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The Lost Treasure of Burnt Ranch
Jul 1, 2014
We encounter plenty of lost treasure stories in our travels around South Dakota. An old trapper and trader named Cuthbert Ducharme is said to have given his wife $50,000 in gold coins, which she buried somewhere near the site of his old trading post along the Missouri River in present-day Charles Mix County. Mexican Ed Sanchez, who ran a roadhouse in the Grindstone Buttes of Haakon County, supposedly buried his fortune in fruit jars along Dirty Woman Creek.
We found another story this week involving Gen. George Crook, troops of the 5th Cavalry, the unsolved death of a miner and the unknown whereabouts of $3,000 in gold dust.
During the beginning of the Black Hills gold rush, Crook and his troops made regular trips between Custer and Fort Buford, N.D. They established campsites at Sheridan and Pactola where they could feed and water their horses.
One morning, as troops prepared to leave the Sheridan camp, they noticed one soldier was missing. A group of men ventured into Sheridan (then a booming mining town) to search, but the man was nowhere to be found. He was counted as AWOL, and the cavalry headed north.
Later that afternoon the missing soldier stumbled out of an abandoned shack, where he had been sleeping. With the encampment empty, he quickly reasoned that the troop had left without him. He caught up with the cavalry at the next stopping point in O Valley.
The next day, freighters found the dead body of miner Norman McCully near Burnt Ranch, a few miles east of present-day Sheridan Lake. It was believed that McCully was on his way from his gold claim in O Valley to Rapid City, where he planned to deposit $3,000 in gold dust. Investigators initially believed that Indians had killed McCully, but then they discovered cavalry boot tracks in the dirt around the body. Officers were sent to intercept Crook’s 5th Cavalry.
Crook admitted the evidence strongly suggested that the previous day’s missing soldier was guilty, but he said the man had already been arrested for being absent without leave and was subject only to federal authority. Crook agreed to present the murder evidence at the next session of the military court of inquiry.
The cavalry pushed on to Fort Benton, and the soldier in question was put to work in a sawmill. One day another worker began talking about the mysterious murder. The soldier under suspicion became outraged and threw the man into a circular saw, killing him instantly. In a fit of frontier justice, the other mill workers seized the soldier and hanged him.
The soldier never admitted his involvement in McCully’s murder, but it was generally believed that he had killed the miner and buried the gold dust somewhere near Burnt Ranch, intending to someday reclaim it. Like many treasure stories, no one can say with certainty that it’s true. But if you’ve searched fruitlessly in the Missouri hills and Haakon County buttes for the millions of Ducharme and Sanchez, what’s stopping you from heading to Sheridan Lake? McCully’s gold would be worth over $65,000 today. Maybe the ghosts of miners and cavalrymen will change your luck.