While North Dakota does not have many lost or buried treasure sites, it is fertile soil for metal detectors. This state, previously a part of Louisiana, the Great Northwest, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, and, finally, Dakota Territory, made a lot of history.
If you want an exciting new locale for metal detecting, consider North Dakota, for it has hardly been touched. It is a wide-open, friendly place that will remain that way if you do not abuse your welcome by exploring on private property without permission and on certain public lands where exploration is prohibited.
Amidon is a tiny farming community situated in the southwest corner of North Dakota. An army payroll worth thousands of dollars is said to be buried just a few miles south of Amidon, near Sunset Butte. To determine how this treasure came into being, one must turn back the clock to nearly a century ago.
The scene is Fort Meade, South Dakota, in the year 1879. The army’s 1st Infantry, 11th Infantry, and well-known 7th Cavalry had just moved onto the fort. Their job was to keep the angry Sioux from hurting the gold hunters and settlers who had moved into the area before and after the Black Hills Treaty of 1877.
General Sheridan, the famed Civil War cavalry officer, selected the picturesque site for the new fort. The General would ride around the area on horseback, pointing with his sword where he wanted each building to be constructed.
The new post replaced Camp J. C. Sturgis, established in July 1878, about two miles northwest of nearby Bear Butte. It was first named Camp Ruhlin in memory of Lt. George Ruhlin, a 17th Infantry quartermaster officer who supervised the building of the fort.
Subsequently, it was named Fort Meade in honor of General Meade, of Civil War fame. Its strategic location was at the mouth of a natural gap in the hogback ridge forming the outer rim of the Black Hills, on the main Indian trail to the favorite hunting grounds of the Sioux.
At Fort Meade, the famed cavalry horse, Comanche, the only living thing found on the Little Big Horn battlefield, was officially retired with military honors. At Fort Meade, the controversial Major Marcus A. Reno was also forced from the service by court-martial for his scandalous behavior.
Shortly after the establishment of Fort Meade, camp followers saw that a town protected and supported by the fort would undoubtedly be a very profitable venture. Subsequently, the town of Sturgis was born. Some soldiers loved these kinds of entertainment, and they were soon set up.
The soldiers started calling the village “Scooptown” because the people there were so good at getting all the valuables a man might have with him. It was in Sturgis that Poker Alice Tubbs won her fame as a gambler and later as the Madame of a so-called respectable bordello.
As respectable as it may have been, Poker Alice was a whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking hell-raiser who once blew the head off a drunken soldier for trying to start a fight in her place of business.
During the same prosperous time, a small group of three soldiers left Fort Meade to take a large army payroll to Fort Keogh in Montana. It was a clear, crisp spring morning when the soldiers went out in a northwesterly direction.
After several weeks, it was discovered that they had not arrived at their destination. Some speculated that hostile Indians had killed the soldiers; others thought that perhaps the three men had stolen the payroll and disappeared.
Soon after, all speculation ended when three army revolvers and parts of an army wagon were found near Sunset Butte, a few miles south of Amidon, North Dakota. It should be noted that this specific region is along the same route the Army payroll soldiers would have taken on their way to Montana.
Some historians feel that the lost army payroll had been hastily buried by the three soldiers just before they were killed. So far as is known, no search has ever revealed the lost payroll money.
According to a local story, the three soldiers had been killed by a couple of hostile Indians who ambushed them in Sunset Butte. The soldiers had hastily buried the payroll money before they were killed. One of the attacking Indians had located the money and then taken it to White Butte, six miles south of Amidon, where he again buried the small fortune.
For several years after that, the old Indian was seen trudging off towards White Butte, and he would later return with a small supply of gold coins. Although he was often followed, he always eluded the persistent followers. Shortly after that, the Indian died, and even today, the source of his hidden wealth remains hidden.
For the relic hunter interested in U.S. Army and Indian artifacts, the following listing of battles and forts will be helpful if they visit North Dakota.
Fort Abercrombie, on the west bank of the Red River, about 12 miles north of the site of Wahpeton, was established in 1857. Supplies for this post were brought from St. Paul. When the Sioux went on the warpath in 1862, Minnesota settlers sought refuge during a seven-week siege. The fort was abandoned in 1877.
Fort Rice, on the west bank of Missouri, came next. General Alfred H. Sully’s men cut cottonwood trees to build the fort in 1864. It housed four infantry companies. Fort Rice was dismantled in 1878 when Fort Yates, to the south, took its place. Fort Yates was then abandoned in 1903.
Fort Totten, near Devil’s Lake, was constructed in 1867 and served until 1890.
Fort Stevenson, on Missouri, at the mouth of Douglass Creek, was maintained from 1867 to 1883.
Fort Buford was built in 1866, opposite the mouth of the Yellowstone River on the north bank of Missouri.
Fort Pembina was maintained on the Red River near the site of Pembina from 1870 until 1895.
Fort McKeen, established in 1872, became the same year, part of Fort Abraham Lincoln, garrisoned until 1891. It was from Fort Abraham Lincoln that Custer and his Seventh Cavalry marched to death and disaster on the banks of the Little Big Horn in 1876.
These early forts were established to protect the settlers along the frontier and keep the Indians in order. After the Sioux outbreak in Minnesota in 1862, General Henry H. Sibley was sent to punish the Sioux. In June 1862, he headed his army west from Minnesota towards the Devils Lake region, where he arrived to find the Indians had gone south.
He pursued them and, on July 24, engaged them in a battle at Big Mound, about seven miles north of the present town of Teppen.
The Indians retreated, and he followed them to Dead Buffalo Lake, northwest of Dawson, where, on July 26, another engagement was fought. Two days later, he met them again at Stony Lake, northeast of Driscoll, but the Sioux had retreated rapidly, and there had been no fighting.
Moving on toward Missouri, Sibley encamped on Apple Creek, seven miles east of the present site of Bismarck and near the mouth of the creek, where the Sioux fled across the river.
Sibley had thrown up defensive earthworks along the route at each camp. All of these campsites, which are not plowed under, have been located under the direction of the North Dakota State Historical Society.
The Hudson Bay Fur Company was located in Canada. However, a stolen payroll from the company is supposed to be buried in North Dakota. I’ll explain how the robbery occurred and its subsequent results, which caused the cache to be in North Dakota.
This story of a $40,000 robbery has the ring of truth because, among others, the Royal Mounted Police of Calgary, Canada, have searched unsuccessfully for this lost cache.
In the late 1890s, a Hudson’s Bay paymaster was on his way to Saskatchewan, Canada, to pay the company’s employees at their scattered posts. The paymaster was robbed of the $40,000 payroll near Estevan, Canada.
Fleeing south, the robber crossed the border into North Dakota. He was caught near Big Butte, a large grassy hill about seven miles south of Lignite in Burke County, North Dakota. However, the thief had already hidden the stolen goods. A cave in Big Butte, known locally as “Robber’s Cave,” has been the reputed hiding place of the money.
The robber died under torture at Portal, where he was taken. All attempts to force him to reveal the hiding place failed. The only clue he left was a rough chart, which was found on the tanned side of his fur coat and was believed to be a map showing the location of the cache. However, if the map ever led anyone to the treasure of Big Butte, the finder kept it quiet.
Finding an unearthed stone on Big Butte in 1877 lent fresh hope to searchers a few years ago. No one has ever learned whether this stone had anything to do with the missing money.
Many people have attempted to locate this cache, and even the Calgary Mounted Police have sent men to search for it, but it has never been reported as found.
In 1864, an 80-wagon train captained by James L. Fisk was en route to the Montana gold fields when it was held up for 14 days by the Humkapa Sioux in Slope County, very near the Montana border.
The expedition, accompanied by a cavalry detachment of 50 men, left Port Rice in August and encountered no trouble until September 1, when a wagon overturned while crossing a steep-sided creek. Fisk told another wagon and a group of eight horsemen to stay and put the overturned vehicle back on its wheels.
As soon as the main party was out of sight over the hill, a band of Humkapa Sioux, part of the group encountered by General Sully at the Killdeer Mountains and in the Battle of the Badlands, attacked the detachment, killing nine men and mortally wounding three.
At least four men have hidden their money at the beginning of the assault. One man buried a reputed $40,000 in gold, with which he planned to establish a store in Virginia City, but he was among those killed. No account of this gold’s being found can be learned.
The gold is thought to be buried about 13 miles east of the Fort Dilts Historic Site, a sod foundation of fortifications the troops built to keep the Indians from the wagon train.
In 1926, a whiskey runner reportedly buried $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills near a boatyard at Rock Haven, three miles north of Bismarck on the Missouri River.
The gold fields of Montana were discovered by accident, poured forth their millions in a very short time, and were abandoned almost as soon as they got going well. Sometime during this period, a group of fifteen or twenty adventurers who had gone to Montana to make their fortune and had done very well was returning to the east with a considerable sum of placer gold and nuggets.
Near the headwaters of the Missouri River, they purchased a boat large enough for the party and were leisurely floating home. Nothing would be known about his group or the immense treasure they lost if they had not decided to stop for several days at Fort Berthold, an army post built in Missouri.
This fort was located in what is now North Dakota. Although they did not spend too freely, they did live very well, and one of the groups struck up a friendship with a local retailer. The miner wanted to learn about trading on the frontier because he planned to return and use some of his money to start this business.
During their conversations, the sutler soon realized that the group had been fortunate in Montana and was taking home a large amount of money.
The miners stayed only a short time and soon went down to Missouri. About a month later, an Indian trader brought news to the fort that a large party of white men traveling in a boat had been ambushed and massacred by the Indians.
An investigation by the officers of Fort Berthold pieced together a story of what had happened. The miners had been tying up for the evening when a party of Dakotas swept down on them in ambush. The attack was entirely unsuspected, and the miners were killed before they had time to get their guns from the boat.
According to the investigation, the miners were scalped, and the Dakotas took many possessions. The boat was large, however, and the Indians did not do a thorough search.
Local legend has it that the sutler, the only one who knew about the gold, traveled to the massacre site and located the boat. Together with his Indian companion, they found the gold and removed most of it from the boat. Traveling only in a canoe and in a hostile country, they could not take much of the treasure back to the fort.
They buried the rest of it near the creek and entered Missouri for safekeeping. Then, they returned to the fort, taking the small portion of gold they had held out.
Even though he only got a small amount of what the miners were carrying, the cash value of the gold was enough to make many people in Fort Berthold very upset. Though these were difficult times, before he could make a return trip to recover the gold he had buried, the Indians renewed their attacks with extreme hostility.
Travel of any sort without armed escorts was out of the question, and the trader was not about to announce to the army where he had cached the balance of the gold.
By the time he was able to go back and safely get the gold, Missouri had flooded several times, and he couldn’t find the stash, even though he often tried for a few years. The sutler never told anyone where the massacre happened, so people who didn’t know where the boat was found the first time couldn’t find the treasure.
The only clue from official records is that the Indians attacked the miners near the junction of a creek and Missouri. The only two logical places this could be would be at Knife River or Burnt Creek.
This short story of bandit loot, found by an Indian and re-hidden, has been relatively well established.
In the 1880s, an outlaw gang of four men successfully robbed several banks and trains in Minnesota and the North Dakota Territory.
They had managed to make their way to Chalky Butte, one of the highest points in North Dakota, located about six miles south of Amidon, in Slope County.
The bandits decided to bury the money from the robberies after taking what they would need for current expenses. While they were burying the money, they were watched by a Sioux Indian hiding nearby. A few months later, all of the bandits were killed. If any of them ever returned to recover their cache before being killed, they failed to find it because the Indian had beaten them to it.
The Indians, after the outlaws left, dug up the gold and reburied it nearby. After this time, the Indian always had money after he visited Chalky Butte. He continued to obtain money in this manner until he died in 1910. Although he was followed several times, he always avoided his pursuers. His cache has never been reported as found.
There are old-timers in the area of Chalky Butte who still tell of this lost cache. With his few needs, it is almost certain that the Indian did not spend all of the gold.
In 1900, a bandit named George Trikk stole several gold coins from an express shipment in Fargo. Overtaken by a posse near where the town of Leonard was later established on State Highway 18, he had time to bury the gold. Attempting a running getaway, he was killed. The express shipment has not been found.
A pack train of 35 horses and mules, under contract to the army, delivered grain and merchandise to a military outpost on the east side of the Missouri River, about where Raub now stands. In August 1877, as they set up camp for the night, three outlaws stole the mules carrying the panniers that the pack train owner used to carry the gold coins that the army had given him.
The Packers got after the outlaws quickly. After a couple of miles, they were overtaken, and all were killed. The money was not on the pack mule, in the bodies of the dead outlaws, or their saddles. Presumably, the pack-train owner’s gold coins are still hidden along the chase’s route.
A lone bandit robbed the bank of Dunseith of an undisclosed amount of money. The masked robber had time to hide his loot in the nearby foothills of Turtle Mountain before a posse killed him.
The Turtle Mountain Bank of Dunseith was forced to close its doors following the robbery and never reopened. The bank refused to disclose the amount of money taken, but an official source, other than the bank, said it was $150,000 in gold and silver coins and currency.
In 1864, a party of 16 miners, returning from Montana with $200,000 in gold, pulled their boat ashore for repairs at a point where the Knife River entered the Missouri River near the town of Stanton. Anticipating they would be camped there for several days, the gold was taken ashore and buried for safekeeping. The party was caught off guard by a band of Indians and wiped out by a man.
Years later, an older man showed up and said that he had been part of the mining party but had been out hunting on the day of the massacre, so he had been spared. Afraid to approach the campsite, which he found to be destroyed, he fled the country. He had returned to try to find the gold that had been buried. His efforts to recover the gold were unsuccessful; presumably, it is still there.
In 1864, while bound from Minnesota to the gold fields of Idaho, Dr. Dibb and his partner, Captain Fisk, discovered what they described as a “mountain of gold” near the town of Belfield. People know that the two men didn’t keep going west and suddenly seemed to have a lot of money.
After working their secret mine for a few months, the two men concealed its entrance and left for the east, though neither man ever returned. The Lost Dibb Mine is supposedly still there.
North Dakota has numerous ghost towns. I will try to give a partial listing of the better-known ones.
The small town of Eckelson was once located a mile east of its present location in Barnes County. It was moved entirely to the present site when trains found the grade at the original site too steep to make stops.
On the western side of Little Missouri, across from Medora, in Billings County, a military camp named Little Cantonment was established in 1879 to protect railroad workers. This eventually became the town of Little Missouri, but only partially filled cellar holes mark the spot today.
Bottineau’s original site, now the county seat of Bottineau County, was located one mile north of the present town. Its business houses were all moved when it was learned that the railroad would pass the town to the south. Ask someone in Bottineau how to get to the marker that shows where the first settlement was.
At the end of the Northern Pacific Railroad grade on the Missouri River, opposite Fort McKeen, is an old tent town called Carleton City. The town was later renamed Point Pleasant.
When the railroad went around the town in 1883, the village of Ludden had to be moved about two miles away to where it is now.
A squatter town with a post office called Norge moved one mile away in Fortuna in 1913 when lots went on sale.
Oakdale, in Dunn County, was once a lovely little frontier town. Today, very little is left except a few old buildings.
The town of Sheyenne, in Eddy County, was originally located on the banks of the Sheyenne River. When the railroad came throughout the county, the town moved two miles away to be closer to the line.
The little village of Melville in Foster County was initially planned and named New Port. However, a dispute over the site’s price caused the people to move one-half mile to the east and renamed the town.
The town of Manvel, in Grand Forks County, was originally known as Turtle River Station and was a stop on the Fort Abercrombie to Fort Carry, Canada, trail.
The village of Ojata was once called Stickney and, at one time, was a boom town. When the railroad went to the west, the town began to decline.
The present town of Ashley was originally located four miles to the west. When the railroad came through in 1888, the entire town moved. At one time, the original settlement was known as Hoskins because of the lake nearby.
The Painted Woods post office in McLean County was the center of a small village on the Missouri River, of which nothing remains today.
The ghost town of Decapolis was located below Stanton in Mercer County. It was once a flourishing river town that died when steamboat traffic began its decline.
The village of Wamduska was founded on Lake Wamduska during the 1880s when it was believed the railroad would go through the area. When the railroad bypassed the area, the town died. A 75-room hotel was built but is now used only as a storehouse.
The town of Bowesmont used to be on the banks of the Red River, but flooding forced the town to move every spring. The new location is on the west bank of the river.
On the Little Missouri River, northwest of Amidon, there is an old logging camp that has been left empty for a long time. The camp is about 22 miles away from Amidon. There was an old bunkhouse equipped with loopholes to shoot through if Indians attacked the camp.
Belmont, in Trail County, is now a ghost town. It was located on the Missouri River and was called Frog Point. At one time, the village was a thriving river port. The Hudson Bay Company had a trading post here, and it was the head of navigation and the rendezvous for trappers in the area for many years.
The town became a bustling metropolis with its hastily constructed buildings. However, the river fell so low that navigation became almost impossible, and most inhabitants moved away. Fire destroyed most of its own, and it was never rebuilt. However, a grain shipping center developed when the river’s water level rose a few years later. But a flood that washed away all the elevators in 1897 spelled the town’s final doom.
Arvilla was located about 22 miles west of Grand Forks, North Dakota. It was a booming college town during the 1880s, but a fire destroyed the school in 1893, and the town gradually died.
Auburn was located about seven miles north of Grafton and was a booming town until the railroad passed it by.
Bartlett was located about four miles west of Lakota, North Dakota. It was once a booming railroad town with over 20 saloons. Today, only a few people live in the little village.
Crandon was located about 33 miles north of Fargo on Highway 81. It was one of four boomtowns under the Crandin Brothers’ bonanza system. The ghost town of Mayville is another of the boomtowns that failed.
Grand Rapids was located on the James River, about 40 miles southeast of Jamestown. The town enjoyed prosperity until about 1886 when it began to die.
Hungry Gulch was located south of Wheelock. A false gold rush in 1902 at Tobacco Garden Creek caused the settlement to develop, but the town died when no gold was found.
Medora was once a busy cowtown across the Little Missouri River from the Little Missouri Cantonment.
The settlement known as Pleasant Lake, about 45 miles west of Devils Lake, is now nothing but timberland. At one time, there was a railroad station here.
Verendrye was located eleven miles northeast of Velva on the Mouse River. It was founded as Falsen, a trading post, but very few people remain there today.
For those interested in Indian war relics, the Sioux uprising left some valuable artifacts. On December 25, 1863, Fort Berthold was attacked by 600 Yankton Sioux belonging to Two Bear’s band. The Sioux had come up the Missouri River to attack the Grosventres, Arikara, and Mandans, who had set up winter camp on Lucky Mountain’s L’Eau Qui Monte Creek.
A large group of Assiniboines who were camping nearby in their tents had just arrived and made this camp stronger. When the Sioux found out that these allies had arrived, they hesitated to attack the group. At the same time, heavy snowfall forced them to take refuge in the rests near Fort Berthold.
The following day, they decided to take the fort, believing it would be easy in the absence of the three tribes. The attack was kept up from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon and was pushed with a recklessness quite foreign to the usual Indian methods.
Several Indians ran at the blockhouse and tried repeatedly to set it on fire by sticking lit torches through the holes. They set fire to a number of the outbuildings, and part of the Indian village was consumed.
From inside the fort and stockade, Gerard and the other seventeen white people with him kept a murderous fire on their attackers, killing about forty and wounding about a hundred. Many of those who were hurt later died as the attackers ran away.
Sometime in the afternoon, the Indians at L’Eau Qui Monte Creek discovered by the smoke from the burning buildings what was going on, and they descended in full force upon their foes, driving them back and pursuing them for nearly 20 miles down the river.
The Sioux were being chased so hard that many of the badly hurt people being carried on travois were left to the rage of those chasing them. After the fight, the whites with Gerard were so fearful of another attack that they abandoned the fort and sought refuge with the three tribes at their winter camp.
For ten days, Gerard held the place alone and made ready, in case of emergency, to blow the fort up with gunpowder should the Sioux return to attack. At the end of this time, the Indians broke up their winter camp and went back together to protect their one trading post from being destroyed. They stayed in the area for the rest of the winter.
Among the whites with Gerard in this fight were Pierre Barreau, Chas. Malnouri, Alfred McCamley, and Z. Jeaneau. On this occasion, the Arikara gave Gerard the name “Seven Yanktons” in honor of his well-attested prowess in thus beating off the attack of their old enemies, the Yankton Sioux.
Here are some Indian village sites in North Dakota that would be worth checking out.
In Adams County, along Hidden Wood Creek, Indians from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation who took part in the last big buffalo hunt of the Sioux tribe camped in 1882. They camped for several days after the two-day search while curing the meat.
The Devil’s Heart is the highest point in the Devil’s Lake area in Benson County. It is on the Fort Totten Indian Reservation and was a traditional meeting place for the Sioux for many years.
The Double Ditch Indian Village site is about 13 miles north of Bismarck. There are still marks from several excavations in the area that are still visible, along with depressions made by the Indians.
A Mandan Indian village site was at Looking Village, near Bismarck. It has been partially excavated and should yield some good artifacts.
The Menoken Indian Village site, which is near the town of Menoken, is thought to be where Pierre de la Verendrye met the Mandan Indians in 1738. He was the first white person to visit the area. A lead plate carrying Verendrye’s name was believed to be given to the Indians and buried here.
Hawksnest, about 18 miles from Carrington, was a popular camping place for Sioux Indians while traveling between Fort Totten and Fort Yates.
Near Wilton, in McLean County, the ruins of the Half Moon Mandan Indian Village site can be found. Ditches and sunken areas can still be seen, although the area is being farmed.
Near where the waterworks are in Washburn is the site of a Sioux-Arikara battle that was fought in 1869, and artifacts have been found in the area.
There are several Indian village sites near the Knife and Missouri Rivers; some of them are Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara. Sioux hostilities finally caused the Indians to move elsewhere.
The scattered village, an early Hidatsa Indian village, was located about three miles west of Stanton in Mercer County. The village was located on the southern bank of the Missouri River.
Medicine Hill is about 19 miles southwest of Beaulah. Indians camped here when collecting materials to make knives and arrow points.
The Big White’s Mandan Indian Village, visited by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804–1805, is located near Stanton in Mercer County.
An ancient Mandan Indian village called Crying Hill Village was located on the bluffs along the Missouri River northeast of Mandan.
Eagle’s Nose Village was about 18 miles southeast of Mandan. It was a Mandan Indian village. The village is located on the top of a mesa and is hard to find, so the chances of relics being found seem very likely. Another village nearby is the Mandan village of Huff, where the lodge circles are still visible.
Butte de Morale, a landmark used for many years, rises 300 feet above the surrounding prairie. Indian buffalo hunting parties camped here for many years. It was also the camping site of a party of 1,390 white people with over 800 wagons and 1200 animals. They made this their headquarters while slaughtering over 2,000 buffalo in one day.
Medicine Lodge Springs, located in Williams County, was a camping place for Indians who used the spring’s water for medicinal purposes. Nearby is Medicine Lodge Hill, which was a favorite Indian camping place. They often built signal fires on the top of the hill.
Gold nuggets and free gold can be found in the Little Missouri River in McKenzie County. For those interested in searching for agate and petrified wood, the area around Hettinger is an excellent place to look.
The following site could be worth a treasure hunter’s time to visit: The information was taken from the book “Pioneers and Progress” by Merton Watterud and sent to me by the County Court Clerk of Burke County, North Dakota. I quote:
“An anecdote of Big Butte, located seven miles south of Lignite in Burke County, lore concerns a ranch at the foot of the Butte not far from the spring in the early days of the white settlement. The rancher was quite prosperous for some time, running 300 head of horses, but rustlers stole all his stock and forced him to leave.
The house was still standing in 1927, although in a rather dilapidated condition. Legend has it that wandering bands of evangelists used it as headquarters for their missionary campaigns. At any rate, the walls were covered with Scripture quotations, some painted on with all colors of paint, and others, much faded, half obliterated, printed with charcoal.
Some are crude in lettering and spelling, while others are beautifully done. The broken windows and rotting floor, topped by the colorful walls, gave somewhat the effect of a ruined cathedral, the last time I saw it July 4, 1927.”
Since different missionaries used the ranch for approximately 40 years, this would be a good place to search for relics.
There are two stories of the loss of a large amount of gold, many lives of white men, and a boat on the Missouri River in North Dakota during the 1860s. Number one occurred in 1863 when a party of twenty-one gold miners, one woman, a little girl, and a baby, were ambushed by Indians about half a mile north of the present Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge near the mouth of Burnt Creek between Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota.
I did a full-length write-up on this site in Lost Treasure magazine in July 1980.
The second story occurred in 1864 when sixteen miners, returning from the Montana and Idaho gold fields, were ambushed and killed a short distance above the mouth of the Knife River, which empties into the Missouri River. The State Historical Society of North Dakota sent me the following true account of what happened. It was put together from letters and notes written by H. H. Larned in the 1860s and kept by the Society.
I quote what I received in its entirety:
“In his capacity as manager of the trading post at Fort Berthold, Larned came in contact with many different types of men. Some of these had known the west long before Larned’s connection with the fort, and from them, he heard many stories of the vicissitudes of life on the frontier. One such story was recounted to him by an old trader at Fort Berthold named Jefferson Smith.”
“Smith was a man of rugged character whose life in the west went back to Jim Bridger’s time. He was one of the rough, venturesome men that the west of that day produced, and, while a hard drinker, he was otherwise considered a man of good standing.”
“The event-related by him took place sometime before Larned arrived at Fort Berthold, in the fall of 1864, though no one there could recall ever having heard a definite date for the occurrence.”
“Smith told Larned about a boat of miners, 14 in number according to the Indians, 16 by Smith’s account, who stopped at Fort Berthold on their way down the river from the Idaho and Montana mines. They remained there for two nights and one day. The people at the fort warned them that the river’s west bank was very unsafe because of numerous bands of hostile Dakotas hunting there.”
“They started from the fort in the morning, journeyed all day, and as evening approached, they steered toward a big timbered bottom on the west side of the river, which seemed to offer a shelter where the evening meal might be prepared, and camp could be made. As soon as the boat touched the bank, one man sprang out and, with a rope, made the boat fast to a snag.”
“Then all the other men rose to go ashore when a volley from some Indians hidden in ambush at the top of a cut bank a few yards, or perhaps a few feet away, killed every one of them. The Indians, when they saw their fire had taken effect, sprang out of their place of concealment and ran down to the shore.”
“They rifled the dead bodies and the boat of everything they could use, scalped their victims, and left the bodies lying on the sand. (From a letter received from Mike Foley of Moorhead, Minnesota, who had relations with the massacred men, it appears that only 13 of the miners were killed and that one, a Frenchman, managed in some way to escape.”
“Later, this Frenchman returned with two companions and found the sunken boat. The Indians set upon them, and the Frenchman was killed while the other two escaped. The two who had escaped were father and son, and after the former died, the son returned to search for the boat. However, he had forgotten its location and was unable to find it.”
“The bullets, fired at such short range, pierced the heavy planking of the boat so that it gradually filled with water and sank. One end was submerged in the shallows near the shore, and the other, tied to the bank, remained above water.”
“The news of the massacre later reached Fort Berthold, and one of the traders at the fort, taking a Cree Indian with him, went down to the place of the ambuscade. Arriving there, he sent the Indian off into the woods on the pretext that he wanted him to bring in some fresh meat. When he knew himself to be alone, the trader began his search for the gold, which, during their stay at Fort Berthold, the miners had told him was in their possession.”
“Concealed in a compartment built in the bottom of the boat, he found a large quantity of gold dust and nuggets. The treasure amount was unknown, but it was reported to be from $75,000 to $200,000. At any rate, it was more than he could carry back to the fort, so he brought it ashore and cached it.”
“When the Indian returned from his hunt, the treasure had been safely hidden. The Indian later reported that he had noticed nothing unusual upon his return except that the boat, half in and half out of the shallow water, appeared to be somewhat torn up. He and the trader returned to the fort on foot.”
“From that time, the trader, who had always been a poor man, was observed to have plenty of gold. Everyone at the fort believed he had secured the gold from the ill-fated boat. (Even if this is true, the trader could not have spent all the gold because records show he was killed by Indians a short time later.).”
“The scene of the ambush has been located at several different points, but the Indians who took part in the massacre say that Black Moon’s and Fire Heart’s bands were camped at the time in the edge of the timber on the north bank of the Knife River, not far from the bank of Missouri. An Indian hunter from the camp saw the boat coming down the stream and heading toward the west shore.”
“Eagerly, he ran to the camp with the news. At once, about twenty warriors seized their weapons and hastened to the river bank. They found excellent cover in the willows lined the bank, and the whole tragedy was enacted as above related in a few moments.”
“Still further evidence of the disaster than that given in the story of Jefferson Smith was furnished Larned while at Fort Berthold. Sometime in March 1865, Fire Heart and some forty lodges of hostile Dakotas camped about four miles from the fort.”
“As was their custom, they came to Fort Rice to trade. After they disposed of their robes and furs, one warrior lingered until he and Larned were alone. Then he drew near the counter and, producing a little buckskin bag of gold dust, asked Larned if he would buy it. Larned had recently entered upon his duties as a trader in the story and felt that his authority did not warrant his decision upon such unusual a request, so he referred the matter to Major Galpin.”
“Major Galpin came in and examined the little bag and its contents. His close questioning of the Indian revealed that the latter had no idea of the value of his possession. Then the Major reached into a little box and took out a large sewing thimble. He filled it with rounding full of gold and told the Indian that this was one robe’s value. The Indians delightedly made the trade. Larned’s recollection of the transaction is that the major got five thimblefuls out of that bag, paying the Indian at the rate of one robe for each measure of gold.”
“The Indian then went out, and within an hour, two Indians from the same camp came in. They had with them three little buckskins bags of gold. The major purchased the contents of these at the same rate of exchange. Larned trusted the Indians with nuggets weighing at least one ounce each, and the dust was worth twenty dollars an ounce.”
“Major Galpin’s curiosity was aroused about the source of the gold, and he sent Fool Boy, the company’s messenger and hunter at that time, to find out for him. The messenger went to the Fire Heart’s camp, but the camp had gone. He followed it and, in about three days, returned with the news that the Indians said they had gotten the bags of gold in a fight with some white men just about the mouth of the Knife River a few moons before.”
“In September 1887, Fire Heart and about twenty lodges of his band came to Ft. Berthold to trade. Fire Heart related that about one hundred lodges of the Dakotas were in the camp on the Knife River. He said he did not take part in killing the miners, but he knew about it and received some of the plunder.”
This treasure site could certainly pay an interested person to investigate.