Did Iowa Immigrant Detlef Ohrt Really Meet Outlaw Jesse James?

poniesThe bearded man spoke with the heavy brogue of the Old Country. The younger man was an outlaw. They just may have met up southeast of Dexter, Iowa.

Detlef Ohrt was born in 1837, on the five-mile-long island of Pellworm, then part of Denmark. About the time this North Frisian Island in the North Sea became part of Germany in 1865, Detlef married Martha Jensen. Their first thatched-roof home was on low-lying island, criss-crossed with canals, dotted with windmills to pump water from the land.

Daughters Anna and Johanna were born on Pellworm. When they were toddlers, Dethlef and Martha decided to make America their home–so that no sons would be born under the Kaiser’s rule.

They embarked from Hamburg on the ship, Thuringia, and arrived in New York City June 12, 1871. There the little family boarded a train, probably an immigrant train, and arrived in Dexter, Iowa, seven days later.

The Ohrt family settled in Madison County’s Penn Township, southeast of Dexter. Detlef loved horses and began raising “spotted ponies.”

And, according to a family story, that Detlef Ohrt sold one of his precious horses to the outlaw, Jesse James.

During the Civil War, sixteen-year-old Jesse joined his brother Frank in the notorious Quantrill raiders in Missouri. He robbed his first bank when he was nineteen. By the time Ohrts arrived in America, Jesse James had already robbed seven banks.

In 1873, the James gang learned of a $75,000 gold shipment headed east from Cheyenne through Iowa. They sabotaged the recently built Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad tracks west of Adair. On the evening of July 21, the engine plowed into the ditch and toppled over, killing the engineer. Other cars crashed onto the engine. Several passengers were hurt and the fireman later died of his injuries.

When the masked outlaws forced the guard to open the safe, they found only about $2,000. They looted the 200 passengers, including two dozen young Chinese men on their way to college in New England, and stole another $1,000.

After the terrorizing fifteen minute episode, the seven masked robbers mounted their horses and disappeared across the prairie to the south, having staged the first robbery of a moving train in history.

The Council Bluffs Nonpariel of July 29, 1873, reported that according to a detective pursuing the James gang, “All members of the party had fine horses.” Was one of them one that Jesse bought from Detlef Ohrt?

JJames (2)
Jesse James

“Two at least rode trailed and blooded racers,” according to the Daily Iowa State Register of July 23, 1873. “Several of the horses were subsequently identified as having been shod at Atlantic only a few days before the robbery.”

Ten years and fifteen robberies later, Jesse James was killed for a reward. At age 35, James had robbed 26 banks, stages, and trains. He most likely bought the Ohrt horse just before number eleven. . . . the Adair train robbery.

Detlef Ohrt, who had been in his new country just two years, would not have known who the young horse buyer was. And according to several accounts, Jesse James–ten years younger than Ohrt–when dealing with ordinary people was polite.

Perhaps it was after news circulated about the train robbery that Ohrt realized that he’d sold one of his prized horses to the famous outlaw.

Two months after that robbery, Ohrts had another daughter. Not until 1885 and 1887 were the Ohrt sons, Pete and John, born. Detlef and his sons raised spotted ponies the whole time they lived on the Ohrt homestead.

Free and far away from the Kaiser.






  1. Fascinating reading!

    James and Leslie Rizzuti
    Roanoke, TX

    James, the son of Maxine Nancy Neal and Louis Alphonse Rizzuti. Maxine also gave birth to Charles Michael Rizzuti, deceased 2007, and John Louis Rizzuti of Hot Springs, AR.

    • Thank you for the encouragement! We are friends on FB and I did the Marshall genealogy way back when. You are on it! I also administer the OS and Nellie Neal FB page–because I felt guilty at having the old pictures. Now any of you can “save as” to your own desktop and have copies made!

  2. Great post. Jesse James was certainly an interesting character. I had a friend and adult karate student for many years whose father claimed he was somehow related to Jesse James. My friend wasn’t really sure about that, but his father swore by it. I think they were originally from Missouri.

  3. Lee Fraker, says Jesse was always looking for a able steed. Story could be true. Frank and Cole traveled to Omaha and back to gang at Adair with the timeing of the gold shipment. Fresh horses were a necessary. The gold shipment preceded this train. There is a gang photo taken before this robbery and is online. In this photo Jesse looks nothing like supposed photos of him. Frank looks much different too, but his looks match’s exactly as his group family photo from Missiorri. No doubt this gang photo to be them and the time match’s exactly.

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