Saturday, March 2, 2024

A quick ride through history with Jesse James...

Jesse James Potrait-Wikipedia
Written by Jim Heffernan/ DuluthNewsTribune/3-2-24

Jesse James is dead. Dead as a doornail, as Charles Dickens put it about Scrooge’s business partner Marley (read “A Christmas Carol” sometime). Dickens elaborated a bit saying that he doesn’t know what there is particularly dead about a doornail, pointing out that the coffin nail is deadlier. Amen.


No question about it though, Jesse James is long gone (murdered by a comrade in 1882), but I didn’t realize until recently HOW long gone.


For the record, and, apparently, for the edification of some members of Generation Z, Jesse James is America’s most famous old west outlaw — his gang robbed trains, banks and stage coaches. He has been portrayed in numerous movies over the years on his way to becoming a mythical figure whose name is known — I had thought — to every warm- and cold-blooded American and those in between.


It isn’t. Jesse James is really dead, I learned recently at the counter of a Duluth fast food outlet. Placing my order to a young man — looked to be 18 or 19 years old — he asked my name to identify the order when it came up. As I often do, instead of using my three-syllable last name, I said, “James.” It’s my first name, of course, but the last name of some people — like Jesse.


Here’s the scene:


CLERK — Can I have your name?


ME — Umm, James. Like in Jesse.


CLERK — What?


ME — James is actually my first name, and it was the last name of Jesse James.


CLERK — Who?


ME — You know, Jesse James the famous outlaw in the old west.


CLERK — (Displaying a blank stare) Never heard of him.


ME — What? You’ve never heard of Jesse James?


CLERK — Nope. Doesn’t register.


Wow. I turned on my heel and retreated to a nearby corner of the place to wait to be called to pick up my order, not sure if they’d call out James or Jesse or both.


As I stood there I began wondering if Generation Z (people born between 1990 and 2012 including all of my grandchildren) have a sufficient grasp of history, which is very important, according to registered historians.


Accordingly, today I will devote this space to refreshing some readers’ knowledge of history (readers older than 19) and lecturing younger readers (if there are any who don’t get all their information from their phones) on important aspects of our history they might not be aware of.


If they don’t know who Jesse James was, here are some other important names in what used to be considered our shared history.


Let’s begin with Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue in nineteen-hundred and forty-two. Under the sponsorship of Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus outfitted a ship called the Mayflower and eventually landed in Ohio, where he founded a city and named it after himself. When Queen Isabella later visited northern Minnesota in search of wild rice and gold, they named a town after her too. This was before the arrival of Frank Hibbing and Father Emil Biwabik, spiritual leader of trappers, hunters and hairdressers.


Onward. A French guy who called himself Daniel Greysolon Plaza Sieur DuLhut became an explorer and paddled a canoe as far as he could go on Lake Superior, landing in Canal Park to visit his Grandma. He looked at the high hills rising from the shoreline and declared, “I hereby declare this place shall be called Duluth.” A pint-sized French voyageur accompanying him said, “But Sieur, don’t you mean DuLhut?” to which DuLhut rebuked, “Don’t get wise, bubble eyes,” coining a phrase for the ages.


Several years after that, a Virginia planter named George Washington became “the father of our country,” proudly known as the Simon Bolivar of North America. Reports that his false teeth were made of wood have not been substantiated, although he ate corn-on-the-cob with a chain saw. He was most respected, though, for chopping down a cherry tree as a youth and admitting it when his father, Denzel, questioned him about it, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.” No politician has followed that dictum in all subsequent American history.


Oh, geez, I’m running out of space. Here’s one more: Paul Bunyan was a Minnesota lumberjack who chopped down all the trees more than 100 years ago. He traveled with a small pet, Babe, a big blue oxymoron. He is widely credited with digging the Mississippi River but not rock ’n’ roll music.


I hope this enlightens Generation Z on some important aspects of American history they might not be aware of. It also poses the question: When Generation Z, the last letter of the alphabet, ages out of that category, what are they going to call the following generation?


As a member of the “Silent Generation,” I want to know.


In the meantime: Shhhhh.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at