Today, I thought for a bit of a virtual road trip we'd visit the Nation’s first National Monument. That's correct, Wyoming is home to the First National Park, Yellowstone, and the First National Monument, Devils Tower.
Located in present day Crook County in Northeastern Wyoming, Devils Tower rises 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain including the Belle Fourche River. At its summit this core of a volcano exposed by erosion is 5, 112 feet above sea level.
Although it is highly likely early trappers and explorers saw the Tower from a distance there was not any direct reference to the formation until 1875. A U.S. Geological Survey party who made a reconnaissance of the Black Hills called attention to the uniqueness of the Tower. Colonel Richard I. Dodge, commander of the military escort, described it as “one of the most remarkable peaks in this or any country.”
Colonel Dodge is credited with giving the formation its present name. In 1876, he published a book “The Black Hills,” where he called the formation Devils Tower. He explained “The Indians call this shaft The Bad God’s Tower, a name adopted with proper modification, by our surveyors.” One of the geologists on the expedition countered Dodge saying “the name Bear Lodge (Mateo Teepee) appears on the earliest map of the region, and though more recently it is said to be known among the Indians as ‘the bad god’s tower,’ or in better English, ‘the devil’s tower,’ the former name, well applied is still retained.” Despite this response the name Devils Tower remained the name generally used, although for a time Geologists continued to use the original name.
The year before the Geological Survey party entered the Black Hills in 1874, in direct violation of the Treaty of 1868, General George A. Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills. The Treaty of 1868 guaranteed this region to the Indians. As a result of Custer’s expedition and his reports of the discovery of gold in the Hills, miners invaded the region. Though the Army attempted to keep order, troops were withdrawn in 1875 and miners and settlers poured into the region with towns like Custer City and Deadwood springing up overnight.
The subsequent battles and Custer’s fate was thoroughly discussed in a past blog, but in the end, the Indians were compelled to cede the Black Hills and most of their lands in Wyoming to whites. This opened up the lands around Devils Tower. In early 1880s the first settlers came into the Belle Fourche Valley in the vicinity of Hulett. With the exception of such outfits as the Camp Stool and the Driscoll, most of the settlers were small-scale farmers and ranchers from the mid-western states. In the vicinity of Moorcroft and the Tower, on the other hand, most of the land was occupied by large-scale outfits, such as the 101. From 1889 to 1892, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad extended its line from the South Dakota State Line through Newcastle, Moorcroft, and on to Sheridan. From several points along this line, the Tower can be seen.
The Government took early action to prevent the Tower from passing into the hands of individuals wishing to exploit the Tower for personal gain. In August 1890, the General Land Office issued an order rejecting all application on the lands around the Tower.
In February 1892, Senator Francis E. Warren of Wyoming wrote the Commissioner of the General Land Office asking him for assistance in preventing the spoliation of Devils Tower and the Little Missouri Buttes (several miles northeast of the Tower). Weeks later the office issued an order setting aside some 60.5 square miles including the Tower and the Little Missouri Buttes as temporary forest reserve.
That same year, the Senator introduced a bill to establish Devils Tower as a National Park. The bill included Devils Tower and the Little Missouri Buttes. The bill was read twice and referred to committee where it appears no further action was taken. It wouldn’t be until fourteen years later when Devils Tower would become a national monument.
Frank W. Mondell, Representative from Wyoming and resident of Newcastle, lent his support to a plan to have the area preserved as a national monument in 1906. Mondell was a member and later chairman of the House Committee on Public Lands. It was result of his influences that President Theodore Roosevelt, on September 24, 1906, proclaimed Devils Tower as the first national monument. The Little Missiouri Buttes were not included in the monument area and remained opened to settlement.
While difficult to reach, the Tower became a favorite camping and picnicking spot for people in the area. One of the inviting features was a large spring of pure cold water located near its base. It could only be reached over unimproved roads or trails by horseback or wagon. It was said it was necessary to fort the Belle Fourche River seven times to get to the Tower. This trek did not stop the people of the area from visiting Devils Tower once or twice a year and spending a few nights there. Fourth of July celebrations were sometimes held at the Tower and people came from considerable distances to attend these events.
The Fourth of July celebration best-known is the 1893 celebration when William Rogers, a local rancher, became the first known man to climb the tower. Rogers with the help of another local rancher, Willard Ripley, prepared a 350-foot ladder to the summit of the Tower. The men drove pegs, out of oak, ash, and willow, 24 to 30 inches in length and sharpened on one end, into a continuous vertical crack found between the two columns on the southeast side of the formation. The pegs were braced and secured to each other by a continuous wooden strip to which the outer end of each peg was fastened. Building the ladder was probably more hazardous than climbing the Tower itself.
People came from as far as 125 miles to witness the first formal ascent of the Tower. Conservative estimates say 1,000 people came by horseback, wagon and buckboard to see the feat. Rogers began his ascent after proper ceremonies were conducted. After a climb taking about an hour, he reached the top. Amid cheering, Rogers unfurled an American flag, specially made for the occasion, and attached it to a flagpole that had been attached to the ladder. Unfortunately, a gust of wind tore the flag loose and it drifted to the base of the Tower, where promoters tore it up and sold the pieces as souvenirs.
Others climbed the Tower using Rogers ladder. One of the first being Linnie Rogers, who duplicated her husband’s climb two years later on July 4, 1895 becoming the first woman to reach the summit. The last to reach the top, by this method, was “the Human Fly”, Babe White, in 1927. Much of the ladder has since been destroyed, but portions of the ladder can still be seen from the south side of the Tower Trail.
In 1937, Fritz Weissner and two other mountaineers from the American Alpine Club of New York City climbed the summit using rock-climbing techniques. Their ascent took four hours and forty-six minutes. Jack Durrance pioneered the classic and easiest route to the summit in 1938. Today climbers still flock to the Tower to test their abilities and reach the summit of Devils Tower.
Representative Mondell continued to seek funding for roads and bridges so tourists could reach the monument. However, bill after bill fell on the deaf ears of Congress. Finally, in 1917 the National Park Service with the help of Crook County built a three mile road leading to the formation. And after petitions signed by the people of Wyoming and South Dakota, and pressure from Senators Warren and John Kendrick a bridge was finally constructed over the Belle Fourche in 1928. The roads and bridge allowed tourists in the ever popular motor vehicles access to the monument.
Although for many years the conditions of the roads made the trek to the Tower a difficult one, but despite these hardships visitors continued to make their way to visit, picnic, and camp at the Tower. Access would improve with the construction of the Custer Battlefield Highway (U.S. Highway 14) between Spearfish, South Dakota and Gillette, Wyoming. The state of Wyoming also improved roads into Sundance from U.S. Highways 85 and 16, and a paved highway was also constructed from U.S. Highway 14 to Alva making the south entrance entirely accessible by paved roads.
The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) of the 1930s provided extensive development for the Tower. New roads were built, modern water and electrical systems installed, footpaths were laid out, picnic areas were established with tables and benches, and trailer and overnight camping areas were provided to the visitors. Residences for employees, workshops, and machine shops were erected, and in 1938 a museum was completed. The result of these improvements was a flock of tourists to the area.
Unfortunately, World War II would detract from the Tower’s new improvements and with the War tourism dropped dramatically. But just prior to the war, George Hopkins would bring thousands to the Tower, and draw national attention. As a publicity stunt, Hopkins parachuted onto the summit of Devils Tower. His untried preparations for an easy descent failed, and stranded the stuntman on the summit. Food and supplies were dropped by plane to the stranded man, but for six days Hopkins waited while attempts and plans were made to locate a method to get him down.
Jack Durrance, a student at Dartmouth College, skier and mountain climber, who led the second mountain-climbing ascent to the summit in 1938 offered his assistance. Durrance led seven other climbers to the summit where they found a surprisingly upbeat Hopkins. The descent was made with little difficulty. Over 7,000 visitors came to the monument to see Hopkins and witness the rescue over the six days he was stranded on the summit.
Following World War II, tourists returned to the Tower and local celebrations were resumed. Today visitors are invited to walk the 1.3 mile paved trail that encircles the tower or visit the prairie dog town just inside the park. The Wyoming towns of Sundance, Moorcroft and Hulett provide lodging, food and entertainment.
For many Devils Tower is an interesting rock formation, or a challenge to climb. To many American Indian tribes, the Tower is a sacred place central to their culture. In the 1930s, first person narratives were recorded of the legend of the Tower to many of these cultures.
An Arapaho lodge was camped at Bears Tipi. The father of this lodge was a head lodge and had seven children, five boys and two girls. The two girls had made an arrangement between themselves that the one who found the end bond (end rib) of a buffalo should receive the most favors from the brothers. The boys often made trips to other tribes. After a long search one of the girls found an end bone of a buffalo and on picking it up she turned into a bear and made some big scratches on her sister's back. The bear-girl told her sister, "if you tell the dogs will howl and this will be a signal so I will know that you have told." The sister did tell her brothers and when they heard the dogs howl and give the signal they were scared and started to run.
The bear-girl heard the signal and ran after them. The girl who had told was carrying a ball in her hand which she dropped and accidentally kicked. The ball bounded up on the big, high rock. The bear-girl reached over her sister's shoulder to grab the ball, slipped and made very big scratches on the big rock and fell on her sister and broke the sister's chest. The bear-girl climbed to the top of the big, high rock and told her family that there would be seven stars in the shape of a diamond appear in the east and the first star out would be off to one side and would be brighter than the other stars. This first star would be called Broken Chest Star. From this time on the Arapaho called this big, high rock "Bears Tipi".
This legend was told to Dick Stone by Sherman Sage, 81 years old. Otto Hungary, Interpreter.
A band of Cheyenne Indians went on one of their visits to Bears Tipi to worship the Great Spirit; as did many other tribes before the white man came. The Cheyenne braves took their families with them as they felt that would be safe as Bears Tipi was a holy place.
After having camped there for several days, one of the Cheyenne braves noticed that his wife was often gone from camp, staying away for a short time. As time went on he noticed that she was gone longer than before. This brave could not understand why his wife should be gone from their lodge so much as he had always been devoted to her and being a good hunter, as well as a brave warrior, she always had much buffalo, antelope, and deer meat. He furnished her fine skins to make nice clothes.
Becoming suspicious that some other brave in his band might be courting his wife, he watched to see what man was missing when his wife left camp. He found that no man was missing when his wife was gone. This man also saw that his wife had a skin over her shoulders now that she did not wear before coming to this camp.
One day when she had been gone longer than usual, he laid in wait for her, on her return he asked her where she had been and what drew her from camp so much of the time. She would not answer any of his questions. Then the man became mad and tore the skin from her shoulders and saw that she was covered with scratches.
He demanded that she tell him which man had abused her. Becoming frightened at the way her husband was acting she told him that she had been charmed by a very big bear that lived in the big rock. The bear had no mate and had become infatuated with her while she was out gathering fruit. Fearing for the safety of the camp, she had submitted to the bear's embraces, which accounted for the scratches on her shoulders.
Then the warrior told his wife to lead him to the bear so he could kill it. When they found the bear, the man had great fear because the bear was big, very big. The bear slapped the woman with his paw and changed her into a bear. The man ran to the camp to get the rest of the braves to help him kill the big bear.
They found the bear had crawled into a cave, leaving his hind feet in the door. The bear's feet were so big that nobody could get past them. They could not get close enough to the bear to kill him so they shot at his feet to make him come out. When the bear came out he was so big that all the warriors were scared and climbed up on a big rock.
The men were so scared that they prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. In answer to their prayers, the rock began to grow up out of the ground and when it stopped it was very high. The bear jumped at the men and on the fourth jump his claws were on the top. The Great Spirit had helped the men and now they had great courage and they shot the bear and killed him. When the bear fell, he fell backwards and pushed the big rock which made it lean.
After that, the bear-woman made this big rock her home, so the Cheyennes called it Bears Tipi.
This legend was told to Dick Stone by Young Bird. Samuel Weasel Bear, Interpreter.
Once when some Crows were camped at Bears House, two little girls were playing around some big rocks there. There were lots of bears living around that big rock and one big bear seeing the girls alone was going to eat them. The big bear was just about to catch the girls when they saw him. The girls were scared and the only place they could get was on top of one of the rocks around which they had been playing.
The girls climbed the rock but still the bear could catch them. The Great Spirit, seeing the bear was about to catch the girls, caused the rock to grow up out of the ground. The bear kept trying to jump to the top of the rock, but he just scratched the rock and fell down on the ground. The claw marks are on the rock now. The rock kept growing until it was so high that the bear could not get the girls. The two girls are still on top of the rock.
This legend was told to Dick Stone by Rides the White Hip Horse. Goes to Magpie, Interpreter.
Before the Kiowa came south they were camped on a stream in the far north where there were a great many bears, many of them. One day, seven little girls were playing at a distance from the village and were chased by some bears. The girls ran toward the village and the bears were just about to catch them when the girls jumped on a low rock, about three feet high. One of the girls prayed to the rock, "Rock take pity on us, rock save us!" The rock heard them and began to grow upwards, pushing the girls higher and higher. When the bears jumped to reach the girls, they scratched the rock, broke their claws, and fell on the ground.
The rock rose higher and higher, the bears still jumped at the girls until they were pushed up into the sky, where they now are, seven little stars in a group (The Pleiades). In the winter, in the middle of the night, the seven stars are right over this high rock. When the people came to look, they found the bears' claws, turned to stone, all around the base.No Kiowa living has ever seen this rock, but the old men have told about it - it is very far north where the Kiowa used to live. It is a single rock with scratched sides, the marks of the bears' claws are there yet, rising straight up, very high. There is no other like it in the whole country, there are no trees on it, only grass on top. The Kiowa call this rock "Tso-aa", a tree rock, possibly because it grew tall like a tree.
Told by I-See-Many-Camp-Fire-Places, Kiowa soldier at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, 1897.
In the Sioux tribe long ago was a brave warrior who often went alone into the wilderness where he would fast and worship the Great Spirit in solitude. Being alone helped him to strengthen his courage so that in the future he could carry out his plans.
One day this warrior took his buffalo skull and went along into the wilderness to worship. Standing at the base of Mato Tipila after he had worshiped for two days he suddenly found himself on top of this high rock. He was very much frightened as he did not know how he would get down. After appealing to the Great Spirit he went to sleep. When he awoke he was very glad to find that he was again at the base of this high rock.
He saw that he was standing at the door of a big bear's lodge as there was foot prints of a very big bear there. He could tell that the cracks in the big rock were made by the big bear's claws. So he knew that all the time he had been on top of this big rock he had been standing on a big bear's lodge.
From this time on his nation called this big high rock Mato Tipila and they went there often to worship. The buffalo skull is still on top of this big high rock and can be seen on the highest point.
This legend told to Dick Stone by Short Bull, who lived a short distance west of Ogalala, South Dakota, on July 31, 1932. Mark Running Eagle, Interpreter.
For me it’s one of my favorite memories of my first visit to Devils Tower when I was only eight-years-old, and my dad passed on one of these legends to my brother and me. Did one of the legends appeal to you?
Mattison, Ray H. "The First 50 Years." National Park Service. 1955
Kirsten Lynn is a Western and Military Historian. She worked six years with a Navy non-profit and continues to contract with the Marine Corps History Division for certain projects. Making her home where her roots were sewn in Wyoming, Kirsten also works as a local historian. She loves to use the history she has learned and add it to a great love story. She writes stories about men of uncommon valor…women with undaunted courage…love of unwavering devotion …and romance with unending sizzle. When she’s not writing, she finds inspiration in day trips through the Bighorn Mountains, binge reading and watching sappy old movies, or sappy new movies. Housework can always wait.