The Knights of the Golden Circle: Part One

Reader warning:
Some of the source links will contain references to slavery and other topics which may be offensive to modern readers. I do not support these opinions, but will include them for historical context.

A secret society, plotting a new nation centered around slavery and the revival of the Southern economy.  A plan to assassinate the President of the United States.  Secret caches of gold and artifacts scattered across the states, with intricate maps detailing their many locations.

It all sounds a bit … out there.  How much of this story could be true, and how much has been stretched over the intervening years into something more fantastic than fact?  

In this series I’ll be attempting to pull some truth out of the legends around the Knights of the Golden Circle, and the organizations that it derived from and into: from the Copperheads and Know Nothings to the Sons of Liberty and the Order of American Knights.

But before I jump in, I want to touch base.  When research is assembled to justify a preconception, it is just another sort of fiction.  Another layer of opinion that makes finding the truth even more difficult for the next person down the line.  To keep myself honest, I’ll post links to my source material so that you can follow up as you like.  

As with most things political, I’m sure that there will be places where we will disagree.  I welcome any good-faith comments and research that you wish to share, so that together we can get as close to the truth as possible.  When the topic is secret societies, I can think of no better way to peer through the layers of misdirection than to have more eyes on the job.

Setting the Stage

To the people of 1850s, they were the modern generation – not one-dimensional stereotypes from history.  They were the trail-blazers and innovators of their time and saw themselves as true patriots, regardless of which side of history they would eventually land on.  

The telegraph was still new, born in the 40s, but the first transcontinental lines wouldn’t be finished for another decade.  Most information was still passed by word of mouth, letters passed to travelers, and via stagecoach, often taking months to make a circuit.  The Pony Express wouldn’t be founded until 1860.  The electric light wouldn’t shine for another thirty years. 

Labels like Copperhead and Whig carried just as much baggage as Republican and Democrat do today.  Everyone had lofty goals for the new nation – 33 states strong! – and daily dangers like smallpox and local bandits were never far from thought.  

The thirteenth President, Millard Fillmore, had just signed the Compromise of 1850.  This would keep the nation out of Civil War for the moment, but the growing tension of the times could be seen playing out in the theater of newspapers around the country.

Were the Knights of the Golden Circle Real?

The short answer is yes, though it seemed to take them a hot minute to figure out what the Secret part of Secret Society meant.  They weren’t shy about publishing their existence, members, structure, intent, or locations in the newspapers.  

I assume that’s because it’s hard to get at people’s money when they don’t know how to give it to you. With the mood of the times teetering on civil war, there were certainly plenty of people ready to hand over their coins to support “the cause”.

A dollar to join, and ten cents per week.  Membership in the KGC was rumored to be many thousands of men, especially after they absorbed the 15,000 strong Order of the Lone Star, so we’re not talking pocket change.  

But, where to put it?  There was little love for the corrupt northern banks, and the idea of stashing cash in the place they were about to secede from wouldn’t have made much sense.  A system was formed where half of the dues would support local lodges and area leadership.  The other half would go to the core KGC leaders for… big plans.  Stuff and things.  Who knew?  

So, with money in their pockets and an army at their back, the KGC was ready to get started.

Their first goal was a new confederate nation where southern livelihoods – which they believed depended upon slavery – would not be threatened by northern sympathies.  

They set their sights on the southern states, Mexico, and a capital in Cuba that would put DC to shame.  Some models show the circle encompassing greater parts of South America.  It would be their own Roman empire, with ships zipping across the Gulf of Mexico as though it were the Mediterranean Sea.  So, essentially, the KGC goal was the national equivalent of “I’ve got a bigger thingie than you… and also slaves.”

US Map 1850

The timing felt perfect.  After Mexico’s own war for independence had left them scarred, and their recent struggles to hold Texas and the west during the Mexican-American War had ended badly, they were tired and focused inward.  Mexico refused to sell any more land, but the KGC claimed that it had accepted their assistance to establish order in the region.  So all the knights had to do was create the sort of peace that would join their confederacy when the time was right.  Easy, huh? 

The problem, oddly enough, was Manifest Destiny… because it wasn’t the same Manifest Destiny that the KGC had in mind.  With the US still high on themselves after nicking Texas and the western territories, there were consequences that the KGC couldn’t sidestep.  All of that new land inflamed tensions over the balance of slavery in the union.  The people who had been living in that newly claimed land had been promised citizenship, but instead found themselves stripped of their civil liberties as they watched eastern Americans swoop in to claim what had been theirs.  Law was thinly enforced in the new territories. Tales of bandits and vengeance flourished.

Suddenly, despite not distributing ballots for him in ten southern states, Abraham Lincoln was elected President.  The former Whig promised to halt the expansion of slavery, but for southerners the end was clear.  It was only a matter of time before they would be outnumbered by the north and then slavery would be outlawed entirely.  Without it, they saw no way to hold their own against the industry and growing wealth of the north.

Was the south done, then?

All plans for a grand new nation had to go on hold.  Priority one was now making sure the south lived long enough to try again later.  The KGC committed themselves to the confederate cause, lending their structure and manpower to the southern war effort.  

After decades of escalation, the Civil War would begin in earnest in 1861.

KGC and Civil War Gold

It may have been then that rumors of buried gold first surfaced. With sympathizers from Michigan to Texas, it would have been difficult to move money quickly if the Union army hadn’t also been on the move.  Did KGC castles secret away money in various amounts, and pass the means to find those hidden vaults on to their knights according to their rank?

Or perhaps the stories arose from the end of the war, when Confederate President Davis was found with only a few dollars and an empty war chest.  Where did the rest go?  Was it spent while Davis’ entourage escaped from Virginia to Georgia?  Or was it buried along the way?  Could it have been entrusted to loyal KGC knights for hiding?  Or was it smuggled to far-away Michigan for safe keeping? 

The Sons of Liberty and the Order of American Knights were said to derive from the KGC.  Is it possible that they recovered any caches that did exist, and used them to fund their new organizations? 

There isn’t much to go on.  That KGC had access to wealth, and the means to bury it, seems plausible – especially before the war.  How much of their fortune would they have devoted to the confederacy?  And how likely is it that post-war KGC members have since recovered anything that they may have hidden away?  To me it seems likely, but in those days a man’s oath wasn’t a thing taken lightly.

Several people are convinced that they’ve found intricate maps that lead to KGC gold here in Missouri, and elsewhere across the union.  The maps are supposed to be based on templates that cover many square acres, where lesser caches are hidden on the outer rim that hint at greater treasures further in.  The map symbols are said to be childlike in their artistry, but thick with hidden meaning: such as an image of the moon representing East, but the letter E above a symbol meaning to interpret it in the reverse.

Unconfirmed Theories

  • There is a theory that the south feared the north’s greater wealth and industry, and felt that a demoralizing blow was needed to even the field.  It has been suggested that John Wilkes Booth was even a KGC Knight who had been given the mission to take Lincoln’s head.
  • Some theorize that Jesse James was actually a KGC knight who acted against union sympathizers out of a sense 0f revenge for the south.

Final Thoughts

There is plenty of research left before we begin seeing any real answers here.  As I learn more I’ll come back and update this so that incomplete or incorrect lore isn’t left hanging around to mislead anyone.  As always,

– Happy Researching,