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

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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.

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http://www.liarsforjesus.com

Chris Rodda is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History.
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