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August 2: McKenzie County Mystery

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Today is another story in the life of a young Lutheran preacher called to McKenzie County from St. Louis a century ago, but a murky one shrouded in mystery – complete with a cave, skeletons and Buffalo Bill Cody!

The young Reverend Richard C. Jahn was a member of a hunting party that went out with Cody in early August of 1916. Cody allegedly was in McKenzie County “to visit some old cronies.” Others in the group included the local sheriff, doctor, postmaster and newspaper editor. One wonders how so many important people could slip away from town for a hunting trip at the same time!

According to Jahn, the group eventually stumbled upon a cave, about 12 feet by 20 feet in size, near what is now called Homesteaders Gap. Inside they found a crucifix embedded in a crude altar made of clay and stone. The base of the crucifix was engraved with Latin that possibly translated to “He has made me bold.” Parts of three human skeletons also were inside the cave. The broken point of a stone lance head was inside a ribcage of one of the skeletons. The group also found the rusted barrel of a flintlock musket inside the cave. The doctor identified two of the skeletons as those of a white man and a Native man, respectively; the third was unidentified. The group dug a grave outside the cave and buried the remains. Jahn gave a Christian burial.

In 1962, Jahn donated the crucifix and lancehead to a Benedictine monastery in Subiaco, Arkansas. He believed the suspected white man’s skeleton to be that of a martyred priest. A priest at Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota, heard of Jahn’s tale, and led a party of 20 boys to find the site of the cave. They found the likely place, but its stone roof had cracked and fallen in.

It’s unclear how much of the story is true. Jahn kept daily journals during the ten months he lived in McKenzie County, but his writings for August of 1916 do not mention this tale. It’s also unlikely Buffalo Bill Cody was there. One old-timer told the McKenzie County Farmer newspaper: “If the old boy would have been here, I would have known – as he was one man that I would have given a lot just to shake his hand.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • The Tablet. 1962, March 17. Page 9: Lutheran pastor presents evidence of martyrdom to abbey
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1963, January 7. Page 13: Badlands’ ‘mystery martyr’ baffles M’Kenzie oldtimers
  • Helena World. 1963, January 11. Page 1: Mystery martyr of bad lands rediscovered
  • McKenzie County Farmer. 2016, December 21. Page 7: Mystery persists of Squaw Gap skeletons 
  • McKenzie County Farmer. Circa 1963 (no date). Badlands mystery martyr still baffling historians.
  • Letter from the Rev. Richard C. Jahn. 1962, January 5. Little Rock, AR.
  • Letter from the Rev. Richard C. Jahn to Dan L. Thrapp. 1962, April 23. 

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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