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The Wildcat Hills are a scenic area of buttes and canyons forested with pine and cedar located in the Panhandle region of Nebraska between the North Platte River and Pumpkin Creek. In the 1830-60’s, early emigrants passed through the northern region of the Wildcat Hills en route to the Pacific Northwest on the now famous Oregon Trail. Unique sandstone formations rise up hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape. Many prominent landmarks such as Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Mitchell Pass were reference points for travelers as they progressed westward.
The General Land Office surveys in this area commenced in the early 1870’s after several hundred thousand people had already passed through. One particular township, T20N-R56W, located approximately 10 miles south of the present-day city of Gering, had its exterior lines run by the crew of Ira W. LaMunyan in October of 1872. Lamunyan typically worked joint contracts with another deputy surveyor named George W. Fairfield. Together, the two crews had a large force of men working in the Wildcat Hills. There is evidence that at certain times a military escort accompanied them for protection from the Indians. Fairfield is credited as the surveyor who subdivided T20N-R56W in the late summer of 1873.
On August 19, 1873, while surveying east on a random line at 6.00 chains across the north line of Section 25, Fairfield’s crew reached the western edge of a canyon which offered a magnificent view of the country for many miles to the east. Just ahead, near a small spring fed creek, stood a cedar tree so large that it defied their imagination. At 33.00 chains, the crew tied in the tree and found it to be 2 chains south of their line. Fairfield stated in his notes that it was the largest cedar tree he had ever seen. The crew measured its circumference to be 33 links (21.78′) and scribed upon it Sec. 25, Twp 20, Range 56. The crew continued east and intersected LaMunyan’s east range line at 80.70 chains. Returning west on true line, a limestone was placed at the proportional distance of 40.35 chains for the N ¼ Corner of Section 25.
One year later in 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills region of southwestern Dakota Territory. The gold was rumored to be so abundant that thousands of fortune seekers raced to the area that belonged to the great Sioux Indian Nation. The Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876 gave rise to the immediate establishment of mining camps and frontier towns like Custer and Deadwood. As the gold was extracted, it had to be routinely shipped to the Union Pacific Railroad in Nebraska. Stage coaches along the Cheyenne & Black Hills Stage Line were the only means available to ship the gold. This line had two routes from Deadwood. One went southwest to the Union Pacific Railroad at Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the other south to Sidney, Nebraska. Special armored coaches known as "treasure coaches" were lined with steel plates and had strong boxes bolted to the stage. They sometimes carried up to a quarter of a million dollars in gold bars, nuggets, and dust in iron. Naturally, these coaches became prime targets for outlaws on the three day journey to the railroad.
One of the more notorious treasure coach robberies occurred on September 28, 1878, when five bandits held up the coach and escaped with $27,000 in gold. Most of the gold was eventually recovered, but a legend said that at least two bars were still out there. A typical gold bar measured 10" long, 6" wide, and 5" thick. Other smaller robberies occurred, but by 1886 the railroads reached the Black Hills and the days of the treasure coach ended.
By 1883, most of the GLO surveys were completed in Nebraska. With the stage line still in operation at this time, the location of the route and various stage stops were recorded on the plats. The surveyors who travelled west to work on the crews generally returned east to their homes. Solomon Pitcher, a compassman on Fairfield’s crew, decided to stay in western Nebraska. He eventually settled near Rushville where he became the Sheridan County surveyor.
Sometime later, Pitcher received an unexpected letter from a Denver man who claimed to have knowledge of a large quantity of gold taken during a stage robbery and buried a certain distance and direction from a very large marked cedar tree. The Denver man wanted to meet Pitcher in Gering and use Pitcher’s knowledge of surveying to locate the large tree. In exchange, he proposed cutting Pitcher in on the deal. Records do not indicate whether Pitcher was part of Fairfield’s crew in 1873 when the large cedar tree was discovered. All of the crew’s names were not listed in the notes. Pitcher might have learned about the tree from those he worked with while employed by Fairfield. Regardless, Pitcher immediately recalled the cedar tree, but incorrectly recollected it marking an actual section corner since it had been scribed upon.
The distance to Gering from Rushville was over 100 miles. Pitcher travelled to Gering by wagon where he tarried several days for the Denver man to arrive. Although the man never showed, Pitcher decided to find the tree himself. With the tree stated in the GLO notes and it marked on the township plat, the location was identified. After proceeding to the location, Pitcher found the tree already cut down, probably used for fence posts. Pitcher returned home to Rushville where another letter from the man in Denver had arrived in his absence. The letter stated that he had been ill and unable to travel, but wanted to meet on a different date. Considering himself played for a fool after having invested a considerable amount of time and expense, Pitcher did not continue the "wild goose chase". Pitcher later moved to California where he died in 1920.
In 1921, western historian and State Commissioner of Public Lands, Grant L. Shumway, authored a three volume set titled History of Western Nebraska and Its People. Shumway was a friend of Nebraska State Surveyor Robert Harvey and frequently recorded historical tales from the surveyor. Volume II retold the story of a 7-foot diameter cedar tree in the Wildcat Hills that marked the location of a large quantity of gold and how Solomon Pitcher had been contacted to assist in finding it. The story, however, is contradictory stating both that the stump had never been located and that Pitcher had found the stump. The story recounted that a man named Carr with the help of others had removed many cubic yards of earth attempting to find the gold. Perhaps this was the famed Sheriff Jeff Carr from Cheyenne. The flurry of activity around the location of the famed tree was enough to build the story into a legend. Gold fever struck the minds of many men who all endeavored to be the one to recover the gold.
When I first read about the gold near the legendary cedar tree, I gave it little credence. A cedar tree over 7 feet in diameter would truly be an amazing record. The current record for an Eastern red cedar in Nebraska is 2.9 feet in diameter. A state arborist could not rule out the possible existence of a cedar 7 feet in diameter, but stated it would have had to have been over 500 years old. Most of the early trees in western Nebraska were kept in check by annual prairie fires. I initially decided the story of the tree and the hidden gold was a tall tale.
In early 2016, I decided to research section corners in the Wildcat Hills marked by the GLO surveyors as coinciding with trees. A township corner at the southeast corner of township T20N-R56W was a 10" pine. Another tree of an unstated size marked the corner for the southwest corner of Section 25 in the same township. I then noticed near the N ¼ Corner of Section 25 the words "Large Cedar" on the plat. Upon examining the notes, I was struck by the words detailing its massive size and that the tree had been scribed with its location referenced from the N ¼ Corner. Facts were now lining up with the legend.
I contacted Carl Gilbert who is the county surveyor of Banner County in the Wildcat Hills. He, in turn, contacted the landowner, 71-year-old Rick Henderson, to obtain permission to search for original section corners on his property. Although I had disclosed the story about the gold and that the noted tree was assuredly at the right location, I waited to see what the landowner would reveal when we all met in person. Almost immediately, Henderson recalled the stories passed down to him by his father and grandfather. The land had been in the Henderson family since 1906, so the legend was well known to the family. Details, as to whether anyone in the family had actually seen the tree while it was still standing were sketchy.
During the 1950s, the legend of the buried gold resurfaced. Henderson remembered numerous people coming to the property for permission to search. One was a psychic, absolutely sure of the location, but upon digging found nothing. One man had legal papers drawn up for the family to sign to assure him of part of the bounty if found. Another was a dowser who unsuccessfully attempted to find the location with wires. Others brought Geiger counters and metal detectors and canvassed the area. Craters left on the property are still visible, but have long since grassed over.
According to local tradition, three robbers buried the gold near the famed tree and before leaving made a map showing how to recover it. The map was supposedly constructed in such a way that when cut in thirds each piece had to be joined together to reveal the location. This assured that each man would have to be present in order to find the gold at a later date. Each went his separate way until enough time passed and law enforcement would no longer search for them. The legend further states that one robber was shot and killed; the second was captured and sent to prison, and the third evaded capture. Some believe this was the man from Denver who contacted Solomon Pitcher years later. Henderson recalled different stories being passed around and that at least one portion of the map had been recovered. Distinguishing fact from fiction is impossible since the story had been retold with so many different versions.
I met with Carl Gilbert, his coworker Alec McNabb, and Rick Henderson at the site on March 18, 2016. A light dusting of snow had fallen during the night, but melted by noon. Henderson took us to a location of the tree which matched the general location I had predetermined based upon the GLO notes. Depressions were still visible where others already searched. A large rolled up coil of woven wire sat in the center of one hole. Many cedar trees were in the area, but most were 12"-18" in diameter, far smaller than the 84" legendary tree. Closer to the creek one large cedar measured just over 27". Gilbert and McNabb began searching for the section corners along the north line of Section 25. I brought along two metal detectors capable of detecting non-ferrous metals. Henderson and I randomly searched the area where others had dug. We walked a grid of the entire area, one following behind and to the side of the other. Back and forth across the prairie, we methodically and slowly walked while listening intently. Although I had not logically expected to find anything, I equally anticipated that we might be the ones to solve the mystery.
Collectively, we decided to find Fairfield’s N ¼ Corner of Section 25 to calculate the bearing and distance to where the tree once stood. A limestone was recovered which closely matched the size from the notes. Upon close examination, removing the soil embedded in the sides, an unmistakable numeral "4" appeared deeply cut into one side with a chipped out area above it which was once the "1" of the 1/4. We determined the tree’s location as stated in the notes S85°50’W a distance of 7 chains 70 links (508.2′). There was nothing there or anywhere near this location, perhaps 100 feet south of where others dug long ago. There was not a stump or a hole where a tree should have been. The stump of a tree this size should have left a noticeable depression if it had rotted. Since cedars are mostly decay resistant, it seemed odd that there was no visible sign of its prior existence. Had someone removed the stump and filled in the hole more than a century ago? Were the holes dug in the other area the result of a distance found on a map?
Unfortunately, the legend of the buried gold near the massive cedar tree remains unsolved. Was this a hoax retold so many times it took on the form of truth? Did someone find the gold long ago and not reveal their discovery? Despite many exhaustive hours of searching to prove to myself that nothing was there, the legend remains alive.
The day, however, was not a loss. We uncovered three original 1873 GLO stones and the landowner was grateful. We shared experiences together as surveyors in one of the most scenic portions of the state and left feeling richer than before we arrived.
Jerry Penry is a licensed land surveyor in Nebraska and South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
A 5.411Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE