Mountain Epic: The Black Hills of South Dakota
The Black Hills of South Dakota tell the story of sacred Native American places, gold mines, and U.S. presidents.
he Black Hills are Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial and Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and the eviction of the Sioux from their sacred lands. They are the jingle of slot machines and a thousand Harley-Davidsons roaring down a highway and bison lifting their shaggy, sloped heads to ruminate on it all in a landscape that can take your breath away.
The area is such a packed-in version of the mythic American West, filled with larger-than-life characters, outsized ambitions, and deadly struggles, that it risks disappearing into caricature. I first visited as a kid on a family vacation, and that was the West we wanted to see. You still can. Deadwood features mock shootouts on Main Street during the summer tourist season, and there is enough of the kitschy and cartoonish scattered through the area to keep any 11-year-old happy, which is not such a bad thing.
But I’ve returned to the Black Hills repeatedly over the years, and what impresses me more each time is the beauty and power of the landscape itself. If you go, you’ll probably start with Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is fine. You should see both. Yet the story of the Black Hills isn’t the way the mountains have been shaped by man, but the way the land has shaped all those who’ve lived there—the way the unique geography of this part of western South Dakota is intertwined with its history. That story starts with the abiding connection of Native American tribes to the region.
“I would encourage people to go camping, get on the land. Experience the sunrise and sunsets. Hike up to Bear Butte. Breathe the fresh air. Take time to look around.”Jace DeCory
On my most recent visit, I stopped by Black Hills State University in Spearfish to visit with Jace DeCory, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies and a member of the Lakota-Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. When I asked how visitors could gain a genuine appreciation of Native American culture in the Hills, she looked at me with gentle forbearance. “Well,” she said, “some of the Lakota people still live in the sacred Black Hills, but many live on or near Indian reservations.”
The treatment of the Sioux is not a shining chapter in U.S. history. The Hills are sacred to the tribe; the Sioux’s creation story has ancestors emerging from a cave and taking human form here. DeCory says many believe that place is Wind Cave, now a national park just a few miles from the town of Hot Springs. Bear Butte, a national historic landmark that rises starkly out of the prairie off state highway 79, is also a holy site, one many tribal members believe brings them closer to the creator and to themselves.
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie promised the Sioux they would be able to stay in the Black Hills. But in 1874, an expedition led by Gen. George Armstrong Custer found gold, leading to a rush of miners and camp followers into the territory. Not too long afterward, the Sioux were forced out of lands they consider the center of the world.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1980 that the land had been taken without just compensation and awarded the tribes a total of more than $100 million, set aside in a trust. That trust is believed to have grown to more than $1.4 billion, but the Sioux have refused to touch it. They want the land they were promised. “The Black Hills are not for sale,” DeCory says.
In this enduring connection to place, she found an answer to my question about getting in touch with the area’s Native American heritage. “I would encourage people to go camping, get on the land. Experience the sunrise and sunsets. Hike up to Bear Butte. Breathe the fresh air. Take time to look around.” DeCory smiled. “You can see for a long way.”
If the Black Hills are sacred to the Sioux, to the miners who flooded in during the 1870s Gold Rush, they were a giant bank vault waiting to be cracked open. The biggest gold mine, the Homestake, operated on the edge of the town of Lead until 2002. It was a huge operation, reaching more than a mile and a half deep and employing thousands in its early 20th century heyday. The feeling of that era remains very much alive in Lead, most of which is a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. On a sunny day, Jacqualyn Fuller, a local preservationist, gave me a tour. We stopped at the Historic Homestake Opera House, in the middle of an ongoing renovation following a devastating fire in 1984. The grand 1914 building once held more than 1,000 seats, a swimming pool, and a bowling alley. Today, it hosts concerts and other shows year-round.
When the Homestake mine closed, Fuller says, one of the company’s last acts was to dismantle some of its buildings and run them through the mill for gold dust that had accumulated in their nooks and crevices. But you would have to grind up every inch of town to truly take the gold mine out of Lead.
Deadwood, less than 5 miles away, is where the wild and remote nature of the Black Hills gave birth to an outlaw identity. (This trait lives on in the even wilder bands of bikers who descend every summer on nearby Sturgis for one of the nation’s largest motorcycle rallies.) Much of Deadwood’s outlaw legend is attached to one man: Wild Bill Hickok, the gunfighter and gambler shot here during a poker game on August 2, 1876. He was holding two pairs: black aces and eights, from then on known as the “dead man’s hand.”
The Deadwood of those days was a tossed-up mining camp with raw-timber buildings and boardwalks lining muddy streets. It’s long gone, burned down in an 1879 fire that consumed much of the town. Today, Deadwood’s historic core largely dates from around the turn of the 20th century. It includes a couple of grand old hotels—the Bullock and the Silverado- Franklin, which like many establishments downtown include casinos. (Gambling was legalized in 1989.) But the best time capsule may be the Historic Adams House, a beautifully restored 1892 Queen Anne open for tours.
Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried side by side at Mt. Moriah, a sprawling cemetery on a wooded ridge above town. I made my way to their graves just past sunset, the light a flat gray that suited a lonely, timeless place. Wild Bill’s grave is marked by a bronze bust, while Calamity Jane’s is more modest, sitting to his left as if keeping watch over the man she loved.
The truth is, he was married to another woman, and the evidence suggests their romance was largely invented. Wild Bill was also far from his days of gunslinging glory; he’d come to Deadwood looking for a new start. Still, I wondered how much the truth mattered in this case. The Black Hills were a place where the possibility of reinvention lay right in the ground beneath your feet.
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I first saw Mount Rushmore on that long-ago family vacation. We came late in the day, when the giant heads were clothed in blue light, the lengthening shadows throwing its immensity into greater prominence. Yet I was disappointed. The four presidents had loomed larger in my childhood imagination. I wanted them to be even bigger.
I’ve seen them several times since, and my imagination is clearly shrinking because they seem more impressive every time. On my last visit, I went shortly after the monument opened in the morning. I stood alone on the viewing plaza and contemplated the granite visages looming above. They seemed truly epic, as if the mountains had come to life.
A few miles away is Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1948. That year sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked on Rushmore, was convinced by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux chief, to begin the massive project—essentially an entire mountain remade into a sculpture of the Oglala Lakota leader.
Ziolkowski would toil away on the mountain for the next 34 years, until his death, when his wife and children took up the torch. Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, also died while work was underway there. Both men arrived determined to leave their mark on the Black Hills. Ultimately, their lives were captured by the mountains.
Not all those who were captured by the Black Hills dedicated their lives to getting rich or carving up mountains. Some just wanted to fish—including presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom spent time at Custer State Park. Silent Cal even made the park’s State Game Lodge his summer White House in 1927. Here he wrote his statement that he would not run for re-election the next year. As I toured his period-decorated room and took in the view of the pine-covered hills rising toward mountains glowing a soft gold in the morning light, I could easily imagine how this could be a place where you would decide you were ready to step aside from the hassles of running a nation.
There are many ways to get out into the countryside of the Black Hills. One is the George S. Mickelson Trail, a hiking trail that follows an old Burlington Northern rail line for 109 miles, past tumbling creeks, wildflower meadows, and granite walls.
Another route is a driving loop through Custer State Park, climbing on Iron Mountain Road before circling past Harney Peak, the highest point between the Black Hills and the French Pyrenees at 7,242 feet. You can continue to Sylvan Lake Lodge, which commands a beautiful view of the haunting stone outcroppings that rise above the water. From there, the Needles Highway takes you through a phantasmagorical landscape, with jagged towers of granite like the broken teeth of some giant monster.
At the end of my last day in the park, I came back across Highway 16 to head to Rapid City, where I’d stay the night. I reached the Fish Hook Picnic Area at dusk and, reluctant to leave the park, pulled over. Silence, a descending fog, and the delicate sound of the water trickling over stones in the narrow creek. A granite escarpment, a mottled gray-black, went seemingly straight up for 30 or so feet on the other side of the creek.
Growing out of the stone somehow were pine trees—whip-thin, yet some 20 feet tall—their roots visible clinging to the stone. It seemed amazing they could survive there, braced against the winds and snow for the years it would take to grow that tall. But the Black Hills have a way of taking hold of you.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Learn about Battle Mountain Sanitarium, a National Treasure of the National Trust, and Wind Cave National Park and Bear Butte National Historic Landmark.
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