The 4 Most Convincing Theories on Where Famous Outlaw Jesse James Hid His Treasure

Written by Eliana Riley
Published: February 28, 2023
© Randy Kostichka/Shutterstock.com
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Introduction

Jesse James is unarguably one of the most influential characters of the Wild West era. From bank and train robberies to treasure hunts, Jesse James has left an impact that many recognize in film, song, and literature. While his treasure is yet to be encountered, a series of smaller discoveries with possible links to Jesse James have sparked speculation and rumor across the country. There is no doubt that Jesse James’s notorious reputation has inspired conspiracists and treasure hunters to search for his riches left behind. Discover more about the outlaw Jesse James and find out where his treasure might be buried.

Who was Jesse James?

Jesse James was born on September 5, 1847, in the state of Missouri. Jesse, alongside his brother Frank, became an infamous outlaw in the American West. After the Civil War began in 1861, Jesse, who was a Southern sympathizer, joined “Bloody” Bill Anderson’s guerilla band. When the war came to an end, Jesse, Frank, and eight men joined together to achieve the title of outlaws.

In 1866, the group committed their first major outlaw crime by robbing a bank in Liberty, Missouri. Over the course of several years, Jesse and his followers robbed numerous banks and trains throughout the American West. Jesse claimed that his crimes were a result of persecution following the Civil War. He believed that officials targeted him because he was a Southern sympathizer.

In 1876, Jesse and Frank lost their entire crew during the robbing of the First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The men were either killed or apprehended, and only the James brothers came out unscathed. Three years later, Jesse rounded up a new group to help him continue his outlaw lifestyle. After more robberies were committed, the governor of Missouri declared a promise of $10,000 to anyone that caught or killed the James brothers.

Robert Ford, whose brother had joined Jesse’s group of outlaws, set out to hunt Jesse down. At the time, Jesse was using a false name and living in St. Joseph, Missouri. Ford killed the notorious outlaw in his own home in 1882. In St. Joseph, Jesse died from a shot to the back of the head as he was hanging a picture on a wall in his home. While Ford was convicted of Jesse’s murder and given the death sentence, he received a gubernatorial pardon. The pardon didn’t save Ford, though. He was shot and killed by Edward Capehart O’Kelley, who is often thought of as Jesse’s avenger.

Jesse James
Jesse James was born in Missouri in 1847. Jesse and his followers robbed numerous banks and trains throughout the American West.

©Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

Where did Jesse James Bury his Treasure?

In the Ozarks of Missouri, many had believed for several years that Jesse James buried his up to $50 million treasure, which was stolen during a series of robberies, in his home state. While it seemed to be nothing but a legend, one man was believed to have discovered his treasure. Gads Hill was the location of one of Jesse James’s infamous robberies. Near it, a woodcutter reported that he had found paper money, a rifle, and old coins in a cave-like opening on the side of a hill. A rumor circulated that the man had discovered treasure worth up to $100,000.

Unfortunately, the discovery had been exaggerated. The woodcutter found only a rifle and a few old coins, but none of it was worthy of being called treasure. However, the rumor had already run its course, and people across the nation began to speculate about where Jesse James’s stolen treasure could be. From then on, numerous theories were proposed and developed.

Missouri

The most common and widely accepted theory about where Jesse James’s treasure might be is that it’s still somewhere in the hills of Missouri. Most believe that Gads Hill, the location of one of Jesse’s train robberies, hides the treasure. After the woodcutter’s encounter near Gads Hill, many people assumed that Jesse James could be connected to the discovery. Even if the story had been exaggerated, the humble findings of the woodcutter were enough to keep the rumor alive. While no one has found Jesse’s treasure in Gads Hill, there’s no denying that it could still be out there.

Mina Sauk Falls
The most common and widely accepted theory about where Jesse James’s treasure might be is that it’s still somewhere in the hills of Missouri.

©Steven Schremp/Shutterstock.com

Utah

In a desert in Utah, some report that evidence has linked Jesse James to Knights of the Golden Circle, which was a secret society whose goal was to create a new country in which slavery was permitted. As a result, Jesse James’s treasure would be, allegedly, used to fund a war between Knights of the Golden Circle and the U.S. government. A victory for Knights of the Golden Circle would mean secession and sovereignty over a country in which slavery was legal.

The evidence found in Utah is a carving of the name “J. H. Squires” in a rock. Some conspiracists assert that the term “Squire” is meant to mean “Knight.” This correlation would connect the person that carved the name to the Knights of the Golden Circle. Supposedly, the carving would translate to “Jesse Knight,” naming Jesse James as a Knight within the secret society.

However, anyone that would try to dig near the site of the rock for treasure would likely be arrested. The Bureau of Land Management prohibits treasure recovery efforts in this area. Furthermore, many have rumored that the government has claimed many of the sites that had previously belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle. By way of conspiracist reasoning, the government has claimed these lands to recover Jesse James’s hidden treasure for itself. The only way to discover the truth would be to become an outlaw, illegally digging up the site in the true spirit of Jesse James.

Utah Desert
Some believe Jess James’ treasure is buried in the Utah Desert, but treasury recovery efforts are illegal here.

©Victor Maschek/Shutterstock.com

Oklahoma

Cement, Oklahoma is a sleepy town in the West, but it is also believed to be the first clue in finding Jesse James’s treasure. Cement is near the place that Frank James, Jesse’s brother, had lived for some time. Buzzard’s Roost, which is a rock formation in Cement, has been speculated to be the start of a series of clues that lead to the treasure. The legend of Buzzard’s Roost began decades ago and was passed down from generation to generation in Cement.

Supposedly, visitors of Buzzard’s Roost will encounter a series of carvings that they can follow to find treasure. While no money has been found at the site or on the journey, other relics have been discovered. For instance, half a pistol, a kettle, and buckles from a saddle have all been encountered while following the series of carvings. These simple findings have caused people to believe that the treasure is still out there if they search hard enough.

Lake Murray State Park
Buzzard’s Roost is on Lake Murray and thought by some to be where Jesse James hid his treasure.

©Kit Leong/Shutterstock.com

Arkansas

Treasure in Arkansas is also possible, as some believe that Jesse James left gold for members of the Knights of the Golden Circle in this state, too. Furthermore, after a train robbery in 1874 by Jesse James, it has been alleged that the James brothers and their crew hid in Indian Cave. Indian Cave is located above DeSoto Park in the state of Arkansas. Some claim that Jesse James hid his treasure in the Brushy Mountains, just 30 miles northwest of Indian Cave.

One piece of evidence for these claims is that Jesse James had owned a gold watch from the train robbery in Arkansas at the time of his death. Thus, some estimate that Jesse James must have hidden the other stolen goods near the site of the train robbery since they weren’t in his possession. In 1953, treasure hunters after Jesse James’s fortune heard conjecture that a strongbox belonging to Jesse James had been deposited in the Black River. The group went and dug for the strongbox, but the hole they dug kept filling with water. Therefore, the group couldn’t find the strongbox, meaning that it could still be somewhere in the Black River of Arkansas.

Ozark Highlands in northwest Arkansas
Jesse James’ treasure is thought by some to be buried in one of several locations in Arkansas.

©iStock.com/Michael Dean Shelton

The Effect of Jesse James on American Culture

While Jesse James’s feats were impressive, much of the popular knowledge that circulates about Jesse and his crew is exaggeration and speculation. Jesse was more than an outlaw; he was one of the key figures that influenced books and media about the Wild West. Many see Jesse as a Robin Hood figure, but this is a misconception. Jesse James robbed the rich, but he did not give to the poor. Nevertheless, Americans then and now have placed the name “Jesse James” on a pedestal. Many see him as a persecuted man that defied authority for the sake of rebellion and of upholding individual values.

The hard truth about Jesse James is that his beliefs and values would not be praised according to present-day standards. He grew up in a family that owned slaves, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and continued to uphold racist ideals throughout the remainder of his life. Jesse’s defiance of authority was solely based on his belief that he was being oppressed by officials for holding Confederate values. Jesse’s motivation for becoming an outlaw was anything but righteous. Even so, people can’t help but portray him in media as an anti-hero.

Myths About the Man

The reason behind Jesse’s notorious personality and praised fame is likely due to the legend that surrounds the truth. For instance, many believed that he helped the poor, a myth that was further spread through the folk song “Jesse James.” The song calls Jesse “a friend to the poor” and says that Jesse would “never see a man suffer pain.” Truthfully, Jesse did not support the poor, and he killed many people throughout his outlaw career. After his death, Jesse’s name became a national symbol, leading to the creation of popular novels, short stories, and media. Cultural depictions of Jesse James call him a protector, illustrate him as a hero, and implicitly liken him to Jesus Christ. In fact, many gave Robert Ford, who was Jesse’s killer, the name “Judas,” as he betrayed the Christ-figure, Jesse.

Overall, though, Jesse James has been included in all mediums of popular culture and literature. He appears in comics, video games, books, and plays. Dozens upon dozens of movies and television shows either reference the outlaw or pinpoint him as the main character. When it comes to music, the list of references to Jesse James seems endless. However, the folk song written in his honor is unarguably the most well-known mention of Jesse in music.

Will Jesse James’s Treasure Ever be Recovered?

Considering the numerous speculations, searches, and failures related to Jesse James’s treasure, it’s difficult to say whether the riches will ever be found. After all, the $50 million fortune, if buried, is likely to have been distributed in small amounts throughout the American West. Furthermore, it’s possible that Jesse James never buried any treasure at all. No one knows for certain where it could be nor how to discover it. The actual act of treasure burial by Jesse James is speculation of its own. Much like Jesse James’s own reputation and list of accomplishments, his treasure might be an exaggerated legend.

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The Featured Image

Mark Twain National Forest of Missouri
Many believe Jesse James hid his treasure in Missouri, his home state.
© Randy Kostichka/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I'm Ellie, and I am a full-time college student at Miami University. I enjoy writing, copy editing, and being involved in journalism. I write for The Miami Student newspaper as an opinion columnist. My favorite animals are fish, rabbits, and cats.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Who was Jesse James?

Jesse James was an outlaw in the Wild West; he and his gang were responsible for numerous bank and train robberies.

Where is Jesse James’s treasure buried?

No one can say for sure where Jesse James’s treasure remains, but states like Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Missouri claim to have connections to Jesse’s fortune.

Who killed Jesse James?

Robert Ford shot and killed Jesse James in St. Joseph, Missouri.

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