Black Swans & Buried Treasure in Kansas City

In this episode, I tell the story of Fr. Donnelly’s buried treasure and the Civil War in Kansas City. We use the themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb to help understand what we can learn from this event.

Enjoy This Episode of The Reformed Financial Advisor – A Kansas City Podcast

Featured in this episode:

A Atory About The Civil War, Buried Treasure, and The Building of Kansas City

Does if feel like our union is is fragile as it’s ever been in the U.S? Well, we know at least one time where it’s been worse.

In 1864, Kansas City, MO was right in the middle of the Civil War. The new “free state” Kansas had abolished slavery. Across the street from KS, Missouri was controlled by the Union, but was also claimed as a state by the Confederacy. There were rival state governments and citizens on both sides.

This was one year after the infamous “Order Number 11.” Several thousand citizens along the MO/KS border who could not “prove their loyalty to the union” were forced to evacuate.

The result was brutal.

Soldiers and bandits plundered the abandoned properties and set fire to the farmlands. Several women were killed when they were put into a makeshift jail in Kansas City that collapsed.

Martial Law, (Or Order No. 11) – George Caleb Bingham. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia.

Fr. Donnelly Becomes The Steward of The Treasure

The day before the Battle of Westport, the Confederate forces approached Kansas City. The remaining citizens were terrified of their money being stolen. So hundreds made a run on the banks and took out their fortunes.

Many citizens turned to a man that they believed to be immune from the plunder of war, the Catholic priest Fr. Bernard Donnelly. They showed up at Fr. Donnelly’s door and begged him to keep their wealth safe. He tried to talk them out of it.

When they persisted, he listed their names and amounts in a book and stored the treasure in a large wooden box. After dark, the priest enlisted the gravedigger to dig a hole in the cemetery to hide the box.

The gravedigger was not a great steward of this wealth though, because he proceeded to get drunk at a tavern a few blocks away, and spilled the beans to the crowd. When Fr. Donnelly heard the news, he dug up the box and buried it again in a different location.

Source: New Sante Fe Trailer

The Battle of Westport

Over the next few days, the Battle of Westport took place. Fr. Donnelly was on the battlefield to act as a nurse, give confessions, and console the dying. It would be one month before he made it back to his regular duties at the present-day location of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in KC.

When he got back, he attempted to dig up the box of treasure and found that it was gone! He concluded that he had either hid it too well, or that it was stolen.

To this day, the buried treasure has never been found.

Fr. Donnelly Made Good On His Promise

Luckily, Fr. Donnelly was a man who always had skin in the game. He was a businessman and was able to personally pay back everyone that had trusted him with their wealth. He was pretty terrible (or too good!) at hiding buried treasure, but he was a man who could get things done.

The way he was able to pay the money back was through the business ventures he would be involved with over the years. The most significant was his work to transform topography of Kansas City by flattening the rocky hill it rested on. Before the 1870s, Kansas City was a rocky bluff and looked nothing like it does today. The limestone bluffs had made it impossible for the city to grow.

Source: New Sante Fe Trailer

Fr. Donnelly had a civil engineering background and a desire to see his poor irish parishioners employed. He was the driving force in the multi-year project of flattening the bluffs and carving out the streets of Kansas City. This created more land for settlement. In the decades following the Civil War, the population of Kansas City would explode.

For this reason, he is “The Builder of Kansas City.”


Andrew Flattery, CFP®

Andy Flattery is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and Owner of Simple Wealth Planning. He serves young and affluent families that are working to lower their time preference and achieve financial sovereignty. Flattery is the host of The Reformed Financial Advisor Podcast, where he relates stories in Kansas City history to pivotal themes in personal finance. When he’s not helping individuals build wealth, you can catch him playing rec sports, reading Austrian economists, and spending time with his wife and three children.