“Cole Younger”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1910 (Lomax, Cowboy Songs)
Keywords: outlaw robbery prison punishment
Found in: US(MA,MW,So,SW)


Cole Younger tells of his career as a robber, first with his brother Bob and then as part of the James Gang. His career ends when the gang tries to rob the bank in Northfield, MN. Though the Jameses escape, the robbery fails and Cole is captured


Henry Washington Younger was the father of quite a brood: Fourteen children in all (O'Neal, p. 346, etc. For references, see the bibliography at the end of this note). Four of these children would eventually become outlaws: Thomas Coleman ("Cole"), the seventh child, 1844-1916; James ("Jim"), 1848-1902; John, 1851-1874; and Robert ("Bob"), 1853-1889.

Born in Cass County, Missouri; the Youngers came of a good family; both their father and their grandfather were referred to as judges (Yeatman, p. 115) -- though Croy, p. 4, notes that "judge" in this context does not mean what we think it does; it was more nearly equivalent to the modern term "Commisioner." Wellman, p. 56, says that people also called Henry Washington Younger "Colonel," but admits that the title was probably honorary. Despite being a slaveholder, he was a Unionist during the Civil War (Croy, p. 6), but even so, he was killed and his property heavily damaged by Union forces (Croy, p. 17; Wellman, pp. 56-58).

According to Yeatman, "If anyone ever had even a remote excuse for outlawry, or any claim to anything close to a Robin Hood title, [the Younger brothers] did." (Hence, perhaps, the stanza in some versions, "And then we started for Texas, where brother Bob did say, That on fast horses we must ride in revenge of our father's day... And we'll fight them anti-guerillas until our dying day.") Croy, pp. 16-17, tells how the patriarch, Judge H. W. Younger, was robbed and killed during the war.

Cole had seemingly been a good student in his early years, and not given to trouble (Croy, p. 5). But the conflict on the Kansas-Missouri border apparently changed him, and the Civil War in Missourie made it worse. He was the first of the family to join the Confederate forces; Croy, pp. 11-12, says he joined Sterling Price's militia on July 5, 1861 (for Price, see "Sterling Price"). He joined the Quantrill raiders (for whom see "Charlie Quantrell," etc.) somewhat later, perhaps October 1861 (Croy, p. 12) or early 1862 (Settle, p. 23); he presumably first met Frank James in that company.

Accordingto Croy, p. 12, he killed his first man on November 10, 1861.

Eventually a large part of the Quantrill force broke up to follow other leaders, of whom "Bloody Bill" Anderson was the most important. Finally, in August 1862, Cole joined the regular Confederate forces (Croy, p. 17), and was part of the rather silly Confederate probe into New Mexico; Cole ended the war in California (Settle, p. 26). By that time brother Jim had also become a guerrilla (Settle, p. 23).

It was some time in the mid-1860s that Cole Younger had whatever relationship he had with "Belle Starr" (Mira Belle Shirley). O'Neal and others say that they met in 1863, but Wellman, p. 75, dates their serious relationship to 1866. Croy, pp. 58-60, even describes some of their conversations of this period. What is certain is that the teenage Belle had a daughter, whom she called Pearl Younger. But what really happened is almost impossible to know -- the only real witnesses were Belle and Cole, and neither one had much reputation for truth-telling, and neither had much reason to be truthful in this case, either. All Settle will admit, e.g. (p. 212) is that Cole admitted to knowing Belle. Fortunately, the issue need not detain us.

After the war, Cole was the first of the brothers to be regarded as an outlaw, though there seems to be no absolute proof of his criminal behavior at the time. (Wellman, p. 65, says that the Youngers and the Jameses turned to robbery within seven months of the end of the war. But he offers no evidence of this. It sounds as if he has it from newspapers of 1874, which were blaming all available unsolved robberies on the James/Younger gang. Wellman on the same page says that the Jameses and Youngers were first cousins, which none of the more serious biographies support.) John Younger was the first to be directly involved with the law; he killed a Texas sheriff in 1871, and was killed in a shootout with the Pinkertons on March 17, 1874; two Pinkertons died in the process (Yeatman, p. 116). From then on, there is no question but that the surviving Youngers were bandits during their brief careers before the Northfield robbery -- though Wellmann, p. 99, describes them as acting like model citizens and singing in a Dallas church choir.

Although I know of no Minnesota version of this song, the Northfield Bank incident is one of the most celebrated events in Minnesota folklore, and is still commemorated today. Northfield, about forty miles south of the Twin Cities, was and remains a quiet college town; this is the Big Event in town history.

Although a few people claim there were nine outlaws (Huntington, p. 1), the overwhelming weight of evidence indicates that eight men involved in the September 7, 1876 robbery: Charlie Pitts (the name he was using at this time; his birth name was apparently Samuel Wells; O'Neil, pp. 336-337), Bill Stiles, Clell Miller, the three surviving Youngers (Cole, Bob, and Jim), and Frank and Jesse James (Yeatman, pp. 172-175; the description of the robbery below is also mostly from his pages except as noted. It should be mentioned that details are somewhat incomplete; Huntington, p. 11, observes that eyewitnesses did not tell a completely onsistent tale).

Many of the details of the song are accurate; others are wrong. Some texts refer to the "God-forsaken country" of Minnesota. Some of us like it -- but this may be a reference to conditions in 1877. According to Yeatman, p. 170, much of western Minnesota was plagued by locusts in that year, causing severe distress. The James/Younger gang may even have decided against robbing the bank in Mankato (a larger, and presumably richer, town) due to the harsh conditions --though Huntington, pp. 6-7, claims that they were actually about to start the robbery when a large crowd showed up and made then decide not to continue.

They definitely did not understand local conditions, though -- before the robbery, they apparently tried to bet the restaurant owner that Minnesota would vote Democratic in 1876 (Wellman, p. 101). In fact, Minnesota *never* voted Democratic until it voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932! (After which it flipped completely; from 1932 to 2004, it voted Democratic in every election except 1952, 1956, and 1972.) Somewhere in there, the bandits may have picked up a heavy load of booze as well (see Settle, p. 95, where Cole Younger describes how they got drunk). The robbers in the bank apparently smelled of alcohol, and they certainly were incompetent in their behavior -- it makes you wonder how they had managed to get away with so much in Missouri.

"We stationed out our pickets" and "We are the noted Younger boys": of the eight robbers, only three -- Yeatman thinks it was Charlie Pitts, Bob Younger, and one of the James Boys, and Huntington, p. 13, gives the same list -- went inside. (Brant, p. 178, lists the men inside as Bob Younger and Frank and Jesse James; this apparently came from an 1897 report by Cole Younger, but Brant does not give enough information to trace his source. Wellman suggest it was Pitts, Bob Younger, and Jesse James. Whoever it was that entered the bank, they certainly did not proclaim their identities; for years the Youngers and the Jameses had been vary careful not to admit who they were.) Two robbers -- Cole Younger and Clell Miller -- stayed outside the door to stop anyone who might try to get in. Three more were posted at a greater distance.

Huntington, p. 17, reports that the bank was being reconstructed, so the employees were in "temporary quarters," more vulnerable than they would ordinarily have been. It did not prevent them from resistance.

The first trouble came when one J. S. Allen tried to enter the bank. Miller stopped him from getting in -- but Allen managed to escape around the corner of the building and raised an alarm. Huntington, p. 25, notes that it was prairie chicken season, and many of the town's best hunters were out in the field, but within minutes, the townfolk were arming themselves and fighting back; the whole robbery and gunfight, according to Huntington, p. 38, lasted but seven minutes.

"The cashier being brave and bold denied our noted band; Jesse James fired the shot that killed that noble man" and "in vain we sought the money drawer while the battle raged outside": There were three employees in the bank when the robbers entered: Teller Alonzo Bunker, acting cashier Joseph Lee Heywood, and assistant bookkeeper Frank J. Wilcox. They seem mostly to have played dumb -- e.g. claiming they couldn't unlock the safe (which apparently was literally true, since it was already unlocked). Cashier Heywood apparently smashed Frank James's arm in the safe (Brant, p. 179, but this from a source that, by its publication date alone, *cannot* have had reliable information).

The robbers proceeded to fumble around, missing not only the safe but the money drawer; their final take was reported to be $26.70. Bunker tried to flee and was shot in the shoulder.

Meanwhile, the townsfolk, having been warned, were starting to fight back. Few were armed, but enough managed to scrape up weapons that it was clear the robbers had to flee. As the inside crew left the bank, one of the robbers shot Heywood in the head after slashing his throat (Settle, p. 92; Huntington, p.41, etc. does not mention the throat-slashing). It seems to have been generally assumed that Jesse was the guilty party; he was pretty definitely the most violent of the gang. There was no reliable eyewitness testimony; Huntington, p. 24, merely said it was one of the robbers, unidentified. On the other hand, Cole Younger -- the last survivor of the Northfield raid -- would report, two days before his death on March 21, 1916, that it was Frank James who fired the fatal shot. To be sure, this was forty years later and Cole was dying -- and he wasn't inside.

A Swedish immigrant, Nicolas Gustavson, was killed outside the bank when he failed to understand (English-language) orders to clear the street (Settle, p. 92; Huntington, p. 16), with O'Neal blaming his death specifically on Cole (p. 348); several other Northfield residents were wounded.

By the time the gang fled town, two of them (Clell Miller and Bill Stiles, their primary guide) were dead, and Cole Younger had a hip wound plus some minor injuries from buckshot, while Bob Younger had been hit in the arm, nearly disabling him. They had also lost some horses, which handicapped them significantly; they ended up stealing various animals, but at least one was a plow horse and not much help (Yeatman, p. 177; Huntington, pp. 48-49 describes two unusable horses they requisitioned). In addition, Bob Younger had lost so much blood that he fainted in Shieldsville; they had to stop to have him attended to (p. 178), costing them more time. They finally decided to proceed on foot.

On September 13, near Mankato, the gang split up -- O'Neal, p. 348, says that Jesse wanted to abandon or kill Bob Younger, who could not move quickly (cf. Settle, p. 95). The other Youngers, who had wounds of their own, refused, so instead of abandoning Bob, they split into two groups. Charlie Pitts and the three Youngers formed one party; Frank and Jesse proceeded on their own. (The hope may have been that the fast-moving Jameses would lead the authorities away from the slower Younger party. It worked for a time -- Huntington, pp. 60-61, says that everyone went off after the Jameses, and thought the whole gang had escaped when they vanished into South Dakota -- but only for a time.) A romantic youngster near Madelia, Minnesota encountered them, was sure he had seen the robbers, and hurried off to tell the authorities (Huntington, pp. 64-65)

On September 21, a posse caught up with the Younger party at Hanska Slough near Madelia (the fact that they had gotten only that far -- Madelia is only 25 miles from Mankato -- shows how lost and hungry and hurt they were). In the shootout, three members of the posse were very lightly injured (Huntington, pp. 70-71). But the robbers were hit hard. Pitts was killed; Jim Younger lost several teeth to a bullet (Croy, p. 129, say that a doctor, working on his facial wound, extracted a section of his jaw with two teeth attached; Settle, p. 163, notes that he would live mostly on liquids for the rest of his life), and Cole Younger added more buckshot wounds to his collection (according to O'Neal, p. 348, he had eleven wounds, Jim five, and Bob four). According to Yeatman, p. 182, Cole wanted to fight on, but Bob talked him out of it; in Huntington's account (p. 71), only Bob was even able to stand up to surrender.

They apparently became celebrity prisoners (Trenerry, p. 95), but that didn't keep them from being charged. According to Huntington, p. 77, all three were charged as accessories in the murder of Heywood, with attacking Bunker with intent to do great bodily harm, and with robbery of the Northfield Bank. Cole Younger was charged with the murder of Gustavson, and the others as accessories. I'm not sure that any of these could have been proved, but they obviously were guilty of shooting it out with the police, which was problem enough.

Minnesota, as of this writing, has managed to resist the urge to reinstate the death penalty for those too poor or too non-white to have fancy lawyers. In 1876, it *did* have the death penalty -- but under a law of 1868 it required that a jury apply the penalty, not a judge. This law had never been fully tested in the courts, but it was widely interpreted to mean that a defendant who pled guilty to murder could not be hanged (Trenerry, p. 100). So the Youngers, rather than risk the gallows, formally pled guilty to sundry charges on December 11 (Settle, p. 94; Yeatman, p. 191), and were sentenced to life imprisonment (Huntington, p. 78).

Cole and Bob Younger became model prisoners. Jim Younger, always moody and now suffering from a speeh impediment and an inability to eat solid foods due to his wounds, was perhaps not quite such a good inmate. But many thought they had earned release, including two of Minnesota's most important political figures, Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley (Huntington, pp. xx-xi). Then Bob Younger died in prison of tuberculosis in 1889. That made the pressure even greater; a law known formally as the "Deming Bill" and informally as the "Younger Act" was passed allowing parole for those who were serving life sentences (Huntington, p. xxiii). Jim and Cole were given parole and set free in 1901, a quarter century after their sentencing.

Upon his release, Jim fell in love with a girl half his age, but his parole did not permit him to marry (Settle, pp. 162-163). Nor could he work most jobs, because his signature, as a convicted felon, did not carry legal weight (Huntington, p. xxv). The girl involved petitioned the governor that he be pardoned (Trenerry, pp. 104-105), but this was denied. Jim shot himself on October 19, 1902, declaring himself in his suicide note a Socialist and supporter of women's rights (Huntington, p. xxv)

In reaction to Jim's death, Cole -- who up to that point had been working as a tombstone salesman -- was given a conditional pardon on the condition that he never return to Minnesota (Trenerry, p. 105); he went on to open a Wild West Show with Frank James. That was rather a disaster (see the notes to "Jesse James (III)" for a general history of the James family, including that show), and brought him some condemnation for taking such a large part (Huntington, p. xxvi), but Cole from 1905 to 1908 ran Cole Younger's Coliseum, which was a more sedate exhibition of guns, saddles, and other gear. He also wrote an autobiography (though this is widely regarded as being not very accurate). He finally died in 1916, the last survivor of the Northfield robbers.

A recent find of a prison journal from the period around 1880 (soon to be displayed by the Minnesota Historical Society) lists the brothers as frequently sick in prison, but Cole Younger did found a prison newsletter. The Stillwater area is still the home of one of Minnesota's leading prisons, too; I guess things don't change much in Minnesota. Though the town of Stillwater is now more noteworthy for its site on the St. Croix river, and the actual site of the old Stillwater prison was burned in 2002 in an act of vandalism).

It took the town of Northfield many years to decide that Jesse James and Cole Younger were part of its heritage. For many years it resisted attempts to put up a monument to the Great Robbery, preferring to point out its rich contribution to education (it is home to Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges, the former in particular noted for its extremely strict standards). Not until 1947 did the town start celebrating the anniversary of the robbery (Huntington, p. xxx) -- though now, sixty years later, it has become the biggest day in the town calendar.


In writing this summary, in addition to the material gleaned from local newspapers, I have heavily consulted the following works:

Brant: Marley Brant, _Jesse James: The Man and the Myth_, 1998. Despite its title, which might seem to indicate scholarly caution, this book strikes me as incredibly credulous, taking as certain many things where the sources conflict, and often relying on the less reliable sources. It also has a very clear sympathy with any Confederate Good Ol' Boys who just might be terrorists on the side. I have been cautious in using it except where it coincides with information in other books. (Frankly, I eventually started checking the index rather than finish reading the thing).

Croy: Homer Croy, _Cole Younger: Last of the Great Outlaws_, 1956 (I use the 1999 Bison Books edition with an introduction by Richard E. Meyer). Told very informally (to put it mildly), but one of the few books about Younger that actually seems to have done some research.

O'Neal: Bill O'Neal, _Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters_, 1979. A general work, and as with most such things it appears to have a few details wrong, but a handy source for general references.

Huntington: George Huntington, _Robber and Hero: The Story of the Northfiel Bank Raid_, Christian Way Co., 1895; reissued by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1986 with a new introduction by John McGuigan. Although this is considered a relatively sober and accurate account of the raid, with much information from those present, the 1986 introduction detailing the later careers of the Youngers is probably the best part. The text itself is much too hagiographic (of the people of Minnesota, not of the robbers) for me to trust it entirely.

Settle: William A. Settle, Jr., _Jesse James Was His Name_, 1966 (I used the 1977 Bison edition) was one of the first serious James biographies. It is relatively short, but carefully documented, and pays more attention to the songs than the other James books I've seen.

Trenerry: Walter N. Trenerry, _Murder in Minnesota_, Minnesota Historical Society, 1962 (I used the 1985 edition, which is not listed as revised, but I noticed a reference to 1980 in one of the appendices). This is mostly concerned with other Minnesota happenings, but it does have a chapter on the Northfield raid and the Youngers.

Wellman: Paul I. Wellman, _A Dynasty of Western Outlaws_, 1961. This covers a series of outlaws starting with Quantrill's Raiders and ending with Pretty Boy Floyd, so it gives a lot of historial context -- but also is prone to believing any old crazy rumor.

Yeatman: Ted P. Yeatman, _Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend_, 2000 (cited as Yeatman), is among the newest and most authoritative books; although clearly intended for popular consumption, it is well-footnoted, very large, and new enough to include the results of DNA investigations. - RBW

Historical references

Cross references



  1. Laws E3, "Cole Younger"
  2. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 117-121, "Cole Younger" (1 text plus an excerpt, 1 tune)
  3. Randolph 131, "Cole Younger" (3 texts plus an excerpt, 3 tunes)
  4. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 143-146, "Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 131A)
  5. Warner 38, "Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune)
  6. Lomax-FSNA 182, "Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 46 "Bandit Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Fife-Cowboy/West 94, "Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Ohrlin-HBT 59, "Cole Younger" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Darling-NAS, pp. 188-190, "Cole Younger" (1 text)
  11. Silber-FSWB, p. 204, "Cole Younger" (1 text)
  12. DT 356, COLEYNGR
  13. Roud #2243
  14. BI, LE03