The Myths and History of Robbers Cave: A Tale of Jesse James
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.
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.
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.
© 2010 Eric Standridge