Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Lost Treasure At The Mouth Of Heart River, 1863


The year was 1863 and the Civil War raged, far away in the East. The Sibley and Sully military expeditions had driven Dakota tribespeople westward out of Minnesota in a number of battles following the 1862 Indian uprising. And in Dakota Territory there was a day when the Missouri River, near present-day Bismarck, ran red with blood.

On this date, in 1863, the New York Times reported that “a party of thirty miners” traveling down the Missouri River was “supposed to have been killed by the Indians.” More information came from the St. Paul Daily Press: these miners, returning home from Idaho gold fields, were all murdered by Dakota warriors.

The miners’ demise was wrapped in mystery, but the details became known months later when Native Americans told another group of returning miners what had happened.

The ill-fated party, consisted of eighteen men, one woman, and three children in a large, flat-bottomed mackinaw boat. Anticipating trouble, they were well armed with rifles and a small cannon. Each miner carried a pouch filled with gold dust, and the boat allegedly had a false-bottom that concealed more gold. They stopped at Fort Berthold, where fur-trader Fred Gerard sold them supplies and advised them not to go further into danger. One miner did elect to stay at Fort Berthold. The others knew the potential hazards, but continued on.

On August 10, 1863, at the mouth of the Heart River, a group of Yanktonai Dakota came along the Missouri riverbank, beckoning the miners to come ashore, but the miners “responded by firing the cannon three times.” The warriors vigorously returned fire.

Unfortunate for the miners, the firing of the cannon caused the boat to spring a leak. It sank, running aground in shallow water. Sensing an opening, the Dakota attacked. Nearly 200 Dakota launched an onslaught upon the miners who fought desperately to save their lives and the gold, killing 36 warriors. However, with limited ammunition, the miners were overpowered and killed. The Yanktonai reportedly used the gold from the pouches to buy ammunition.

Fort Berthold’s Fred Gerard, hearing of the disaster, sent several of his Arikara friends to the site to scrape up spilt gold. But the gold nuggets hidden in the sunken boat’s false-bottom supposedly remained.

Many people later hunted for this legendary Heart River gold, searching riverbanks several miles south of Bismarck. This raises the question: “Is the fabled Heart River gold still there?”

Dakota Datebook written by Drew Lingle, Bismarck, ND, and edited by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “Indian Troubles,” New York Times, September 13, 1863, p. 5.

“The Desperate Encounter on the Missouri,” St. Paul Daily Press, September 8, 1863, p. 1.

“From The Upper Missouri; The Massacred Mining Party,” St. Paul Daily Press, December 17, 1863, p. 1.

“Department of the Northwest,” Philadelphia Enquirer, December 29, 1863, p. 2.

“From Minnesota,” Daily Milwaukee News, September 11, 1863, p. 4.

“From St. Paul,” Cincinnati Enquirer, December 23, 1863, p. 3.

“Story of the Hidden Treasure,” Bismarck Tribune, May 3, 1906, p. 2.

“After Buried Gold,” Bismarck Tribune, March 22, 1909, p. 2.

“The Burnt Creek Massacre,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, November 3, 1899, p. 5.

George W. Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915), p. 308-311.

Joseph Henry Taylor, Sketches of Frontier and Indian Life on the Upper Missouri and Great Plains (Bismarck: J.H. Taylor, 1897), p. 13-14, 22.

“Armed Conflict: Heart River Battle Introduction,” State Historical Society of N.D., "" , accessed on August 22, 2017.

“Fred Gerard & The Fur Trade: Biography Fred Gerard,” State Historical Society of N.D., "" , accessed on August 22, 2017.