Follow the Outlaw Trail

By Lisa Havelka

defeat of jesse james days northfield“Get your guns, boys; they’re robbin’ the bank!” shout actors during the Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield. This annual reenactment of the James-Younger Gang’s attempted robbery of the First National Bank draws visitors from around the world to watch the historical account of the failed bank raid.

We may never know why the gang targeted Northfield for the robbery, but we do know the fate they met as they tried to escape Minnesota via the route now known as the James-Younger Gang Outlaw Trail. The outlaw gang of eight first came to Minnesota by train and horse. The men were seen in St. Paul drinking, gambling, and buying horses, guns and linen dusters, then made their way through Red Wing, Austin, St. Peter and Mankato before finally robbing the First National Bank in Northfield on Sept. 7, 1876.

Three men entered the bank announcing the holdup while the rest remained outside on guard. A bank teller defied the gang three times before townspeople started a gunfight in the streets to stop them. When the gun smoke cleared, two locals had been killed along with two outlaws, two more of whom were badly wounded. The remaining six outlaws fled southwest, triggering the then-largest manhunt in U.S. history.

Crossing over the banks of the scenic Cannon River into Dundas, the gang washed their wounds at the Archibald Mill. The limestone remains of what was then a three-story flourmill can still be seen today. The gang continued toward Millersburg and into the Big Woods to hide out and nurse their injuries. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park reminds visitors of what was once a 2-million-acre old-growth forest made famous in novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The gang continued down Old Dodd Road, once the primary route between St. Paul and St. Peter, through the hills around Lake Mazaska. While persistent rainfall washed away any horse tracks or boot prints, it also swelled the rivers and lakes of Shieldsville, Waterville and Elysian, making it difficult for the outlaws to cross.

They took shelter in a barn in the town of Kilkenny before ordering a local farmer to guide them to Waterville. He brought them to what is now known as Younger Cross­ing near Klondike Hill in Elysian, where the men abandoned their horses and continued their escape on foot.

Just outside Mankato, the gang’s next passage was at the Blue Earth River Crossing, where they narrowly escaped the armed citizen guards and settled near Minneopa Falls in what is now Minneopa State Park. Desperate to escape their inevitable fate, the outlaws parted ways. Jesse and Frank James stole horses and headed southwest for South Dakota, while the Younger brothers and Charlie Pitts continued west on foot.

James Younger Capture SiteThe James brothers managed to get away, but for 14 days, the Pitts and the Younger brothers muddled their way through southern Minnesota only to meet their fate at the Hanska slough eight miles west of Madelia. In a flurry of gunfire between the outlaws and a volunteer posse, three Younger brothers were seriously wounded and captured, and Charlie Pitts was killed. Tried in Faribault, the surviving outlaws pleaded guilty to murder and were sentenced to life in the Stillwater state prison.

The Watonwan County Historical Society displays original guns and other items the Younger brothers surrendered to the citizens who captured them. Each year, the town of Madelia celebrates the capture of the infamous brothers by recreating the shootout at the site where it all took place.

If your travels don’t coincide with the Madelia reenactment or Defeat of Jesse James Days, you can still visit the former First National Bank where the Northfield Historical Society is today. The museum houses many artifacts related to the raid, including an original gun used in the gunfight outside the bank.

Trail Sites

Outlaw Trail map

  • First National Bank/Northfield Historical Society, Northfield
  • Cannon River/Archibald Mill, Dundas
  • Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand
  • Old Dodd Road/Rice County Road 1, Faribault
  • Lord Brown’s Barn, Kilkenny
  • Younger Crossing/Klondike Hill, Elysian
  • Blue Earth River Crossing, Mankato
  • Minneopa State Park, Mankato
  • Madelia capture site/Hanska slough, Hanska
  • Watonwan County Historical Society, Madelia

Events

  • Defeat of Jesse James Days, Sept. 7-11, 2016, Northfield
  • Younger Brothers Capture, Sept. 17, 2016, Madelia