Effects of the Missouri Border War Lesson Plan

3rd Place, Best Lesson Plan Contest 2012-13
By Ruthie Caplinger

Jesse James in 1864 (Library of Congress)

Grade Level: Middle School; can also be used for grades 3-5 gifted classes

Approximate length of time: Two-Three 50-minute class periods


Students will participate in a reader’s theater “The Trial of Jesse James,” in order to understand the conditions in western Missouri during the American Civil War.


Through oral discussion and formal writing, students participating in “The Trial of Jesse James,” will be able to analyze James’ behavior in light of the conditions that existed in western Missouri during the American Civil War.

Materials Used:

All materials can be downloaded with the lesson plan on the right side of this page.

Anticipatory Set/Hook:

Use the following link to project the Governor’s Proclamation offering a reward for Jesse James: http://shs.umsystem.edu/historicmissourians/name/j/jamesj/index.html.  Have students read the poster and discuss the crimes listed.  Ask students what they believe may have caused Jesse James to become a criminal.  Discuss.


1.  Use the following link to show students a map of Little Dixie.   http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/05/NRHP_Missouri_Map.svg/300px-NRHP_Missouri_Map.svg.png
Explain that Jesse James’ family lived in Clay County, Missouri.  Why do they think so many people were slaveholders in the middle counties of Missouri, which was known as Little Dixie?  Explain the migration of people from Kentucky and Tennessee and point out the proximity of the counties to the river.

2.  Explain that the class is going to conduct a mock trial as a reader’s theater in order to understand the difficulty of living in Missouri during the 1860’s.  For the purpose of the class, James will only be tried for one crime, the murder of Captain Sheets.  The characters in the play are real, except for the expert witness Dr. McGeorge.  The names of the judge and attorneys are fictional.  Emphasize to the students that in reality, Jesse James was never tried for his crimes.  Return to http://shs.umsystem.edu/historicmissourians/name/j/jamesj/index.html in order to show the section “Wanted Dead or Alive.”  By clicking on the word “killed,” the students can see an engraving of Bob Ford shooting Jesse James.  Students will be interested to learn that Bob Ford re-enacted the shooting in a traveling stage show and was eventually shot and killed in Colorado.

3.  Randomly assign student parts.  After students have had a few minutes to review their parts, offer them the chance to trade with each other.  Ask students to find their parts and circle any words they don’t understand/know how to pronounce.  Help clarify those words before beginning.

4.  Explain to the students that after the play is over, each of them will become a juror and will have to write an opinion as to whether Jesse James was responsible for his behavior or whether he had a mental defect due to the circumstances in his life.  Suggest that students may want to underline important facts as they read through the script. 

5.  Rearrange the classroom as a courtroom and show students where to sit.

6.  Read through the mock trial.

7.  After the trial, cover the following in your class discussion:
    a.  In the Missouri border wars, what were the opposing sides and what ideas did they represent?
    b.  What were Zerelda’s beliefs regarding slavery?
    c.  How did the actions of the Jayhawkers compare to those of the Bushwackers?
    d.  For what event did Bill Anderson seek revenge?
    e.  What were the steps in the “violentization” of Jesse James?
    f.  Why were some churches in Missouri forced to close during the Civil War?
    g.  Do you feel the Constitutional rights of those Missouri citizens with Southern sympathies were violated?  Why or why not?  Were the actions of the government justified?

8.  Organize students into a circle.  Act as the jury foreman and help the students discuss the case.  Poll the jury several times allowing students to state their opinion as to why Jesse James should or should not be held accountable for the crime. If not, stop when the students have all had a chance to voice their opinion and the discussion has run its course. 


Explain that in a murder trial, the jury must be unanimous, but in this case, the majority will rule. Take a final vote to determine the outcome of the trial.   Announce the results.


Tie in a discussion of child soldiers in Africa, if appropriate to your class. Many will be familiar with the Kony 2012 program.  The link below will help the class discuss the problems in Uganda and comparisons can be drawn to the US Civil War and its effects on the families of Missouri.  Be sure to compare the length of the US Civil War to that of the civil war in Uganda.

Use this mock trial as beginning point for a research project in which students write their own mock trials for other historical characters such as John Wilkes Booth or John Newman Edwards.

Bring in a trial attorney or judge to discuss questions the students have about criminal trials, punishment and particularly about the use of  insanity as a form of defense.

Tie in “The Ballad of Jesse James” reportedly written by minstrel Billy Gashade after James’ death.  Use the ballad to discuss yet another perspective on the life of Jesse James.


Stiles, T.J. Jesse James:  Last Rebel of the Civil War.  New York:  Alfred K. Knopf, 2001. 


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