MINNESOTA LOST TREASURES & HISTORY

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Explore Minnesota Treasure Stories

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Buried Gold Eludes Three Generations

Lost Treasure Tales of Minnesota

The Bandits of Northfield  (The Pursuit Continues)  There is a well-circulated treasure legend regarding fleeing bandits who buried treasure in the woods near Wadena and then were killed or captured in a gunfight, but as there is little evidence of bandits being caught near that location, the name of the city may have been confused with a similar-sounding city, Madelia, where several of the fleeing James-Younger gang members were killed or captured at the edge of the woods, and near where a local boy had observed one of their hide-outs, after weeks of pursuit across numerous counties and over 400 miles following the bank robbery in Northfield.

The gang had formed as a paramilitary Confederate bushwhacking band in 1866 after the Civil War in retaliation, claiming it was for self-defense and revenge after seeing Kansas and Missouri citizens tortured, property destroyed, and the wealthy of the North become richer at the expense of the South.

From "Murder in Minnesota:  A Collection of True Cases," the Northfield raid on the First National Bank occurred on September 7, 1876.  During the botched robbery that did not yield as much loot as expected, two of the gang members died, including Bill Chadwell who knew the layout of the Minnesota land, and two bank employees.  It was the first time in all of their heists that the residents had fired back.

The gang had proven they were capable of traveling a long way and outmaneuvering their pursuers, as they did just two months prior when the gang robbed the Missouri Pacific Railroad, acquiring between $14,000 and $18,000, and heading north to Minnesota.  This next great chase would be their last together, having them running for weeks throughout most of south central Minnesota, injured, and in torrential rain the majority of the time, although the rain helped hide their tracks.

As rewards increased for their capture, more joined in the manhunt.  The group rode southwest through a string of small Minnesota towns.  The gang fled until they first reached the Cannon River, near the town of Dundas. There, they bandaged their wounds as best they could, stole a horse from a Philip Empey, and tried to come up with some kind of plan. One of the gang members, Charlie Pitts, had previously studied medicine, so his medical knowledge may have helped the gang to some degree.  From the Cannon River they headed to Cordova Road and then towards Tetonka Lake, avoiding several posse groups they spotted along the way.

They were later seen in Rice County at Millersburg where an uninformed local, Robert Donaldson, helped bandage up Bob Younger's badly injured elbow, and then Shieldsville where they exchanged shots with hunters.  Reportedly in LeSueur County a farmer gave them a ride. They passed through Janesville, Morristown, Kilkenny, and Elysian, where they camped on an island in Lake Elysian and were surrounded by morning but managed to escape.  The gang members were said to have vanished into the woods near Waterville, 33 miles southwest of Northfield, following a gunfight where the leader cried "Too hot for us!  Must make for the woods!", and according to the Pioneer Press, some of their abandoned horses and saddles were found in the woods nearby in Cleveland, Minnesota.   They apparently were having difficulty traversing the unfamiliar countryside on horseback with its wild, swampy, and heavily timbered terrain, and decided they could hide out better on foot.  

The Sheriff of Faribault County reported seeing five men near Indian Lake, five miles from Mankato, who fit the description of the robbers, they spent a day or two in an abandoned farmhouse in Mankato dressing their wounds and resting, and a farmhand out looking for cows nearby, Jeff Dunning, stumbled on the gang hiding in the woods in the days that followed. The outlaws debated whether to kill him, finally deciding to let him go after the man promised not to tell. But he told anyway, and hundreds of re-invigorated searchers took to the roads.  

On September 14, 1876, one week after the raid, they were pursued again in Mankato by gunslingers, "Jesse James braced, expecting a missile any moment. Bent low, he frantically scanned the street ahead of him for an exit. Spotting what appeared to be an intersecting alley a few yards ahead, he tugged at Frank's arm to follow.  Gunfire...rained down on the outlaws," reads Time-Life's The Wild West, "nearly wiping out...Jim, Cole and Bob Younger. A bullet carried away half of Jim's upper jaw, Cole was struck in the shoulder, and Bob's horse, a handsome bay, was cut down. Bob sought the shelter of some crates, but was hit in the thigh and wrist before he was able to cover himself. Brother Cole double-backed, picked up his brother and, riding double, they pitched toward the same alley they had seen the James boys take. Jim Younger, bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth, followed. Coming up the rear, barely hanging onto his own horse, barely conscious, was Charlie Pitts."

The gang slipped through Mankato at midnight. Morning found them about four miles west of Mankato briefly making camp out of exhaustion in a heavily wooded area in what is now Minneopa State Park.  Minnesota did not provide the sympathizers they had in the South who would typically shelter and care for them.  The gang split up, with the injured Youngers and Charlie heading south to find a place to treat their worsening injuries, while the less injured James brothers continued to head west towards South Dakota intending to serve as a distraction and lead the pursuing posse away from the Youngers.  They broke through the cordoned off area, outran all posses, and vanished. The James brothers were reported to have stayed at a farm about 2 miles northwest of Pipestone where Jesse had buried $50,000 in gold coins from an earlier train robbery in Otterville, Missouri which to this day has not been recovered.

One week after the gang split, the Youngers and Charlie reached the town of Madelia. They put up camp that night about seven miles outside of town. Surrounding Madelia were thick woods, several swamps, and many lakes. In the early hours of the next morning, the four robbers were following a road along Lake Linden when they encountered a seventeen-year-old boy named Asle Oscar Sorbel (son of Ole and Guri Sorbel, who later moved to Webster, South Dakota, and married Tomina Westgaard) milking cows on his family’s farm. The outlaws and young Sorbel casually exchanged greetings and the robbers were on their way. After Sorbel lost sight of the outlaws, he told his father that he suspected they might be the infamous Northfield robbers. His father merely told him to get back to work milking the cows and to stop being so imaginative. 

An hour or so later, Charlie and Jim Younger returned to the Sorbel farm and asked Asle if they could buy some bread off of him. Sorbel obliged and the two robbers gave him some money for the loaves of bread they were given. After Charlie and Jim wandered off again into the thick woods surrounding the farm, Asle showed his father the footprints the outlaws had left in the mud. He pointed out that the soles of the boots the men were wearing were worn through and that some of their toes could clearly be seen in the mud, as if they had been walking on foot in the mud for a long time. This convinced Asle’s father that the men were possibly the Northfield robbers. He told Asle to get on his horse, ride to Madelia (seven miles away), and tell the sheriff what he saw. Asle did exactly this.

As Thomas Vought who owned a hotel in Madelia 20 miles southwest of Mankato in Watonwan County and the local sheriff, James Glispin, were standing on the hotel's veranda, Asle galloped into town and told them that he was sure he had seen the Younger brothers, and led them with a posse to the area near the gang's hide-out. A posse spotted the gang about an hour away from the farm as it made its way through the swamps, trees, and high grass of the Watonwan River bottoms. At times the posse got close enough to fire. One shot snapped Cole Younger's walking stick. But every time the posse closed in, the outlaws escaped by wading through swamps impassable to horses. The end of the chase came just south of the town of La Salle, where the posse cornered the gang.  A lively gunfight was fought in the vicinity south of Hanska Slough where the men hunkered down on the Watonwan River with plum bushes for cover.  Several men were injured, surrendered, and were captured, one was killed, and at least two men escaped into the woods.  Two of the three survivors captured admitted to being Cole and Bob Younger, and were taken to jail.  Those who surrendered were battered with numerous wounds, but the James brothers were not among them.  They had escaped.

While the Younger brothers were imprisoned, to their surprise, instead of people calling for their lynching as the bandits expected, the people were virtually worshipping them like "Robin Hood," visiting them, and sending gifts and kind letters.  Cole Younger gave speeches about how the deaths at the bank were an accident - that it wasn't their policy to murder -  and that they robbed to take back the money that the state had taken from them.  Members of the gang were said to be clean cut and handsome by witnesses.

One comment made in the Minnesota Standard newspaper in 1881 said that "The James brothers and the Cole Younger gang, who plundered banks and stole large sums from the rich are respectable compared to the gangs of wheat thieves who cowardly transfer the summer earnings of poor, hard-working farmers from their scanty pockets into their own well-filled purses."

Cole Younger refused to implicate the James brothers (as did the others), started the prison's first newspaper, after many requests received a full pardon in 1902, went into the shoe business and then real estate, became a Christian, and traveled part-time preaching on lecture circuits.  His brother Jim was also pardoned in 1901, but supposedly committed suicide in 1902 due to the conditions of his release imposed on him including not being able to leave the state or marry his sweetheart, and Bob Younger died in prison in 1889 of consumption due to persisting medical problems after the lung wound inflicted when he attempted to surrender and the bleak conditions at the Stillwater prison.  The whereabouts of Jesse and Frank James for the next few years remained unknown.

If any of the money the Youngers or Charlie kept was hidden, it would likely be in the Hanska Slough or Watonwan River area west of Madelia and just south of La Salle where they surrendered.  They would not want to have it on them when captured, and might have thought they would get the chance to come back for it later. 

(Topographical Map of the Area)

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