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All about Jesse James

George details the history and celebration of Jesse James: American outlaw, failed bank robber, and Northfield celebrity.  

George details the history and celebration of Jesse James: American outlaw, failed bank robber, and Northfield celebrity.  

If you read the title and description of this blog post and have no idea who Jesse James is, or his relevance to Carleton College, don’t worry. I was just in your shoes a few weeks ago.

When I first got to Carleton, I saw flyers, buttons, and advertisements about Jesse James Parade. Upon asking around Carleton (and some Wikipedia), I managed to piece together most of the history and story of Jesse James. In this blog post, I’ll share the history of Jesse James as well as explain some of the traditions that occur in honor of the citizens who defeated him.

Who was Jesse James?

In short, Jesse James was an American outlaw, and leader of the James–Younger Gang, who lived in the late 19th century. With this gang, he traveled around America robbing various banks and trains. He also was a part of a pro-Confederate group during the Civil War. He became immensely famous after the Civil War, due to his many gruesome and violent crimes – many of which left cashiers, jailers, and sometimes innocent people dead. Because of his crimes, a $5,000 bounty was put upon him by Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, only further increasing his notoriety.

Wanted Poster of Jesse James
Wanted Poster of Jesse James – from 1881!

What does he have to do with Northfield?

Jesse James’s story connects with Northfield’s history on September 7th, 1876. On this day, the James–Younger gang tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, a plan that quickly backfired. Thanks to the bravery of acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood and Northfield citizens who initiated a shootout with the gang’s lookouts, only $26 of the $12,000 dollars in the vault were taken by the robbers. This event has gone down in history as the beginning of the downfall of Jesse James, as this left his gang smaller and weaker. James’s story came to an end when he was shot by a former gang member on April 3rd, 1882.

first national bank of northfield, mn
Northfield’s First Nation Bank, location of the 1876 robbery attempt.

How is the defeat of Jesse James celebrated today?

In today’s Northfield, the defeat of Jesse James is celebrated on the weekend after Labor Day, which placed it during the first weekend of New Student Week for 2023. There are reenactments, carnival rides, fair food, rodeos, a car show, and many many more events. It is a great time – people come from all over Minnesota and the surrounding states to attend the celebration. It’s also probably the busiest you will ever see downtown, which makes it a great way to start your fall term at Carleton.

Northfield Jesse James day parade
Parade in Northfield during the Defeat of Jesse James Celebration.
Northfield Jesse James Day parade. Horses walking around downtown
Another shot of the Parade during the Defeat of Jesse James Celebration.

My own Experience with the Defeat of Jesse James Celebration

As I mentioned before – I was lucky enough that the 2023-2024 New Student Week lined up perfectly with the celebration. On my first Saturday night at Carleton, a few friends and I went to the carnival, which was definitely a new experience for me. I grew up in New York City – so I am definitely not used to carnivals – but it was amazing! It was great to connect with Northfield in a different and new way, and was definitely an event that was enjoyed by both Northfield residents and Carleton students.

Group of friends at fair
Me and a few friends at the carnival!


Unfortunately, the timing of Labor Day and New Student Week means for the 2024-2025 academic year, first-year students will be on campus for the celebration – but if you are ever in Northfield during the weekend after Labor Day, or ever spend a summer on campus, be sure to check it out!

George (he/him) is a freshman interested in Mathematics, History, and Geology, from New York City. He loves listening to music (currently Big Thief, Elliot Smith, and Kid Cudi), as well as playing the jazz flute and guitar. At Carleton, he’s involved in the Carleton Association of Nature and Outdoor Enthusiasts (CANOE), Carleton’s radio station, KRLX, and more. You may see him wandering around the Arb, playing pickup ultimate frisbee, or thrifting in Northfield.