Jesse James Days Celebration is held each year on the weekend after Labor Day. The Northfield Historical Society is NOT in charge of the celebration. A committee of Northfield volunteers plan the celebration. For more information on the celebration and contacts for questions, see the Defeat of Jesse James Days website.