Backstory and Context
Before settlers arrived in the land that would become the state of Nebraska, the land stretching from the banks of the Missouri River west towards the Sandhills that comprised the Sioux’s Powder River Country had developed a reputation as hot, dusty, windy, flat terrain. But westward pioneers following trails along the Platte River Valley found that the eastern third of Nebraska is characterized by bluffs carved by the Elkhorn, Missouri, and Platte Rivers. These rivers carved through soft sandstone, forming caves throughout their river valleys. Among the best-known is Robber’s Cave, located at 925 Robbers Cave Road in Lincoln, Nebraska. The 5,000 square-foot subterranean cavern of soft Dakota Brown Sandstone enjoys a rather colorful history, some of which is conjecture, if not outright mythology.
The cave’s history dates back to the infancy of Nebraska, as pointed out by renowned Nebraskan and writer Louise Pound. Pound wrote of unsubstantiated stories about the cave, with these frontier rumors telling of settlers being murdered in the cave, a snowbound wagon train wintering in the cave in 1862, a brewery operating in the cave, and an outlaw of this era turning the cave into a literal den of thieves. Pound found no evidence to confirm or deny the first two claims, but the brewery did indeed exist, complete with a land grant deed, filed under the Homestead Act of 1862 serving as evidence. However, four years after the brewery was founded in 1869, it folded and the cave sat empty thereafter.
As Pound points out in Nebraska Folklore, a part of the Federal Writer’s Project commissioned under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, caves have always embodied a certain mystique to Nebraskans. However, this is not exclusive to Nebraska. In Texas, imaginative Texans reported Sam Bass, a nineteenth-century train robber and outlaw, hid in "every cave within a wide area." Texans even report many of these caves were a den of thieves for Bass’s brigand. Despite these bold claims, it is unlikely that Bass ever set foot in any of these caves, as Bass was seldom sighted and caves have been searched for his buried gold to no avail. Bass was no stranger to the Cornhusker State, as he gained his infamy by committing the largest train robbery in American history in Big Springs, Nebraska: robbing a train loaded with gold en route from the U.S. Mint in Denver to eastern cities. Bass’s exploits were also the subject of paperback novels popular with cowboys and settlers, likely leading to more tales of outlaws hiding in caves on the fringes of society.The cave’s most famous claim occurred in the years following the closing of the brewery. The tension and violence of Reconstruction America spilled over the plains through the brazenness of notable outlaws such as Sam Bass and Jesse James. The legendary history of Robber’s Cave asserts that the James hid in the cave while evading authorities in 1874. Despite the repeated claims on websites and by Nebraska history buffs, evidence exists to challenge this claim. It is possible that James hid in the cave--but not very likely. Five years before James is supposed to have turned the cave into a den of thieves, the state built its penitentiary in Lincoln. It stands less than a mile away from the cave as the crow flies. Despite James’s documented brazenness and bellicosity towards law and order, it is highly unlikely that James would hide in a location so close to a state prison. Because of its history as a brewery during construction of the prison, the cave would have been known to law enforcement and searched regularly for fugitive prisoners.
After establishing the implications of the cave’s proximity to the
prison, Louise Pound goes on to discredit the possibility of James boarding in the cave in
1874. According to Pound, Lincoln was a thriving state capital and bustling college town where James would have had a
very difficult time hiding in the cave. Further, Pound's father was a judge, and he would have undoubtedly known about vagabonds
and outlaws using the cave--especially one as infamous as Jesse James. Such circumstantial evidence
suggests that stories of James hiding in the cave were nothing more than the product of James’s
celebrity in an era of growing popular culture. Pound notes as well that her
own parents arrived in Lincoln in the late 1860s, the likeliest time for vagabonds and outlaws to have used the cave. Yet they never heard these rumors until excavation for mushroom gardens
at the cave began in 1906–suggesting a commercial motive behind them.
Beyond stories of James hiding out in this cave, other rumors that evade substantiation abound. The cave is said to have housed Coxey’s Army, or perhaps Kelly's Army, on their 1894 march to the nation’s capital. Other rumors report inmates from the state penitentiary and state mental hospital escaping to the cave through connected tunnels. No evidence substantiates these tales, beyond repetition on various niche websites concerning Nebraska history. Today Robber’s Cave sits below Blue Blood Brewing, which opened in 2015 and offers tours of the cave in addition to embracing the heritage of this cavern of folklore.
 Christopher Anderson, “Jesse James, the Bourgeois Bandit: The Transformation of a Popular Hero” Cinema Journal 26, No. 1 (1986): 43–64. https://doi.org/10.2307/1224986.
 Louise Pound, Nebraska Folklore (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press,1959).
 Troy Taylor, Robber's Cave, Prairie Ghosts, 2000. 03/01/2018. https://www.prairieghosts.com/robber.html.