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Essay

The Story at Devil’s Gulch

By February 12, 2021 6 Comments
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If the place sounds cliche-ish, you can’t blame Garretson, SD, because doggone it, not every Siouxland burg has a tourist trap built in. Seriously, Garretson’s is big-time: Jesse James was there. He was. Not some lousy impersonator. The. Real. Jesse James. And there lies the tale.

“Devil’s Gulch,” someone called it long ago, like something out of John Wayne–“the dust that hot day in Devil’s Gulch was thick as the fur on a buffalo hump.” You know. 

But Garretson not only has the star, they’ve also got the story, and the story’s not moving any time soon. It’ll be there tomorrow yet, if you’ve never checked it out because it’s carved treacherously into a landscape that’s been for thousands or millions of years. It’s a 20-foot-wide gash in the pink Precambrian Sioux quartzite all around–Blue Mound, Palisades, Pipestone.

It seems our hero, Jesse, running from the biggest posse in American history, once took a look at Devil’s Gulch, spurred his sweaty mount, took a flying leap right over that chasm, and escaped to rob more banks and trains.

That’s the mighty jump Gerritson celebrates. Go look for yourself–only a legend could make that leap, someone bigger than life. Maybe only Jesse James.

Can’t help ask, though, what the heck Jesse James was doing in Minnesota in September, 1876? The Vikings were out of town, deer opener months away. Maybe the walleyes were biting.  

Wrong. What drew him was a bank in Northfield, 500 miles north from his Missouri home. He and his brother, along the Youngers and a couple other bad boys, figured to knock off the Northfield Bank, split the loot, and high-tail it back south. Cakewalk.

But why–why that far away? Why that far north? 

The answer is a better story than some wild leap over Devil’s Gulch. Jesse wanted a piece of a man with the namby-pamby name of Adelbert Ames, a lousy Yankee Civil War hero, who’d left his home out east and to take up residence in Northfield, where his father owned a mill. 

It would be hard to line up two men as different as Jesse James and Adelbert Ames. Jesse was a thug, a guerilla, a murderer. Adelbert, on the other hand, had served his country in war and during that horrible era we call “Reconstruction.” Adelbert Ames then served as Governor of the State of Louisiana; and was, therefore, by Southern standards, among the most rotten Yankee carpetbaggers of them all, trying to impose his Northern justice on Rebs who’d just coughed up a surrender at Appomattox.

Adelbert won the war but lost the battles thereafter. When he finally left Louisiana, he stumbled back north, burned out from a task no one could have accomplished. What Adelbert Ames set out to accomplish was a peculiar abolitionist mission: “to buckle on my armor anew,” he said, “that I may better fight the battle of the poor and oppressed colored man.” With malice towards none, he’d defended the poor black folks of Louisiana against the KKK, and their wretched penchant for lynching. What he’d discovered in Reconstruction years was that moral courage took a whipping from viscous brutality.

He lost. Big time. 

And Jesse, well-read criminal, knew all of it. He wanted Adelbert Ames’ money. It was that simple. That Yankee’s bankroll was well worth a trip way up north to Northfield. This wasn’t just some ordinary bank heist. The whole deal, from conception, was political. 

And as you may know, it went bloody bust. Jesse might have been well-read, but when he and the gang came into town, they looked like absolutely no one else on town streets. The story goes, the townspeople knew they were trouble long before they walked up to the bank. 

So when they did, the heist wasn’t news. What happened inside and out wasn’t pretty. People were shot and people were killed. Even Governor Pillsbury weighed in to proclaim a $5000 reward for the James gang members, dead or alive. 

That pot of gold created the biggest posse in American history. That posse was chasing Jesse James way down into a little town named Gerretson, where Jesse, on his horse, rode up to Devil’s Gulch, turned around a few steps, then spurred that mount on to jump 20 feet and escape the crowd that was after him and the five grand that came with his scalp.

You can visit Devil’s Gulch. You can judge for yourself whether any man and beast could make that mammoth leap. The jury is still out on whether or not the whole saga even happened. We good at creating myths where we’d like to believe things true.

There’s a little shop there, where you can read up on the story and buy a coffee cup or a pen or a Devil’s Gulch t-shirt. 

But there’s no mention of Adelbert Ames, not his story, not a word about what he did after the war. I can’t help think that’s a crime too. I know I’m a Yankee, but Adelbert’s the hero here, not the thug, Jesse, or his horse. Adelbert served his country in war and peace. More than that–he gave his all to try to help people who had very few friends and very little, period. Jesse James blew a robbery, left blood on the streets of Northfield, Minnesota, and slithered back to Missouri, his gang pretty much destroyed. 

Who knows?–maybe he never leaped over Devil’s Gulch. Maybe the whole thing is made up, just another tall tale to make the guy the hero he wasn’t.

Visit sometime. It’s a heckuva long jump. It is. Make your own guess.

But pick up a t-shirt because you’ll want to remember the place. Jesse James–I’m not lying.

It just seems to me there’s so much good stuff we’ve forgotten.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

6 Comments

  • mstair says:

    “You can judge for yourself whether any man and beast could make that mammoth leap. “

    Grateful for the memory. We did … took the family there in the 80’s. Didn’t look like he would of made it to me. Garretson has probably done better with the story than they would have without, though …

  • Katy Sundararajan says:

    This is a good story, and well told. It does make me stop and think about the stories we know, the stories we tell, and just how many of them may have things a bit askew.

  • David E Stravers says:

    If only we knew the stories of all those people who tried to do good, even those who failed. Ames won the Medal of Honor. He was a “radical Republican”, appointed Governor of Mississippi (not Louisiana) and was unsuccessful in trying to defend African Americans from Democrat lynching mobs, which is why he resigned and fled North. Was he trying to live out his Christian faith, or just a good man?

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Thanks for that story. The Civil War and Reconstruction cast a long shadow over the American west that generally gets bleach out when we reduce the narrative to sheriffs chasing “outlaws.”

  • CHARLES W VANNETTE says:

    Great story. Did he in fact return home with a fortune ?

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