When it comes to the story of Jesse Woodson James it’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. What we do know is the outlaw known as Jesse James was born September 5, 1847, and lived his early life on a farm. Just fourteen when the Civil War broke out, Jesse enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1864 at sixteen. He landed in a unit that practiced what was considered unconventional warfare at the time, earning the pejorative name “bushwhacker” from Union soldiers. We do know that Jesse James participated in the Centralia Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of twenty-two unarmed Union soldiers. We also know he married his first cousin and fathered two children.
After that is when fact and legend become harder to separate. We know after the war Jesse and his brother Frank made their living robbing banks, trains and stagecoaches. Being educated during the war in the arts of escape and evasion, the pair, along with a fluid group of ex-Confederate soldiers and criminals, were fairly successful in their life of crime. They had a good hiding spot in the Ouachita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. Rugged and inaccessible, the hills are a warren of forests, caves and sharp ravines. That included Robbers Cave, a defensible area that included a sheltered natural corral for horses, and a highly strategic back exit.
But it’s the legend that starts in 1876 that still captivates treasure hunters today. In northern Mexico, near present day Calera, Jesse, Frank and ten confederates allegedly robbed a group of Mexican soldiers escorting eighteen burros loaded with gold. Over the next three months the gang drove the burros through Texas and into Oklahoma, Indian country in those days.
If you’ve ever tried pack camping on horseback while towing a pack burro, you’re immediately skeptical that anyone could lead a train of eighteen burros on an 800 mile journey through largely undeveloped territory. The Travel Channel tested that theory on an episode of Expedition Unknown with host Josh Gates. Yet the show concluded that, with luck on their side, twelve people could indeed have covered 800 miles leading a burro train loaded with Mexican gold.
According to legend, the group arrived in southwestern Oklahoma in the middle of a fierce winter storm. After a couple days of trudging through deep snow they realized the animals were never going to make it and decided to bury the gold in a ravine somewhere east of the ironically named Cache Creek. Making their way to Robbers Cave, the group supposedly etched out a contract on a copper pot with a nail. The copper pot was found, but the treasure is supposedly still out there.
Six months later the gang was ambushed trying to rob the Northfield, Minnesota bank and supposedly Jesse never made it back to dig up the treasure before being shot by one of his own gang in 1882. The question one ponders is: If the gang had millions in gold conveniently stashed in the hills, why were they out robbing banks? Maybe they were afraid that Mexican gold suddenly turning up in large quantities would arouse suspicion. We’ll never know, and treasure hunters frankly don’t care. There’s enough plausibility to the tale that treasure hunters have been searching for the gold ever since.
Filmmakers have romanticized James as a Robin Hood type figure who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which is almost certainly not true. What we do know is that area was notorious for hosting criminals on the run from the law and that, in those days, burying your stash was a good way to secure it. Whether the James Gang really robbed a Mexican burro train or not, no one knows. What’s more certain is that there is likely treasure buried by someone, somewhere in those hills. That fact alone will keep gold-loving treasure hunters busy another decade…or more.