WAS J. FRANK DALTON, ANYWAY? by
C. F. Eckhardt
now reasonable to conclude that Jesse Woodson James was shot to death in St. Joseph,
Missouri, in April of 1882, that he was first buried on the James/Samuel farm
in Clay County, Missouri, and that 20 years later he was reburied in the Mount
Olivet cemetery in Kearney (old Centerville) Missouri. Evidence recovered from
the grave in Mount Olivet cemetery matches, in every historical respect, the remains
of Jesse James. Mitochondrial DNA extracted from a tooth shows a pattern consistent
with the mitochondrial DNA from a direct descendant of Jesse’s sister Susan. |
Over the years those who claimed J. Frank Dalton was Jesse James accumulated a
mountain of what they considered ‘conclusive’ circumstantial evidence that Dalton
was in fact Jesse. There’s a major problem with circumstantial evidence, as any
prosecutor or defense attorney will tell you. When physical or forensic evidence
contradicts circumstantial evidence, circumstantial evidence is worthless. It
doesn’t make any difference how many people support the defendant’s alibi that
he was somewhere else at the time of the murder if his fingerprints are on the
knife. This leaves us with a minor mystery—who was J. Frank Dalton, anyway?
was certainly of an age to have been acquainted with Jesse James even though he
wasn’t Jesse, and he did know quite a bit about Jesse James. A lot of what he
knew wasn’t what Joe Average would have known, even if Joe grew up in the same
time and area as Jesse. There were also a lot of gaps in his knowledge. When Homer
Croy, author of JESSE JAMES WAS MY NEIGHBOR, interviewed Dalton, he didn’t know
Frank James’ full name. (It was Alexander Franklin.) He also didn’t know who Red
Fox was. Red Fox was a thoroughbred stud for which Jesse paid the equivalent of
$50,000 in today’s money. You’d think a feller would remember a horse he paid
50 grand for. (According to legend, Jesse sold Red Fox to none other than Captain
Richard King. Red Fox and a fast-break mare he bought from a young man named Sam
Bass are supposed to be the founding sire and dam of the King Ranch Red quarterhorses.)
are indications that J. Frank Dalton was a James Frank Dalton who was born in
or near Goliad, Texas
sometime around 1847. Beyond that nobody knows much about him outside the fiction
he concocted about being Jesse James. It’s just barely possible that he was a
very obscure James Gang member known as Bud Dalton. The terms ‘just barely possible’
and ‘very obscure’ are used purposely, because there is only one mention of a
Bud Dalton in connection with Jesse James, and that reference is in itself open
to question. It’s connected to a bit of Oklahoma legend/folklore known as ‘The
Brass Bucket Treasure Story.’
The Brass Bucket Treasure tale isn’t much
known outside Oklahoma, but there it ranks roughly alongside the Lost San Saba
Mine story in Texas and the Lost Dutchman Mine story in Arizona. According to
the tale, in the 1930s a ‘very old man’—such tales usually begin with ‘a very
old man’—gave a young Lawton, Oklahoma, police officer a couple of maps or charts
purporting to show the way to a vast treasure buried in the Wichita Mountains
by the Jesse James gang in the 1870s. Allegely this stuff was ‘Mexican loot’—gold
and gems stolen by the gang in Mexico.
There is no historical evidence
that the James gang ever raided in Mexico, in the 1870s or at any other time.
Allegedly the loot amounted to about $2,000,000 in the currency of the time. That’s
more money than can be proved the James gang or anyone associated with the James
gang ever stole, counting all James gang robberies, in the entire career of the
gang. Why Jesse and the boys would have stolen $2,000,000 worth of gold and gems
in Mexico and then buried the loot in the wilds of the Wichita Mountains is another
question that needs to be answered, but—according to the ‘very old man’—that’s
exactly what they did.
The young policeman began to follow the charts.
He dug up, at points indicated by the charts, a number of interesting artifacts—which
were what the charts said they would be and where the charts said they would be.
It was obvious the artifacts had been buried for a number of years. One of the
things he dug up was half a brass bucket. On this bucket someone had stamped an
agreement to organize a ‘bounty bank.’ One of the names was Jesse James. Another
was Frank James. A third was ‘Bud Dalton.’
It is a matter of historical
record that Frank James bought and lived on a farm east of Fort Sill, Oklahoma,
within sight of the Wichita Mountains. Frank and Jesse’s mother, Zerelda Coles
James Samuel, was returning to Missouri from a visit to Frank at his farm in Oklahoma
when she died on the train.
It is a matter of local legend, neither
supported nor denied by historical record, that Frank didn’t do much farming on
that farm. Instead, he did a lot of wandering. One account has him ‘wearing out
five or six horses’ in a series of full-gallop nocturnal rides along some obscure
trails in the vicinity of his farm. Why anyone would dash at a flying gallop by
moonlight down obscure trails when the law wasn’t chasing him eludes most
reasonable explanations, but legend provides an answer. He was looking for something
special—something he’d seen by moonlight at a wild gallop perhaps 30 years earlier.
Only by moonlight at a wild gallop could he expect to recognize it.
is considerable indication that Frank, at one time, dug up a cache of about $6,400
that he and Jesse buried years earlier. Some accounts insist it was $64,000. After
digging up the money he didn’t sell his Oklahoma farm and return to Missouri permanently.
Though he lived in Missouri, he returned to his Oklahoma farm on a regular basis
until he died—and he didn’t do much farming. He did a lot of wandering in the
Wichita Mountains, to the west of the farm.
For the record, the area Frank
wandered is now West Range of Fort Sill. Not only is it illegal to wander out
there, it’s downright unhealthy. That area has been the impact area for tank and
artillery service practice since about WW I. There are a lot of unexploded artillery
and tank rounds stuck in the dirt out there. Kick one wrong and they’ll scrape
what’s left of you off the surrounding rocks.
Frank James didn’t do all
that wandering in the Wichitas for the fun of it. He was definitely looking for
something. Legend holds he found part of it—the $6,400 (or $64,000, depending
on which version you choose to believe) cache. He also didn’t quit looking
when he found it! That would definitely indicate there was more to find.
What was Frank looking for? Was it what has become known in Oklahoma folklore
as ‘The Brass Bucket Treasure?’ The maps and charts that led their possessor to
the brass bucket also led him to at least one cache of money.
there’s that obscure name on the bucket—Bud Dalton. J. Frank Dalton knew a lot
about Jesse James, and not all of it was things that were widely publicized. From
what he did know, he almost had to be associated with the James gang at one time
in his life. Was he the ‘Bud Dalton’ on the brass bucket? Unfortunately, that’s
a question that can’t be answered by exhumation and mitochondrial DNA.