The following story is true.

The skeleton of this Indiana legend came from author Harry Black’s book ‘Historic Trails and Tales of Northwest Indiana’. Black is a regional legend for his exhaustive research efforts. In 1992, Governor Evan Bayh honored Black for his “extensive service to Indiana.”

Throughout much of the 1800s, Momence, Illinois, held a prominent spot on the Kankakee River. At one point it was the marker between the settled United States and the wilderness in the West, providing travelers with a final stop for supplies or trade.


Consequentially, Momence’s history, and the history of the Kankakee River in both Indiana and Illinois, is bathed in legends of lawlessness and drama, but few were as well-known and as easily forgotten as Ol’ Shaffer’s lost keg of gold, also called the Buried Treasure of the Kankakee.

According to all accounts, William “Mike” Shaffer was big, ugly, mean and not averse to breaking laws for a living. Even among the rough and tumble characters living in Indiana and Illinois, Shaffer stood out.

Shaffer had several homes in Newton and Lake County, but calling them “homes” would be generous. “Filthy shanties” would be more accurate, with one being near Momence. 

In his day, Mike Shaffer—he gave his name as “Mike” in a Hebron store once, although his birth name was William—was a criminal’s criminal, and headed a loose rabble of criminals in the area. It couldn’t be defined as a gang or a collective; more like a bunch of nasty individuals that agreed to keep their distance from one another.

Shaffer quickly earned a reputation in Indiana and Illinois as an experienced horse thief and mastered the art of disguising stolen horses, masking distinguishing marks on stolen animals with dyes. While this earned him a sizable income, it also left many enemies in his wake.

Additionally, many believed he frequently robbed or murdered men going to or coming back from the Gold Rush. In a short time, Mike Shaffer had amassed a fortune in gold.


The buried nail keg full of gold is a legend based on conjecture…but not baseless. All those that knew or dealt with Ol’ Shaffer, including store owners, never saw him spend a single piece of gold. In any transactions, he ONLY used silver or paper currency. Secondly, one afternoon he entered a lumber felling encampment and purchased an empty nail keg, acting both secretive and nervous, unusual behavior for the man.

A life of crime, cruelty and stinginess didn’t bode well for Mike Shaffer, and neighbors weren’t surprised to find him sitting before the front door of his Momence shack one day, a hole the size of a grapefruit in his chest from a close shotgun blast.

His murderer was never found, but, to be honest, no one looked very hard for him or her. They tossed Shaffer into a hastily dug grave without ceremony (and his body was likely taken, boiled down and his skeleton displayed by a Momence doctor). 

His riches were nowhere to be found.

Thus began the search, focusing on Momence, but eventually spreading to the small shacks Shaffer stashed along the Illinois-Indiana border. Hundreds of hunters dug thopusands of holes, but the stash of gold never appeared.

For decades, treasure-seekers would travel out to Lake and Newton County to search for the gold, but as time wore on, so did the legend. To this day, no one has ever found the keg of gold, and few people still search for it.

But it’s more likely than not still out there, just waiting for a persistent treasure hunter to find it.

Good luck.