Nov 23 2011

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. …”



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  1. 1

    In other words, Chris, this story is better sourced than just about anything else Bachmann has ever said. ;-)

  2. 2
    Paul Neubauer

    It is also interesting that even MB’s apparent source for both the (alleged) presence of Jesse James on the raft and for the (unverified) winning of the farm in a poker game does not put the two of them together. That is, even if JJ were actually on the raft with Halvor instead of on an ocean-going ship for San Francisco, the poker game story does not say even that this was when Halvor supposedly won the farm, let alone that he won it from JJ.

    All in all, giving MB the most charitable interpretation of her storytelling, she at best gives Sarah Palin (e.g., the Paul Revere fiasco) a run for her money with her word-salad tossing “skills”.


  3. 3

    Grandiosity, pathological lying (lying even when there’s no benefit) and empathy deficit (because it would occur to a person with empathy that an unbelievable story might be fact checked)- all traits that we can associate with politicians, but that we more often associate with particular kinds of mental illness.

    Add to that…them crazy eyes!

    I call bat-shit crazy. Again.

    Tree, really disappointed that DSM-V removes ‘personality disorders’ since it’s way easier to say ‘sociopath’ than to point to a list of traits

  4. 4

    Good work. One further point: I see the Family Group sheet alleging that Halvor met the James gang on the Missouri river (which might technically have been possible in May of 1868, which has both Jesse and Halvor in or near Missouri), and I see them relating folklore about a farm won in a poker game. What I don’t see is anything about a poker game with Jesse James – and I immediately wondered why James would even have had possession of an Iowa farm he could have lost. Linking two pieces of folklore to form a third: This is how myths are born.

  5. 5
    d cwilson

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

    Yes, she did.

    Moreover, she probably now believes that what she wrote is the literal truth. In her delusional world, that actual facts of a story are not important. What matters is that the story says what she wants to be true.

  6. 6

    The problem is, of course, that neither truth or reality are important considerations for Bachmann’s supporters. Also, I suspect that most of them will never actually read her book, even though many will buy it, and those that do read it will probably not pay attention to ‘biased’ criticisms of the content. In the universe of people who believe in Ms Bachmann, truth doesn’t mean factual.

  7. 7

    I’m particularly fond of the term coined especially for Ms Bachmann, “guanophrenic.” I apologize for not knowing whom to credit for this descriptive genius.

  8. 8
    Chris Rodda

    @ Yoritomo … Jesse James was in the state of Missouri; Halvor Munson was on the Missouri River way north of the state of Missouri. Halvor only went as far south on the river as Sioux City, Iowa. So they were nowhere near each other.

  9. 9

    Honest mistake on her part. The farm was actually won in a poker game from Jesse James Gacy, who served in the Union Army as a clown entertaining the troops and young children.

    Close enough for Mad-Eye Michie, I guess.

  10. 10

    My thanks to Chris @8 for pointing out my mistake – I blame my cursory reading and lack of knowledge of American geography.

  11. 11
    Chris Rodda

    Yoritomo … I actually needed to look at maps myself a few times while working on this to make absolutely sure there was no possibility that they were ever near enough to each other, and for a couple of other things. ;-)

  12. 12

    Ms. Bachmann meant to say her ancestor was on a raft with Huck and [person of color] Jim. Did you know Jim was seven foot tall? Of course her grand pappy never used the same name for Jim as Huck did because he knew the phrase would damage his great-great-great granddaughter’s presidential campaign.

    Another one of Bachmann’s ancestors was a great Norseman named Ivar the Insane. Ivar was not honorably crazy like the Berserkers who ate hallucinogenic mushrooms, tore off their clothes and screaming their shibboleths, throw themselves into battle. No, Ivar the Insane would eat the mushrooms and run to the rear of the battle as fast as possible. Ivar always said the mushrooms made him confused. His supervisor, Alakk the Apoplectic ☺ eventually released Ivar from the Viking Expeditionary Force because Ivar kept insisting he was needed to guide Hannibal, the seven foot tall son of Hamilcar Barca over the Alps. Glad to be rid of Ivar the Insane, Alakk (soon to again be called ‘the Assured’) happily saw Ivar off. Speaking to his staff, Alakk said: “Guide my ass, his job will be to clean up after the war elephnats.

    Ms. Bachmann had another ancestor named Sticky Fingers Smith who was sent to Australia to see if the climate would help cure his need to filch ferociously, but that is a story for another day.

    (Strangely enough before supervising Ivar the Insane, he was known as Alakk the Assured.)

  13. 13

    Of course she expected to get away with it. Regardless of whether she believed it, she certainly knew her followers would simply dismiss any debunking as just more lies from the liberal media.

  14. 14

    My grandmother was born in Iowa (yes in a small town). Also a lifelong Republican, and strong in her religious beliefs. But I know for a fact she would have hated Michelle Bachmann, and even Palin too. My grandmother was prochoice too. and she believed in education and showing some intelligence, reason and common sense.

  15. 15

    As a relative of Jesse James (or so my great grandmother swore to the day she died), I disavow all Bachmann’s stupidity in the name of whatever genes I have that may reflect those of Jesse James.

    (Did she really imply that she worked in the “private” sector, when she was a government lawyer? I lost interest in the GOP race several weeks ago.)

  16. 16

    Is a minor point, probably, but the GenWeb information that Bachman’s ancestor was a drummer boy in a cavalry unit is most likely wrong. Cavalry outfits didn’t have drummers; they had buglers. Most likely, he was listed as a musician on the company rolls.

  17. 17
    Reginald Selkirk

    And who else was on the raft? None other than Jesse James and his gang.

    And do you know who piloted that raft? None other than Captain Ahab!

  18. 18

    IDK why she feels like making this stuff up, it sounds like her family has an interesting enough history in real verifiable history.

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