Friday, June 3, 2011

Setting the Scene: The Black Hills

So much of fiction set throughout the American West is setting – so this month I thought I’d focus on one of my favorite western regions, the Black Hills.

The Black Hills is one of the most storied mountain ranges in the American West. The range reaches across the border of South Dakota into Wyoming. In contrast to other western mountain ranges, it is small (Harney Peak, the highest summit, is only 7,244 feet) and remote – removed from the Rocky Mountains. Known as an “island of trees in a sea of grass,” the Black Hills is still home to the tallest peaks of continental North America east of the Rockies. Because they are covered in trees, the mountains appear dark in the distance. Therefore, the Lakota named the region HeSapa, or “Black Mountains.”

The Black Hills were first inhabited by Native Americans around 7000 BC. Among the tribes that called the range home were the Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Pawnee. Finally, in the eighteenth century the Lakota made the Black Hills their home by driving out the other tribes. Much of Lakota culture is central to the Black Hills. Both the Cheyenne and the Lakota believed that the Black Hills region was the axis mundi, or "sacred center of the world." However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the discovery of gold in French Creek caused many European Americans to flock to the Black Hills. Soon after, the last major Indian War on the Great Plains, known as the Black Hills War, unleashed. In violation of a treaty with the Native Americans, the United States seized control of the land. As late as 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Black Hills had been taken illegally from the tribes. The Lakota refused a settlement of one-hundred-and-six million dollars, citing that they wanted the return of the Black Hills to their people. To this day, they persist in their quest to reclaim their land.

In the late nineteenth century, thousands of gold miners descended on the mountain range. In 1880, there was no part of the Dakota Territory more densely populated than the Black Hills. The cities of Deadwood, Central City, and Lead formed amidst the great surge of pioneers. Railroads also began to crop up. Since 1880, the gold mines of the Black Hills have earned four million dollars a year with an additional three million dollars in silver.

The Black Hills are covered mostly in fragrant Ponderosa Pine and Black Hills Spruce. Though scattered throughout the range are picturesque grasslands in lieu of forests, home to mountain meadows or “open parks.” The wildlife of the Black Hills is very diverse. It is actually known as a “mixing and meeting place” where species from all parts of the north, south, east, and west go to mingle. For example, both the forest and grasslands create great habitats for American bison, a variety of deer, mountain lions, prairie dogs, marmots and fox squirrels in particular. The creeks of the Black Hills are known for their trout. The creeks that run through the area are known for their trout fishing.

Tourism is a large part of the Black Hills economy. The range is home to Custer State Park, South Dakota’s largest state park. Custer State Park is also one of the largest in the United States. In August, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place in the miles of scenic roadways throughout the Black Hills. In 2005, more than five-hundred-and-fifty-thousand bikers took part in the rally, which has become a key part of the region’s economy. Tourists are also drawn to the following Black Hills destinations:

Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Wind Cave National Park
Jewel Cave National Monument
Harney Peak
Bear Butte State Park
Devils Tower National Monument
The Crazy Horse Memorial (largest sculpture in the world)
George S. Mickelson Trail

Sheep and cattle ranching is also a large part of the Black Hills economy. And yes, here we find our cowboys! With a setting like that, it's hard not to imagine western fiction with the "Black Mountains" on the horizon.

Readers, your turn to sound off. What would you say your ideal western setting is - and why? It can be a state, a region, even a large formation like the Black Hills.

Amber Leigh Williams
"Williams has brought the romantic back to romance!" - Long & Short Reviews
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  1. Amber, I would love to visit the Black Hills. My current ideal setting is central Texas near Bandera and Medina and on toward Austin. Not where I live, but real cowboy country. Of course, where I live is cutting horse country, but I think of cattle as real cowboy country. I also like the country near the 6666 ranch at Guthrie TX. Great post.

  2. Amber--I love that area, too. It's sort of mystic, in a way.
    Do you think they'll ever complete the monument to Crazy Horse on that mountain? We were there a few years ago, and they barely had part of his face. There was a money problem, and also dedicated people to work on it. I fear it will never be finished.
    We watched a film on the blasting and the work that's required, and it is an amazing story. Did you see the film?
    Thanks for bringing back some special memories. Celia

  3. I've always wanted to see that part of the country. Some day I will!

    My favorite area to write about is Western Colorado, where I was born and raised. Cowboy country through and through and one the most beautiful places on earth.

    Good blog. Thank you,.

  4. Caroline, I loved basing my three westerns in TX! It's the ultimate cowboy homestead, isn't it?

  5. Celia, I haven't seen that documentary - but I would love to! Do you know the name of it?

  6. Vicki, Colorado has some beautiful mountains, too! I would love to go skiing in Vail one day :)

  7. AMBER--the movie/documentary we saw about the making of the monument was in a theater at the monument site. You know the visitor's center--away from the actual monument, which is being carved from a mountain--where they have all sorts of displays and gifts, and a viewing platform to look at what they do have through a telescope.
    It's amazing how they do that--with a lot of dynamite.
    Some day I hope to return.

  8. Amber,
    I'm sorry to be so late putting in my 2 cents' worth, but I have been working on edits like a crazy person. This post is just wonderful. I have never been to the Black Hills and would love to go. I have always wanted to see that country and Mt. Rushmore. Thanks for this very interesting and informative post--you have made me want to saddle up and go all over again!


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