The ‘real’ J.L. Courtney’s Story
Written by author Betty Dorsett Duke 2014
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard that my paternal great-grandfather, known as James L. Courtney in Texas, was really the famous outlaw Jesse James. This is in part my story, but primarily it is the story of the man I knew as Grandpa Courtney…
I will refer to my great-grandfather throughout this writing as Grandpa, because the family knew him as Grandpa Courtney. Grandpa told his daughter Ida; my grandmother, his true identity, and she passed that information down to her children. Then my father; Jesse W. Dorsett, kept the story alive by telling his children. Now it’s my turn.
As a child, I had no reason to doubt the story, but as I grew older, I began to question the family account. History reports that Jesse was shot dead by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882, at age 34 and was buried in Kearney, Mo. Grandpa lived to be 96 and is buried in Blevins, Texas. I decided to chalk up the story as yet another one of those Texas tall tales. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the family story about Grandpa being Jesse James is probably true.
In 1995, I became interested in genealogy and recalled Daddy saying that in 1871 Grandpa rode up to the home of Thomas Hudson Barron (an early-day captain of the Texas Rangers) with saddlebags full of gold on both the horse he was riding and the one he was leading. On October 31, 1871, Grandpa married Barron’s daughter, Mary Ellen, and they settled in Blevins, Texas, about 30 miles south of Waco.
Grandpa and Mary Ellen had eight children – six girls and two boys. He farmed, raised cattle, hunted and was an avid beekeeper. From all appearances, he was just an ordinary farmer – that was what he wanted everyone to believe. But as my research showed, “ordinary” he was not:
- Grandpa paid $800 in gold for a 160 acre tract of land that he purchased from Barron in 1874.
- When someone would ride up to his house after dark, Grandpa would blow out all the coal-oil lanterns and lie down across the doorway with his pistol cocked.
He had gold and silver buried in different locations, and maps with encoded messages documenting their location.
George Roming of El Paso personally saw at least 30 bars of gold, weighing 15 to 20 pounds each, stacked on a shelf in Grandpa’s barn.
He had five-gallon buckets of silver dollars sitting around his house.
He had more than $50,000 in “greenbacks” in one of his trunks that he made his son count every day.
When a new piece of farming equipment appeared on the market, he purchased it.
He purchased large farms for each of his eight children when they were married.
Later on in his life he owned automobiles (Fords). When any minor thing would go wrong with one of them, he paid cash for a new one.
His shooting prowess was legendary. He could shoot the head off of a chicken while riding his horse at a full run.
According to the family history, Grandpa fought for the South during the Civil War. So I was stunned when J. L. Courtney’s military records showed that he was a Union soldier. Jesse James was a Confederate guerilla and served under William Clarke Quantrill and William “Bloody Bill” Anderson. These men were known for their hatred of the Union, so it didn’t make sense that Grandpa could have been Jesse James if he had really been a Union soldier. However, information gathered from James L. Courtney’s military records and Grandpa’s diary indicated that Grandpa was not J. L. Courtney, the Union Soldier. See the details in the section on this site listed as Evidence.
James L. Courtney’s Union Pension Index Record:
(filed July 22, 1899)
Tracing one’s genealogy can be difficult at times, especially when aliases were used. One thing that bothered me was not knowing what happened to the real James L. Courtney. But I think I’ve figured it out. Census records and other documents indicate that the real James L. Courtney changed his name to James L. Haun sometime between 1865 and 1870. In 1865, he was living with his parents, Stephen and Dianah Courtney, in Miami County, Kansas. But by 1870, the Courtney family had become the Andrew Jackson Haun family. I believe that when James L. Courtney took the alias James L. Haun, Jesse James took the alias James L. Courtney. It is interesting to note that Bloody Bill Anderson and his family, like the Hauns, lived in Council Grove, Kansas.
I believe that Jesse James took the Courtney name as his alias because it was a name with which he was very familiar. Three Courtney families lived near the James/Samuel farm in Missouri’s Clay County. When Jesse’s father, Robert James, died, Jesse’s mother married Dr. Rueben Samuel. An ordained Baptist preacher, Robert James had baptized and married many Courtneys. Jesse James is also said to have had a childhood friend named James Courtney, who attended Summersette school with him in Clay County. There is also evidence that the Courtneys were related to the James/Samuel family.
As of this date, no one claims to know what compelled the Courtneys to change their name to Haun.
The evidence I have presented thus far indicates there is a strong possibility that Jesse James and James L. Courtney were one and the same. For me, the old saying about “a picture being worth a thousand words” has taken on a whole new meaning. Photos of Grandpa and his family compared to historically accepted photos of Jesse James and his family are amazing. They speak for themselves.
Three different groups of professionals in the facial identification field have examined the photos in questions and have concluded with varying degrees of certainty ranging from reasonable to high, that the faces in question match. Photos of Grandpa’s mother compared to known photos of Jesse’s mother are remarkable. How many ladies could have been running around Missouri looking just alike, wearing the same dress and missing an arm?
Note: Much of my story shown on this page was previously published in the October 2000 issue of Wild West Magazine, pages 60 through 66.
I thought this a good place to add a little more about the real James L. Courtney.
The man pictured above may have been the real James L. Courtney – he is pictured with his wife Susan Eubanks. He was known as James L. Haun (or possibly T,) in 1880, James Haun in 1900, Taylor S. Haun in 1910 and John T. Haun in 1920 while living in the same house in Meeker, Oklahoma. Judging from all of those aliases he was definitely hiding something. Although much shorter, he bears a resemblance to Jesse James AKA James L. Courtney, which is understandable since the real James L. Courtney AKA James Haun and Jesse James were cousins.