Outlaws in the Attic – Sallie Creek and the Great Northfield Bank Robbery of 1876

By Al Lockwood, Crail Ranch Homestead Museum, Big Sky, Montana

On September 7, 1876 a robbery took place in broad daylight at the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. There was wild shooting in the bank and the streets, and people lost their lives.

The Great Northfield, Minnesota Bank Robbery, September 1876
(Woodcut from John Jay Lemon’s “Northfield Tragedy, ” 1876. Public domain.)

Authorities quickly figured out that the raid was the work of a gang from Missouri led by Frank and Jesse James, along with three brothers, Bob, Jim and Cole Younger.

(The Crail Ranch is located in the Meadow Village in Big Sky, Montana. Today the Crail Ranch is preserved as a homestead museum, offering guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays from 12 – 3PM June through September. The Crail Ranch grounds are open during daylight hours for walking tours, picnicking or connecting onto our trail system via the Crail Ranch Trail.)

A visitor touring the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum in Big Sky, Montana might hear docents talk about the Northfield raid. That is because the Younger brothers were cousins of our original homesteader, Sallie Creek Crail. Sallie was only 12 years old in 1876, living and attending school in Platte County, Missouri. Surely, she wasn’t involved in any way, as far as we know……

Sallie Creek Crail–What did she know? When did she know it? (Crail Ranch Homestead Museum Collection)

A few “outlaws in the attic” make for interesting family histories.

Ancestry Chart for Crail and Creek families on display at Crail Ranch (Crail Ranch Homestead Museum Collection)

The ancestry chart at Crail Ranch shows that Sallie Creek was born in Platte County, Missouri in 1864. Her grandparents were Jacob Howdeschelt Creek and Virginia Lee Younger, who were born in Kentucky and moved with their families to northwest Missouri.

Jacob H Creek and Virginia Lee Younger Creek (Ancestry.com)

The Creeks and Youngers, like many families from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, came to Missouri in the early 1800s looking for productive soil for tobacco and hemp. Many of those transplants held slaves and had clear southern political sympathies.

Sallie’s grandmother, Virginia Lee Younger, one of nine children, had an older brother named Henry, who married Beersheba Fristoe and had 14 children, including those notorious boys, Bob, Jim and Cole Younger.

Henry Washington Younger about 1850 (Ancestry.com)

The James and Younger boys grew up on modest farms within a 25- to 45-mile horse ride from Sallie’s family’s place. When the Civil War broke out, they joined the Southern cause, becoming part of a ruthless outfit known as Quantrill’s Raiders, engaging in what they called “bushwhacking,” violent crimes like robbing banks and holding up trains to disrupt Union activities. Younger joined Quantrill’s Raiders probably after his father, Henry Washington Younger, was killed by Free-State militia in 1862.

The Younger Brothers (l-r) Bob, Jim, and Cole with sister Henrietta 1889 (Library of Congress; public domain)

When the Civil War ended, the James and Younger brothers continued their plundering ways. There was an element of retribution for southern grievances in their crimes – Jessie would write to the newspapers about it — but the idea that they “robbed from the rich to give to the poor” is generally dismissed as myth.

Jesse James (Library of Congress; public domain)

In July 1876, after a mail-train robbery, a lesser gang member was caught and fingered the James and Younger brothers as the key perpetrators. The “heat” was on, and the gang decided to take their next action outside of Missouri, travelling by train to Minnesota. They scouted small town banks and, on the afternoon of September 7th, converged on the First National Bank in Northfield, about 30 miles south of Minneapolis-St Paul. They were wearing white “dusters,” long outer coats made of linen, which kept off the dust and hid any long guns they might be carrying.

Duster used by one of the Younger Brothers during the Northfield Bank Robbery 1876 (Minnesota Historical Society)

About 2pm, Frank James and Bob Younger entered the bank while the others waited outside, horses ready. A townsman named J. S. Allen, suspicious of the rough-looking men in white dusters, walked up the street, peered in the bank window, and witnessed the robbery in progress. A gang member grabbed him, told him to get lost and keep his mouth shut. Instead, Allen ran back down the street yelling “Get your guns, boys, they’re robbing the bank!”

Inside the bank, Frank James announced the holdup, ordering the bookkeeper to open the safe. The bookkeeper said it was on a time lock and couldn’t be opened. Frank clubbed him with his gun, knocking him senseless to the floor. Another clerk bolted out the back door and was shot but managed to escape.

Outside, townspeople emerged from doorways and windows with firearms and began shooting at the gang members, easy targets in their white dusters. Two outlaws were shot and killed on the street. The outlaws inside the bank abandoned the safe, grabbed a small cash box containing $26, and bolted out the front door, shooting the bookkeeper along the way.

What was left of the gang “high-tailed it out of town,” heading south.  The James boys made a clean escape. The Younger brothers, all wounded, stayed on the run for about two weeks but were finally captured near the town of Madelia, Minnesota.

News travels fast. We can imagine the moment when Sallie Creek, back home in Missouri, would hear her grandmother say, “Something terrible has happened. Your cousins Bob, Jim and Cole were involved in a bank robbery up in Minnesota. They were shot. They got away but were caught by a posse. It looks like they will be going to jail….”

It was, indeed, the end of the trail for the Younger brothers. They were brought to justice and served lengthy sentences in Stillwater prison in Minnesota. Bob died in prison in 1889. Cole and Jim were paroled in 1901, but Jim committed suicide a year later. Cole returned to Missouri, wrote an account of his outlaw days, and joined a Wild West show with Frank James. He died in Missouri in 1916.

Jesse James hid out in Tennessee for a while under the name J. D. Howard and then returned to Missouri and formed another gang. He was living in a rented house in St Joseph when he was infamously assassinated by a new gang member named “Little Robert” Ford, April 3, 1882.  

Sallie Creek and her family continued to live in Missouri until about 1883, when they moved to Bozeman, Montana. There Sallie met a bachelor farmer named Crail. For the rest of that story, stop by the Crail Ranch some summer Saturday or Sunday and learn all about the Crails and the Creeks and the Great Northfield Bank Raid of 1876.

Want to learn more, donate, or volunteer to help the Historic Crail Ranch? Check them out on the web at https://bscomt.org/crail-ranch-homestead-museum/ for special events, schedules, and more!