Jesse James and Devil’s Gulch

A footbridge spans Devil's Gulch, which Jesse James allegedly coaxed his horse to leap over while he was fleeing the law in 1876. (Photo by Seth Tupper)After hiking in Palisades State Park on Monday with my brother and his two oldest children, we decided to make the short trip to another site that I’d long wanted to see: Devil’s Gulch just north of Garretson.

The story about Devil’s Gulch is that Jesse James coaxed his horse to leap across it while he was fleeing the law following a botched bank robbery in Minnesota in 1876 — the same year as Custer’s Last Stand and Wild Bill Hickock’s shooting. The audacious leap is what supposedly allowed James to escape to Missouri.

After visiting the site, I know why the story about the leap has lived on. The 20-foot span across Devil’s Gulch is short enough to make a visitor think that it just might be possible for a horse to jump it, but long enough to seem improbable. The place is so scenic and so western-looking, it’s easy to imagine Jesse James riding up to the edge as a posse follows in a cloud of dust. While you’re at the site, you want to believe the legend.

Did the leap really happen? Probably not. My primary reason for saying that is the story’s seeming lack of attribution. Most of the written material about the leap fails to attribute the story to any witness or document, or any source at all. I found one online article in which a Garretson resident traced the story to some documents that the posse allegedly signed and left in the local courthouse, but the writer of that article found no evidence of such documents.

It seems most likely to me that some overeager Garretson residents, knowing that Jesse James had come through the area with a posse in pursuit, saw Devil’s Gulch and thought that maybe a leap over the gulch was the reason the posse never caught up to him. With popular Old West figures like James, people — especially tourists — want to believe everything they hear. Once a story about somebody like James gets started, it seems to live forever no matter the veracity.

Whether or not the leap happened, there are many sources that say James came through the Garretson area while on the run from the law. Another legend says that, prior to the alleged leap over Devil’s Gulch, James hid out for a while in a cave along Split Rock Creek near Devil’s Gulch. His name is carved on a cave wall along the creek, but again, it’s highly questionable whether the carving was actually done by James. It seems more than a little convenient that the cave is only accessible by water, a fact that allowed for some enterprising Garretson locals to start up a business offering pontoon rides to the site.

Whether the stories about the leap and the cave are authentic retellings or just fabricated lore, it matters little. The Devil’s Gulch area is beautiful enough to visit regardless of whether you believe the legends, and the area has been preserved as a city park with trails that make it easy to explore. It’s also only a few miles from Palisades State Park, so if you’re already at Palisades you might as well make the short drive to Devil’s Gulch.

About Author

Seth Tupper

Seth Tupper was born and raised in South Dakota and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from South Dakota State University in 2001. After college, he worked at a newspaper in Minnesota and then returned to South Dakota in 2003 to join the staff of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, where he is currently the publisher. Seth has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2007 Outstanding Young Journalist award in the daily newspapers category of the South Dakota Newspaper Association's Better Newspapers Contest. Seth's day-job and freelance work have granted him opportunities to meet hundreds of South Dakotans and travel across much of the state. He also spends a lot of his free time exploring South Dakota's state and national parks, hiking trails and kayak-friendly rivers.


  1. madison
    madison 11 March, 2012, 19:16

    I went to Garratson and learned about the historical lesson also

    Reply this comment

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