Dear Professor Gates:
I’d like to know if I am related to the Younger brothers who ran with Old West outlaw Jesse James and his brothers in the James-Younger gang. According to family lore, we are related to them.
I only know of their family being from Yazoo City, Miss., which is where my mother (Ida Mae Younger) was born, out of wedlock, so she took her mother’s family name. Her mother was L.V. Younger, born on Dec. 8, 1904. L.V.’s father, Paul Younger, was born on Oct. 25, 1880, and died on Jan. 11, 1938. Her mother, Fannie Gerald, was born on Nov. 27, 1888, and died on March 9, 1976. I have been able to trace my Younger ancestry back to Paul’s father, Burl Younger.
I have sent you information I found from Ancestry.com Mississippi records and other sources relating to my family tree. All of the elders in my family are now deceased so there is no one left to answer questions I may have. I think growing up they were ashamed to talk about their past, and the only information they shared was that we were related to the Younger outlaws who ran with Jesse James. The Geralds were said to be “Mulatto,” but I am unsure of where their white ancestry would have come from. Any help you could give me would be appreciated. —Connie Robertson-Butler
Meet the Outlaw Youngers, and a Possible Black Associate
If you are, in fact, related to the infamous Youngers, then you have a fascinating family history, indeed! The James-Younger gang robbed trains and banks in Missouri and surrounding states in the years after the Civil War. Its members included the famous Old West outlaw Jesse James and his brother, Frank; Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger (born in Jackson County, Mo., on Jan. 15, 1844; died March 12, 1916; married to Myra Shirley, aka Belle Starr); James Hardin “Jim” Younger (born in Jackson County, Mo., on Jan. 15, 1848; died Oct. 19, 1902); John Harrison Younger (born in Jackson County, Mo., in 1851; died March 17, 1874); and Robert Ewing “Bob” Younger (born in Jackson County, Mo., on Oct. 29, 1853; died Sept. 16, 1889).
According to Britannica.com, John Younger died in a shootout in 1874. The remaining Youngers were captured in the disastrous attempted robbery of First National Bank in Northfield, Minn., from which Jesse and James escaped. The Youngers pleaded guilty to murder and robbery, for which they received life sentences. Bob died of tuberculosis in prison; Cole and Jim received pardons in 1901.
We know of at least one possible black connection to the James-Younger gang: John Trammell. The account, however, stretches credulity. A Jan. 6, 1955, article in Jet magazine identifies John Trammell of Guthrie, Okla., as “Jesse James’ right-hand man” and puts his age at an incredible 117 years old! Looking incredibly dapper at that allegedly advanced age in a pinstriped vest and trousers, the “one-time cook and handyman” wields a rifle and “still has several bullets in his body from yesteryear’s gun battles.”
You, however, are looking into the possibility of another black connection: That at least one of the Younger brothers has African-American descendants—you among them.
Tracing an Infamous Family Tree
Here’s what we were able to find out.
By searching American history websites, we found that the Younger family was from Jackson County, Mo., and the outlaws were four of the 14 children born to Henry Washington Younger and Bersheba Leighton Fristoe. From the Kansas Heritage Group, we learned that Henry Washington Younger was born in Crab Orchard, Lincoln County, Ken., on Feb. 22, 1810, and died in the Westport neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., on July 20, 1862. Bersheba Leighton Fristoe was born in McMinnville, Warren County, Tenn., on June 6, 1816, and died in Missouri on June 6, 1870. The Kansas Heritage Group also lists all 14 children of Henry Washington Younger and Bersheba Leighton Fristoe (access those names here.)
Henry Washington Younger’s parents were Charles Lee “Cole” Younger and Sarah Sullivan Purcell. Bersheba Leighton Fristoe’s parents were Richard Marshall Fristoe and Mary “Polly” L. Sullivan.
This is all great information you can use to try to connect your Younger family to the infamous Younger outlaw family. One way you can attempt this connection is through U.S. census records. The difficulty with this, of course, is that some of the Younger family members were trying to stay off the grid, so to speak, and not be enumerated by the federal government. This could make family connections especially difficult. Similarly, when searching for land deed records or probate records, members of the Younger family may not have wanted official government recognition involved with their transactions, thus negating any record that those Younger family members may have left behind.
Following Your Own Family Tree
By searching the census records on Ancestry.com, we found your great-great-grandfather Burl Younger (spelled “Barl”), living as a farmer in Yazoo County, Miss., when the 1870 U.S. Federal Census was enumerated. He was married to a woman named Charlotte, who was 12 years his junior. Burl was born in Kentucky circa 1831, and Charlotte was born in Missouri circa 1843. Their children were Alice, 6, Richard, 2, and Daniel, 1.
We next found Burl Younger (spelled “Burrell”) in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census, living in Benton, Yazoo County, Miss. Burrell Younger was born in Missouri circa 1827, and he was married to Charlotte, who was born in Missouri circa 1846. (It should be noted that birth dates can vary dramatically on census records, as there were no official records to give to the census takers). Both of Burrell Younger’s parents were born in Kentucky, while Charlotte’s father was born in Missouri and her mother in Kentucky. Your great-grandfather Paul Younger was listed as 1 year old in 1880.
In 1904 Paul Younger married Fannie Gerald, and the two were living with their young children in Yazoo County, Miss., in 1910 when the U.S. census was enumerated. Your grandmother L.V. Younger was listed as 5 years old in 1910.
We also found Paul and Fannie Younger living in Benton, Yazoo County, Miss., when the 1920 U.S. Federal Census was enumerated.
So, Are the Two Younger Families Related?
Although we were unable to find a connection between your Mississippi-area Youngers and the Jackson County, Mo., Youngers, it is still possible that a connection can be made. Since most of the outlaw Younger family stayed in or around the Jackson County, Mo., area, it would be helpful to search through the Missouri county probate records, which range from 1750 through 1998. These records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and are available free online at FamilySearch. It is possible that some Younger brothers left a will and probate record that might mention an ancestor of yours, thus making the connection you seek. You can use the other siblings who were not on the run from the law (and therefore may have actually entered a probate with the county) to search for a will or administrative papers.
Also, because many of the Younger brothers participated in the Civil War, it would be wise to search through the Missouri Confederate pension applications and Soldiers Home applications, also available free through the Family History Library’s website at FamilySearch.
Another excellent source for genealogical information to help connect your branch of the Younger family to the outlaw branch of the same name would be the Jackson County (Missouri) Historical Society. Local historical societies often have greater knowledge of the history of their area than anyone else, and they can be extremely helpful in pointing you toward research areas and records that they might have available to the public.
Local history texts also can contain a wealth of information, especially about such famous families as the outlaw Younger family. In 1989 the Jackson County Genealogical Society produced The History of Jackson County, Missouri, which is an excellent source to search for more information. Also, Cyril Edward Cain compiled Four Centuries on the Pascagoula in 1983, and W.Z. Hickman wrote History of Jackson County, Missouri in 1920.
Finally, we recommend that you turn to the Younger DNA Project, which began in December 2007. As its website says, there are now six distinct DNA signatures among the Younger families that have been tested:
1. The Younger gang;
2. The Kentucky Younger group (previously thought descended from the Younger gang group, but the DNA does not match);
3. The Alexander Younger group from Essex County/Halifax County, Va.;
4. The Missouri group (previously thought descended from the Halifax group, but the DNA does not match);
5. The Marcus Younger group from Essex/Halifax County, Va.;
6. The German Jeunger group.
As more individuals get tested, the DNA signatures will be updated. We strongly recommend visiting the website, learning about the privacy and testing involved, and then discovering your results as to whether your Younger family is related to the outlaw Younger family.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Andrew Krea, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.