The Myths and History of Robbers Cave: A Tale of Jesse James

Updated on December 12, 2017

Somewhere in Oklahoma, there is over a million dollars worth of hidden treasure. This is the story of that treasure...

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 place, 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 Carton just a short distance away. The main cavern runs more than 40 feet back into the mountain, and at one time clear springs dotted the area.

The lore associated with Robbers Cave area is vast, dating to its use as an Osage hunting ground and as the object of French exploration in the eighteenth century. During the late 1800’s, Civil War deserters and outlaws reportedly hid in the cave, the location and local terrain made the cave an almost impregnable fortress, with the criminals allegedly able to escape through a secret back exit.

In choosing his hideout, Jesse James was not one to leave things to chance. The area around Robbers Cave had several things that made it the perfect outlaw hideout. At the base of the cliff, there is a natural stone corral where his gang could easily keep horses and pack animals. A natural water spring located within the cave provided fresh water, and there was a hidden exit that allowed him to escape unnoticed.

Perhaps one of the James' gangs most audacious robberies was one that happened in 1876. Ultimately, this robbery would span three states and would start a massive hunt for the loot that Jesse James and his gang hid over 100 years ago.

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

Jesse James's Hidden Treasure in the Wichita Mountains

In northern Mexico, near present day Calera, Frank and Jesse James staged a robbery that would unwittingly become a modern day legend. In early 1876, along with ten members of their gang, the James Gang attacked a detail of Mexican guardsmen driving eighteen burros transporting gold bullion. After securing their loot, they lead the pack train across Texas and into Indian Territory. During this time, the Indian Territory was notorious for being a favorite hideout for outlaws, especially since no local or state law existed in the territory.

It was sometime in late February when the gang finally reached the Wichitas. A fierce winter blizzard was raging 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. After burying the treasure, Jesse made two lasting signs pointing to the gold. He nailed a burro shoe into the bark of a Cottonwood tree, and into a nearby cottonwood, he emptied both of his six-shooters for a second mark.

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 then buried the bucket and it's secret somewhere on Tarbone Mountain near a Cottonwood tree.

On the side of the bucket, Jesse etched out 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 Wichita's, the gang then headed north, intending to go back for the stolen loot later in the year.

Some of the stories indicate that the gang split up afterwards, with some wanting to return for the loot while others not wanting to risk it.

Six months later, the James gang was ambushed while attempting to rob the Northfield, Minnesota bank. 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.

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 still remains 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 there are only a handful that bear any truth. However, it has been documented that the gang did hold up at Robbers Cave several times in the past.

During the late 1800's, the Wichitas were in the throws of a massive gold rush, similar to that in California. More than 100 years earlier, the Spanish had discovered the possibility of gold in the mountains. After the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800's, prospectors moved on in search of new horizons. 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 could be found in the area. However, by the 1860s, miners began moving into the area, overturning every stone and peeking in every crevice in order to find some hint of gold. Jesse James preferred the relative quiet of eastern Oklahoma.

Robbers Cave, as it is known today, was one of the gangs 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 outlaws 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, Carton Weaver donated 120 acres surrounding the cave to the Boy Scouts of America for use as a camp. It was in this camp Muzafer Sherif concluded his famous Robber's Cave study on conflict resolution in 1954.

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 phases:

Group formation, in which the members of groups got to know each others, social norms developed, and leadership and structure emerged.

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.

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.

Images from Robers Cave State Park
Images from Robers Cave State Park

Robers Cave State Park

Since the land donation in 1929 by Carlton Weaver, the Robers Cave site has undergone many improvements. Soon after the donation, John Newell, warden at McAlester's State Penitentiary, soon arranged for a group of skilled inmates to begin improving 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 and located 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. Native stone was used on all of these these projects. In 1937 the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created Lake Carlton, named for Carlton Weaver.

Standing at the entrance of Robbers Cave, one can almost see the bandits crackling fires, almost hear their laughter as they tell another story 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2010 Eric Standridge

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      • profile image

        jack finch 

        8 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        justin f 

        8 months ago

        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.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        8 months ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        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.

      • profile image

        Bob 

        8 months ago

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

      • profile image

        anoymous 

        11 months ago

        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

      • profile image

        Greg 

        11 months ago

        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?

      • profile image

        Doug Warbinton 

        17 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        spartanram@aol.com 

        23 months ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Donny D 

        3 years ago

        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.

      • melissae1963 profile image

        Melissa Reese Etheridge 

        3 years ago from Tennessee, United States

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

      • KevvoDeverson profile image

        Kevin Deverson 

        3 years ago from Leyland, UK

        Great Hub, really enjoyed reading this piece thanks

      • Thomasjames1992 profile image

        Thomas James 

        3 years ago from London

        Loved reading this well done great work!

      • profile image

        Dr. Gene Landrum, PhQ Quantum Theory 

        5 years ago

        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.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        6 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        Andreas,

        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.

      • profile image

        andreas OST 

        6 years ago

        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.

      • profile image

        m pool 

        6 years ago

        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 profile image

        WesternHistory 

        7 years ago from California

        Terrific and interesting post. Thanks.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        7 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        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!

      • profile image

        Allanon 

        7 years ago

        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.

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        7 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        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!

      • profile image

        Pachuca213 

        7 years ago

        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 =)

      • profile image

        Denise James 

        7 years ago

        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!

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        8 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        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 profile image

        gramarye 

        8 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

        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!

      • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

        Eric Standridge 

        8 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

        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.

      • profile image

        Rob 

        8 years ago

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

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