Ahhhh… the treasure hunt; one of the most popular plots in literature and everyone’s favorite childhood party game. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a good quest, but most of us give up our search for buried treasure and let the memories of beat up old maps with enigmatic instructions and giant red X marks fade into a mere fantasy. The legends of pirates’ chests and gold doubloons become the stuff of story tales… but that doesn’t mean hidden treasures don’t actually exist; in fact, there are more than a few stories of long lost stashes right here in Iowa! Here are a few of our favorites:
1. Kelly‘s Bluff
While some treasure troves are truly tall tales, Tom Kelly's buried treasure is not a mere myth; several small pockets of gold and silver coins have been uncovered in the bluffs above Dubuque. Kelly gained his wealth as a miner during the 1800s, but buried his riches out of fear of robbery.
Some people estimate there is as much as $100,000 worth of gold and silver coins scattered across the hills above Dubuque. Kelly must have hid it well... or forgot where he put it, as he clearly didn't dig it up during his lifetime.
2. Fort Atkinson's Lost Payroll
Fort Atkinson State Preserve is a lovely place to visit for a step back in time, but this historic fort near Decorah may also mark the spot of a nearby treasure. As the story goes, an Army paymaster buried roughly $7,000 of gold during an attack from a Native American tribe; however, he was killed in battle and the location of the stash died with him.
3. Red Brussels' Cache
Red Brussels didn't flaunt his wealth, but he probably didn't earn it in a respectable manner. Although he lived in a log cabin on one of Trumbull Lake's small islands, a group of townspeople were able to track several stolen horses back to his home and performed a bit of "vigilante justice" by hanging him nearby. Unfortunately (for those robbed), Brussels' hid his pilfered possessions well and very little was uncovered at the time. Many believe he stashed his cash and valuables in the area around his home, where it may remain to this day.
4. Chief Black Hawk's Buried Treasure
Sauk leader Black Hawk is best known for his participation in the Black Hawk War of 1832 in what is now Illinois; however, it is believed that before his death in 1838, Black Hawk buried as much as $50,000 worth of coins in the hills of Lee County near the small town of Denmark.
5. Miners Creek Payroll
The Army paymaster's stash at Fort Atkinson isn't the only tale of a soldier hiding his wealth for safekeeping; a second, larger payroll trove was reportedly hidden along the banks of Miners Creek near Guttenberg. There's no knowing how much may be out there, but we fear this one may have been washed away by the river! We hope the soldier hid it far enough from the water!
6. Thomas Nelson's Gold
Thomas Nelson was a wealthy soldier who came to work at Wheeler Ranch in Cerro Gordo County in 1884. It wasn't long before rumors of his stockpile spread and Nelson feared his neighbors might attempt a robbery. The details of this story get a bit more specific, which may lend some credibility to their origin; Nelson reportedly dug a 3-foot deep hole and buried his gold along Winnebago River near Horseshoe Bend. Unfortunately (for him), he forgot where, exactly, he put it and was never able to recover his wealth.
7. A Merchant's Gold at the Nishnabotna River
When it comes to treasure trails, we definitely prefer stories that have specific names attached to them, but that doesn't mean the vague tales aren't true; perhaps the owners of the loot simply hid it better than others! The stash of $75,000 of gold allegedly buried on the Nishnabotna River belonged to a wealthy merchant and is said to exist just about a mile north of Shenandoah.
8. The Lumberman's Stash
Here's one treasure that just may never turn up, both because it included less-than-durable stocks and bonds, and also because it's said to be located along the Mississippi River in what is now Riverfront Park in Clinton. A rich lumberman stuffed his wealth into a heavy iron cooking pot, so if the river didn't destroyed the precious paperwork, we imagine it would have been uncovered during park construction. The stash did include a nice little pile of gold coins that may remain scattered throughout the area, so keep an eye out for shiny objects while you walk along the river!
9. Bonnie and Clyde's Booty
Wikimedia / United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs, Public Domain
We couldn't possibly leave this dynamic, dastardly duo off of this list! Bonnie and Clyde had a hideout in Dallas County during the 1930s, where they are presumed to have buried a hefty portion of their stolen goods. Their camp is believed to have been a few miles north of Dexter, in the forest overlooking the Raccoon River, but this gives an awfully vague (and large!) area to search!
Bonnie and Clyde likely weren't the only ones to use this area as a safe haven; other reports suggest that the infamous Burrow Gang also buried $65,000 of loot in Hanging Rock Park near Redfield.
Are you ready to bust out your shovels and get to digging? Sure, it probably isn’t a reliable source of income (unless you are an actual pirate), but it’s still fun to know that there is still buried treasure out there just waiting to be discovered!