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Did Michele Bachmann Really Expect To Get Away With Her Jesse James Story?

Michele Bachmann has been making quite a habit of revising her family history since entering the GOP primary race. Needing to sound more Iowan while campaigning in the all-important state of Iowa, she became a 7th generation Iowan, turning the story of her Norwegian immigrant ancestors into something straight out of Little House on the Prairie.

Bachmann probably never expected anyone to fact check her little family history story, but that's exactly what I did. And, as I suspected when I first heard her telling it at Iowa's "Rediscover God in America" conference back in March, her story was far from the truth, as I detailed in a piece I wrote in April. Then, in August, Ryan Lizza included a summarized version of my debunking of Bachmann's story in his New Yorker article, "Leap of Faith: The making of a Republican front-runner."

Now, you'd think the realization that her fantastic family history stories were, indeed, being fact checked would have stopped Bachmann from using them. But, no. She's just kept on using them.

But, while Bachmann at least had an obvious reason for inventing and/or distorting the "facts" in her original story -- to sound more Iowan when campaigning in Iowa -- nothing can explain why this woman would take a chance on making up the addition to her story that appears in her new book, Core of Conviction: My Story --that her great-great-grandfather, Halvor Munson, won a farm in Kansas from Jesse James in a poker game!

This incredible claim is already being questioned by others, so I decided to look into it.

So, let's start with the passage from Bachmann's book:

"... When the bugle sounded, Iowans answered the call. That same great-great-grandfather Halvor Munson -- the tall one who almost didn't get to leave Norway -- was fifteen when the Civil War broke out. Halvor rushed to enlist, and because he was big, it was easy for him to join the Army. The young soldier was sent west, spending the war years guarding U.S. forts out on the frontier.

"After the war, Halvor was demobilized and ended up coming home on a river raft. And who else was on the raft? None other than Jesse James and his gang. That notorious criminal crew, in fact, invited Halvor to join them; he declined. Yet he did agree to play poker with James and his gang, and he won, of all things, a farm in Iola, Kansas. Who would know that you could win at poker with Jesse James and live? For a while, Halvor traveled back and forth between Kansas and Iowa, but Iowa was always his home. ..."

Now, let's separate fact from fiction.

In the paragraph before the Jesse James claim, Bachmann is just keeping up the most important piece of fiction in the story she tells when campaigning in Iowa -- that the intended destination of her immigrant ancestors was the awesome state of Iowa, and that it was Iowa where they settled upon arriving in the United States in 1857. In both her campaigning story and her book, Bachmann simply omits that her ancestors first lived in Wisconsin for well over three years, then went to the Dakota Territory for about the same length of time, and only ended up in Iowa -- seven years after coming to America -- because they couldn't hack the hardships and dangers of the Dakota Territory, and fled to the safety of a well established Norwegian community in Iowa. So, of course, in her new Jesse James poker game story, she had to make her great-great-grandfather Halvor an Iowan when he enlisted in the Union Army.

Halvor did enlist in the Union Army, and he was only fifteen at the time. That part is true. He enlisted in February 1862, and his sixteenth birthday was on March 1, 1862. But he was not an Iowan; he was a Dakotan. He became a private in Company A of the 1st Battalion Dakota Cavalry, which was organized in April 1862. Halvor wasn't "sent west." He already was west.

Next, Bachmann's story places the alleged poker game with Jesse James at the time when Halvor's Army unit was demobilized, and Halvor was supposedly on his way home on a river raft. But this is impossible for two reasons.

First, since Halvor's home was in the Dakota Territory, and not in Iowa, there wouldn't have been any river raft trip for him to get home. According to his military records, Halvor's unit mustered out on May 9, 1865 at Vermillion, Dakota Territory, only about fifteen miles from his home at Elk Point -- close enough to just walk home. But it's actually highly unlikely that Halvor even went home at all. His family had left fled the Dakota Territory in 1864, and were then in Utica Township, Iowa. But he probably didn't go there either, and even if he did, he couldn't have gone by raft because Utica Township is almost 300 miles away from the Missouri River.

Second, it was May 1865. There was no James Gang yet. The members of what would become the gang were busy wrapping up their Civil War guerilla activities. The whereabouts of Jesse James and his future gang members at this time are very well known because May 10, 1865, the day after Halvor Munson mustered out of the Army in the Dakota Territory, was the day that Quantrill's Raiders were ambushed by Union soldiers, and James Younger was captured. A few days later, Jesse James was shot by Union troops while attempting to surrender to them, after which he spent many months recovering. This was all happening in Missouri, nowhere near the Dakota Territory. It wasn't until February 1866 that Jesse James formed his gang and robbed his first bank.

Halvor's river raft trip wasn't in 1865 when he got out of the Army, but three years later, in 1868. Immediately after being discharged from the Army, Halvor, along with the sergeant from his Army company, joined up for the Sawyers Expedition, a federally-funded expedition led by Lt. Col. James Sawyers to build a road from Niobrara, Nebraska to Virginia City, Montana. This expedition set out on June 13, 1865.

According to the account of his son, Halvor signed on for a three-year enlistment in the expedition service, and was at Fort Benton in Montana when his enlistment was up. Since Halvor got out of the Army in May of 1865, and left with the Sawyers Expedition in June, his three-year enlistment would have been up in May or June of 1868. This is when he was on a river raft on the Missouri, getting off the raft at Sioux City, Iowa, and going overland from there to join his family in Utica, Iowa.

And where was Jesse James in May and June of 1868 when Halvor Munson would have been on this river raft trip? Well, according to all accounts, he was on his way to California. He was in Kentucky in March (at the time of the Russellville bank robbery), went to Missouri in early April, left from there for New York in May, and was on a ship bound for San Francisco on June 8. So, no, he couldn't have been on a river raft with Michele Bachmann's great-great-grandfather playing poker and losing a farm.

So, where did Bachmann get this story from? Well, just like her fictitious story about how her immigrant ancestors came to Iowa, it appears that she found something on the web, and then made some revisions to it. In this case, it was almost certainly a "Family Group" sheet for Halvor Munson on the IAGenWeb site.

Here's the section, written by other Munson descendants, that mentions the Jesse James story. But this says that the James Gang was only "allegedly" on the raft, and calls the poker game story "folklore" and "unverified," words that, of course, didn't stop Michele Bachmann from turning the story into historical fact in her book.

"Halvor proved his faith in the 'New World,' as the Norwegian emigrants called America, when he enlisted in the Union Army in February 1862. He was only 15 years old so first served as a drummer boy in Company A, First Dakota Cavalry, which was assigned to garrison and patrol duty in the Dakota settlements. Uncertainty about the Indians, who, until a treaty in 1858, had sole access to Dakota Territory, kept Company A and the settlers on constant alert. Halvor was probably one of the soldiers that, along with the settlers, hastily erected Fort Brule in August 1862, for protection against the Indians. Convincing rumors of an imminent attack by the Sioux in early September 1862 later found to be untrue, frightened the settlers into an evacuation to Sioux City rather than taking refuge in Fort Brule.

"Halvor served in the Civil War for three years, two months, being honorably discharged as a Private, First Class, in April 1865, an historic month. On April 9th, General Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to General Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. President Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre April 14th and died the next morning. Out of service and only 19, what next for Halvor? His son, Alfred, wrote that Halvor immediately joined the government's Sawyer Ox Team Expedition for a three-year term of duty. The purpose was to supply U. S. forts along the Missouri River as far west as Fort Benton, Montana (forty miles northeast of Great Falls). They also made a 500-mile trip from Ft. Benton to Salt Lake City, Utah to secure flour for these forts in 1866 or 1867. U.S. troops escorted them through dangerous Indian territories.

"Halvor completed his Expedition duty while at Ft. Benton in the spring of 1868. He rafted down the Missouri River with Confederate prisoners of war that the Union Army had used to fight Indians. The infamous 'James Boys' were allegedly aboard one of the rafts recruiting members for their gang. Jesse was 21 and had been robbing for two years, but may have established his 'fame' later as he lived until 1882.

"Halvor, age 22, left the raft at Sioux City, Iowa and came to Chickasaw County where he lived with his parents in Utica Township. [The Munsons lived near the village of UTICA in Dane County, Wisconsin, in UTICA township in Crawford County, Wisconsin, and in UTICA township in Chickasaw County, Iowa.]

"He married Anna Jorgensdatter Aaberg on October 26, 1868, at Saude, Iowa. They lived in Utica Township one year, and then settled on a farm in Jacksonville Township near the crossroads town of Jacksonville. It was established in 1854 when the first settler built a log cabin on The Old Military Trail, Fort Crawford--Fort Atkinson, Fort Dodge.

"Halvor was a shrewd operator when it came to dealing in land. He bought and sold land in Jacksonville Township, Utica Township, and near Iola, Kansas. Forklore had it that he won the 240-acre Kansas farm in a poker game, but this is unverified. ..."