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The Myths and History of Robbers Cave and Jesse James

The funeral of Jesse James, one of the most legendary outlaws in American history.

The funeral of Jesse James, one of the most legendary outlaws in American history.

Somewhere in the wilderness of southeast Oklahoma, there is over a million dollars' worth of hidden treasure. This is the story of that treasure, the outlaws who robbed it, and the cave system where they hid...

Robbers Cave: The Outlaws' Hideout

In the years preceding Oklahoma statehood, the Ouachita Mountains remained as wild and rugged as the old west. Heavily forested and lined with hidden caverns and ravines, this area was a favorite hiding place for outlaws and bandits. One such spot, Robbers Cave, is known to have concealed the legendary Jessie James, as well as other famous outlaws including the Youngers, the Dalton Gang, the Rufus Buck Gang, and Belle Starr.

The Robbers Cave area is strewn with rock outcroppings topped with massive boulders and surrounded by dense vegetation. Gentle rivers flow into Lake Carlton just a short distance away. The main cavern runs more than 40 feet back into the mountain, and clear springs once dotted the landscape.

Rock outcroppings and giant boulders in the Robbers Cave area

Rock outcroppings and giant boulders in the Robbers Cave area

Robbers Cave History and Lore

The lore associated with the Robbers Cave area is vast, dating to its use as an Osage hunting ground and as the subject of French exploration in the 18th century. During the late 1800s, Civil War deserters and outlaws reportedly hid in the cave, including—most famously—the Jesse James Gang.

In choosing this hideout, Jesse didn't leave things to chance. The area around Robbers Cave offered several strategic advantages that made it the perfect outlaw refuge. The geography and terrain made it an almost impregnable fortress, with the criminals allegedly able to escape through a secret back exit. Additionally, at the base of the cliff, there is a natural stone corral where his gang could easily stow their horses and pack animals. And a natural spring located within the cave provided fresh water.

In 1877, Jesse James and his gang pulled off one of their most audacious robberies. Ultimately, this crime would span three states and incited a massive hunt for the hidden loot.

The outlaws: Legends tell of a treasure stash hidden near the Robbers Cave in Oklahoma by the James Gang.

The outlaws: Legends tell of a treasure stash hidden near the Robbers Cave in Oklahoma by the James Gang.

Jesse James

Jesse James

Jesse James' Hidden Treasure in the Wichita Mountains

In northern Mexico, near present-day Calera, Jesse and his brother Frank staged a robbery that turned into a modern-day legend. In early 1876, the James brothers and 10 of their brethren attacked a detail of Mexican guardsmen driving 18 burros transporting gold bullion. After securing their loot, the Gang led the pack train across Texas and into Indian Territory, which at this time lacked local and state laws and was notorious for being a favorite hideout for outlaws.

It was sometime in late February when the gang finally reached the Wichitas. A fierce winter blizzard raged across the mountains. For three and a half days, they wearily traveled with little rest through snow almost a foot deep. Jesse soon realized that their exhausted animals could go no further.

In an unknown spot east of Cache Creek, the James Gang buried their stolen treasure in a deep ravine. Jesse made two lasting signs pointing to the gold: He nailed a burro shoe into the bark of one cottonwood tree and emptied both of his six-shooters into the trunk of another.

Jesse James' Brass Bucket

While the James Gang rode out the storm, Jesse etched out the outlaws' contract on the side of a brass bucket. The contract bound each member of the outlaw band to secrecy about the gold treasure's hiding place.

After etching out the contract with an old hammer and tack, Frank and Jesse James buried the bucket and its secret somewhere on Tarbone Mountain. Though the bucket was eventually recovered, the treasure was so well concealed and mythologized that over a century later, treasure hunters and local historians are still puzzled over whether and where it exists.

On the side of the bucket, Jesse etched these words:

"This the 5th day of March, 1876, in the year of our Lord, 1876, we the undersigned do this day organize a bounty bank. We will go to the west side of the Keechi Hills which is about fifty yards from [symbol of crossed sabers]. Follow the trail line coming through the mountains just east of the lone hill where we buried the jack [burro]. His grave is east of a rock. This contract made and entered into this V day of March 1876. This gold shall belong to who signs below."

Below the pact, the following names were scratched into the bucket: Jesse James, Frank Miller, George Overton, Rub Busse, Charlie Jones, Cole Younger, Will Overton, Uncle George Payne, Frank James, Roy Baxter, Bud Dalton, and Zack Smith.

From there, the gang traveled east towards the Ouachita Mountains before arriving at Robbers Cave. They stayed there for several days. Not wanting to risk returning to the Wichitas, the gang then headed north, intending to return for the stolen loot later in the year.

The End of an Era

Some stories indicate that the gang split up afterward, with some wanting to recover the loot and others wary of the risk.

Six months later, the James Gang was ambushed while attempting to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota. While Jesse James escaped, he would never have the opportunity to retrieve his share of the hidden stash. On April 3, 1882, Jesse James was shot to death in Missouri by a member of his own gang. The 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, portrayed this legendary finale.

While the cache of gold bullion has never been found, most of the markers pointing to its location have, including the brass bucket bearing the engraved names and a crude map.

Somewhere deep in the Wichita Mountains, a hoard of gold bullion may still remain undiscovered.

Jesse James in Eastern Oklahoma

This is not the only story of hidden treasure found in the Wichitas. There are hundreds of tales that feature Jesse James and his gang in the area, but only a handful bear any truth. However, it has been documented that the gang did hold up at Robbers Cave several times.

The Oklahoma Gold Rush

During the late 1800s, the Wichitas were in the throes of a massive gold rush, similar to that in California. Over a century earlier, the Spanish had discovered the prospect of gold in the mountains. After the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, prospectors moved on in search of new fortunes. By 1890, the Wichita Mountains were teeming with gold seekers. The height of this gold rush came between 1901 and 1904 when over 20,000 prospectors filled the area.

For Jesse James, this wouldn't do. At first, only a trickle of prospectors came anywhere near his hideout. However, by the 1860s, hordes of miners began moving into the area, overturning every stone and peeking in every crevice in search of gold. Jesse James preferred the relative quiet of eastern Oklahoma.

Other Outlaw Hideouts

Robbers Cave, as it is known today, was one of the gang's favorite hideouts. However, it was not the only one. Legend tells of a small log cabin hotel located at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in LeFlore County. Many times during the year, members of the James Gang could be found at this secondary hideaway. Other outlaws, such as Belle Starr and the Younger gang, were known to frequent this place as well.

Further south, a place known as Horsethief Springs remained another popular outlaw rendezvous. Stories from the early days of Poteau and surrounding towns tell of Jesse James strolling through the center of town, which gives further evidence of his association and fondness for eastern Oklahoma.

The Robbers Cave Experiments

Robbers Cave holds another tale of historic proportion. Although not related to the glory days of the American outlaw, this story is still one of treasure and great wealth, but of a different kind.

In 1929, Carlton Weaver donated 120 acres surrounding the cave to the Boy Scouts of America for use as a camp. It was in this camp that psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted his famous 1954 Robbers Cave experiment on tribalism and conflict resolution.

This series of experiments took boys from intact middle-class families, who were carefully screened to be psychologically normal, and delivered them to a summer camp setting (with researchers doubling as counselors) and created social groups that came into conflict with each other.

The studies had three main phases:

  1. Group formation, in which the members of groups got to know each other, social norms developed, and leadership and structure emerged.
  2. Group conflict, in which the now-formed groups came into contact with each other, competing in games and challenges, and competing for control of territory.
  3. And finally, conflict resolution, where Sherif and colleagues tried various means of reducing the animosity and low-level violence between the groups.

In the Robbers Cave experiments, Sherif showed that superordinate goals (goals so large that it requires more than one group to achieve the goal) reduced conflict significantly more effectively than other strategies (e.g., communication, contact).

These experiments have been the basis of many important discoveries in the science of psychology. The study, which has been described as a real-life Lord of the Flies, was not without controversy, though, as some social psychologists questioned Sherif's methodology and conclusions.

Robbers Cave State Park

Since Carlton Weaver's land donation in 1929, the Robbers Cave site has undergone many improvements. Soon after the donation, John Newell, warden at McAlester's State Penitentiary, arranged for a group of skilled inmates to begin renovating the site. Using locally quarried rock, the inmates built a kitchen and several buildings that were used as headquarters for different scout troops. Named Camp Tom Hale in honor of a McAlester businessman and BSA supporter, the facility was adjacent to a tract of land that Weaver had leased and later donated to the state fish and game commission to create a large game preserve.

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1825 was organized at the state game preserve. Two years later, in 1935, under the supervision of the National Parks Service, the State Parks Division took control of the area. Between 1935 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1825 built a bathhouse, cabins, trails, group camps, shelters, and roads. Locally quarried stone was used on all of these projects. In 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created Lake Carlton, named after the park's benefactor.

Visiting the Park Today

Standing at the entrance of Robbers Cave, one can almost see the bandits' crackling fires and hear their laughter as they tell stories of daring and escape. It becomes easy to imagine how these outlaws of old found the place so tempting. During those days, it was rugged wilderness. Only a select few knew of its location. For Jesse James, Belle Starr, the Younger Gang, and many others, it was the perfect place to escape the law and gain a few days of rest.

Today, it is still a perfect place to hide out from the world—a perfect place to escape the fast-paced lives we lead, if even only for a day.

Located four miles north of Wilburton, Oklahoma, on State Highway 2, Robbers Cave State Park encompasses more than eight thousand acres and includes three lakes and many tourist amenities.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Was Jesse James' treasure ever found?

Answer: That's part of the legend. According to some, it was found, according to others, it's still out there somewhere. Then again, how much truth is there to the story? Most of the information collected was by word of mouth, passed down and embellished each generation. Even the law didn't keep accurate records; there are plenty of stories of lawmen who turned outlaw. So the easy answer is we may never know.

© 2010 Eric Standridge


Jack Gatewood on March 04, 2020:

In the 1950's, I and other scouts of Poteau Troop 30 camped many times at Camp Tom Hale. We played and climbed in Robbers Cave and surrounding crevasses, earned our Life Saving badges in Lake Carlton nearby and Marksmanship badges using .22 caliber rifles. The adult scout leaders staged a venison dinner in the natural stone hall once each camping session. Those were the days.

jack finch on November 01, 2017:

my name is jack finch I have some information that the people I saw on tv today the gold that Jessie james stold during his robbing time I think you are looking in the wrong place maybe. I can take you to one of his hideouts. I know where one of his hideouts is. I have a aunt that over the years has found hundreds of gold pieces from his hideout if you or any one insterted leave MESSAGE AT MY EMAIL ADDRESS.

justin f on October 21, 2017:

Actually you CAN use metal detectors in State Parks. Heck i am here at the park for the fall fest and all you have to do is go to the ranger station there and sign up for a FREE permit to metal detect anywhere (almost, just not in peoples camping spots while they're there) and keep anything you find except if you obviously find like a Gold bar or something of great historic significance to the park.

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on October 20, 2017:

I edited this article to provide a little more clarification.

After Cache Creek, the gang turned East to head towards more familiar ground. Around Robbers Cave, they had a good support network; this area was also home to other outlaws such as Belle Starr and Cole Younger and his gang.

Back to the west, they knew that there were people looking for them, so they wanted to stay out of the hornet's nest, so to speak. So they holed up at Robber's Cave for awhile.

I haven't found anything that says exactly why they headed north, but if there were still people looking for them around the Wichita's, or trying to follow their tracks to get back the gold, it wouldn't be a big leap to understand why they didn't want to go back there immediately. If it was me, I would let that lie for a year and then go back; give it enough time for people to give up hope.

If I had to guess, I would assume that they heard about another opportunity for "easy pickings" to the north.

One thing that has to be taken into account is how things were at the time. This was 1876; Texas had been a state for just over 31 years and still had a lot of Spanish ties, Oklahoma was Indian Territory and had very little infrastructure and no railroads, the Civil War was still in the minds of many people. The country overall was still in chaos, with Indian Territory basically a lawless land. Things weren't done in a civilized manner - if the legends are true and that amount of gold was taken, there would be a lot of people looking for Jesse James and his gang all throughout the Wichita's, all with a desire to put them six foot under.

If it was me, and if I believed that that many people wanted my head, I wouldn't go back there either until I knew for sure that the area was clear, no matter how much money was waiting. Considering Jesse's age, he probably figured he would have plenty of time to go back.

Bob on October 19, 2017:

It's gone already spent by family almost 60 years ago.Just after wwii.

anoymous on August 16, 2017:

i use to live in Oklahoma and would visit the Wichita mountains and there was a resturant with a map of where people searched for his gold

Greg on August 07, 2017:

I have to agree with Doug on this, and actually thought the same thing when I read the article. Why would the James Gang risk going all the way to Minnesota when they KNEW where a hoard of gold was buried that all they had to do was go back and dig up?

Also, you can add that Jesse and Frank could've gone back between the time of the Northfield raid and his assassination in 1882 to retrieve the gold. What would've stopped them?

Doug Warbinton on February 19, 2017:

It makes no sense that the James Gang traveled to Minnesota just six months later rather than going back to Oklahoma to retrieve the gold. This story is entirely fictitious. on August 02, 2016:

I can't believe that with all the guys in the gang present at the time the bullion was buried that some of them didn't come back at some time to collect the treasure.

Donny D on May 20, 2015:

My wife use to care for an elderly woman in Shawnee Oklahoma, and when I use to go pick her up after finishing her chores this lady would tell me all kinds of history of where she grew up. At that point in time she was 94 years old I remember one particular story she told me on the farm she was raised on her family gave shelter to to Jessie and his crew and so did most of the town for that matter. Supposedly Jessie's kin folk lived in that town and he always shared his taking's with the towns people there.

Melissa Reese Etheridge from Tennessee, United States on February 23, 2015:

Once again...a great Hub. I'd like to visit some of the places that you write about.

Kevin Deverson from Leyland, UK on February 22, 2015:

Great Hub, really enjoyed reading this piece thanks

Thomas James from London on February 20, 2015:

Loved reading this well done great work!

Dr. Gene Landrum, PhQ Quantum Theory on March 02, 2013:

When I was a youth, I had the chance to visit this 'cave' in Oklahoma. It left me with an impression that there were more 'spiritual' activities that happened in the Past, Present, and Future, than ever reported! Why, not report Spiritual Activities, 'Because; Societies of 'when ever' time frame would 'label' you as a 'Crazy' Lunatic, 'Psychotic''Old Fool', and many other names 'Social Engineering' can label the 'story teller' to 'debunk' the Spiritual Activities; some become famous; like the little girl; Bernette, and her Vision of Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, or Jesus Christ, who writes about Visions of People that has Passed Over! Now, Modern Day Science can prove all these things have taken place, as told! How? Quantum Science's Theory of Everything! A recognized, soft Science, with Hard Facts! One Fact proven by all Sciences is; Energy, in any form, cannot be destroyed, only transforms into 'something' else! Spirits are known Energy Sources, there by 'Cannot'!! be destroyed, only Transforms in to ???

If a Scientific Therm, can be proven, over and over, with the same results it becomes a Theory, Theories survive the 'test' of time; Newton's Law of Gravity (yes, there was Gravity before Newton, I think?) But, it was not a Law of Physics! Accepted by Societies, from then to now! This will be the same with Quantum Science, study it and learn there is no 'Earthly Time Line' and no other Man Kind Species but one, and there is only One God (Spirit), with many names, spelled differently, still the same!

This holds True, with Places like; Robber's Cave, OK. and many other places around the World, on Earth, under the Earth, under the Oceans and in the Universe, and beyond, unknown to Man but May is still Seeking! Why?

These are my Facts, as I know them, given to me by 'Holy Scripture' and Quantum Theory of Everything! "EVERYTHING" Study it and be bewildered, enlightened, and educated about things 'not understood' by Today's Societies!

Gene Landrum, PhQ, Quantum' Theory of Everything', Spiritualist, Author, Teacher, Practitioner of Quantum, Play Wright of Fiction (Fiction Today, Facts Tomorrow, a stage play) and a human who believes in the 'Holy Scriptures (untouched by Society, of any ERA) and Quantum Science (Man's understanding of God's (one and only) Work, from the Word, till?). Amen, May God, the Great I AM, that sent his Son, to Earth, as an 'Outlier', against a Society, that God loved and still does, because he shared his Spirit with Adam, that we all share! Some of us has chosen Jesus Christ into our Souls, there by 'welcoming' the Holy Spirit of God into our Bodies, our bodies who accepted, now contains two Spirits, not just one. There are,

exceptions and they know Lucifer, other Spirit of God.

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on April 11, 2012:


You're right..

The story tells of a gold stash hidden in the Wichita's, not the Ouachita's - they are two different mountain ranges. However, the story here relates to the route that they took. The gold stashed in the Wichita Mountains has been well documented, however, many people aren't aware of how much of a role that eastern Oklahoma has played in the lives of these outlaws.

In 1876, Texas was still a young state. Once part of Mexico, the state still had a lot of Spanish influence. It is unknown where the exact spot of the robbery occurred, but if I had to guess, it was close to the border of Texas and Mexico. It would be interesting to know, but that's one of those details that we may never find out. However, it is known that there were still a couple Spanish mines in operation in the Wichita mountains at the time, so it could be possible that the gold being transported was from those mines.

After the robbery, the gang headed across Texas and into what is now Oklahoma. Winter stopped them while they were traveling through the Wichitas, but most likely they were headed further east into modern-day LeFlore County.

They were forced to remain in the Wichita Mountains until the weather let up. The burros that they led were most likely "used up" and died there, which forced the gang to leave the gold. From the Wichita Mountains, the gang then headed east towards the Robbers Cave area - which is known to be a place that they favored. Since Cole Younger was with the group, this seems very likely. From other stories, it is known that they would find a place to hide, wait a few days in order to make sure that nobody was following, and then move on. From Robbers Cave, they probably ventured to Younger's Bend, which was another outlaw "hotspot".

The triangle between Robbers Cave, Younger's Bend, and Horsethief Springs was considered the outlaw haven of Indian Territory. During this time, the U.S. Marshals were pretty lax in their efforts to catch criminals in the Indian Territory. In fact, it wasn't until 1875 when Judge Parker came to Fort Smith that things slowly began to change. The Marshals resisted at first, but by the early 1880's they were on the same page with Parker and went all-out in order to catch the outlaws that roamed Indian Territory.

The story relates to the entire route that Jesse James and his gang took during this particular robbery.

andreas OST on April 10, 2012:

The Ouachita Mountains are 100's miles east of the Wichita MTS. robbers cave in not close to Cache.

the Overtons in the Greer co TX/Okla were well known lawmen in that area.

Frank James lived with the Overtons in Dallas Co TX.

m pool on October 08, 2011:

i live in oklahoma i run a com trash route at robbers cave on mondays last week i had seen somebody using a metal detector on the grounds 2 different places out in the open to be seen and park rangers is everywheres i also thought it wasn't possible either i also learned that one of the members of james gang was a past uncle known as captn dave pool

WesternHistory from California on July 09, 2011:

Terrific and interesting post. Thanks.

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on June 06, 2011:

Allanon, Ya know, that's something that I didn't know. I just assumed that metal detectors could be used anywhere. I would guess that anyone out looking for Jesse James treasure, or any other treasure for that matter, had best check the laws first. Thanks for the info!

Allanon on June 06, 2011:

They left out one important fact. It is illegal in Oklahoma to use metal detectors in a State Park. Perhaps that is why it was made into one, so that the state will find the gold, before some individual.

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on December 08, 2010:

Pachuca, that's awesome! Well, not that they were killed or anything, but.. If you could trace all of that down, I'm sure you'd find some pretty wild stories!

Pachuca213 on December 08, 2010:

that is so awesome. My mother said that somewhere in our family line one of our relatives found out that we were related to two brothers who used to run with Jesse James' crew. They were inevetably both killed in a bar fight shoot out. I guess that's where I get my temper. lol =)

Denise James on November 23, 2010:

Very interesting thank you! Too many names on the bucket, for that treasure to still be there. One never does know though, he was a James!

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on April 11, 2010:

Gra, thanks for stopping by.. I'm sure people go there with all sorts of devices to find the treasure - but, I think it's already been found a long time ago. There are so many stories about this fabled Jesse James treasure that its hard to tell fact from fiction. I tried my best to be as accurate as I can here, but one can only go off of what's documented.

And now I'm left wondering.. Who's Ned Kelly?

gramarye from Adelaide - Australia on April 11, 2010:

Don't people go there with metal detectors?

Anyway, now I feel I should write a hub about Australia's famous Ned Kelly - one day!

Eric Standridge (author) from Oklahoma on February 14, 2010:

The stories about his stolen gold are as numerous as there are grains of sand on the beach - still, this story is one of the few that there has been actual proof to support it. One never knows, there may be a ton of gold buried in Oklahoma, and people could walk past it everyday.

Rob on February 11, 2010:

This is some great information, as I've long wondered about Jesse James and where he supposedly hid his gold.