The Black Hills are a mountain range that stand in the southwest corner of South Dakota and extend a bit into northeastern Wyoming. The area is known for the natural beauty of its forested mountains and green meadows. The relatively low population density along with the dramatic monuments and natural wonders make this a satisfying destination. In rather stark contrast to the panoramic beauty of the area, however, is a geopolitical history that is quite a bit less than pristine.  

After decades of expansive settlement from the US in the east and the corresponding conflicts, a treaty was forged in 1868 between a confederation of northern plains Native tribes and the US government. This treaty deeded the Black Hills region to the Native confederation.

Within a few years the Native American confederation lost possession of the land granted to them by the Treaty of Ft Laramie. It seems to have happened not so much by the US government backing out of its obligations, but by lack of decisive government enforcement of the terms of the treaty.

The discovery of gold in 1874 by the Custer expedition and the prompt announcement of this discovery lead to an irreversible economic migration to the area by gold seekers and those who would follow them. Many of the gold seekers were miners and entrepreneurs from other gold fields seeking new opportunity. Custer met his end in battle, hopelessly outnumbered by Indian forces.

Today the Black Hills of South Dakota are a locus of tourism, gambling, and recently, neutrino physics. Native Americans reside on a handful of reservations scattered throughout the eastern plains.

It is a curious contrast to behold. Today automobiles and tour buses disgorge well fed tourists by the hundreds of thousands each year to marvel at the spectacle of Mt Rushmore, buy souvenirs, and to rejoice in nationalistic self satisfaction.

Bikers make the annual sojourn-in-leather to nearby Sturgis in part to celebrate the freedom of motorcycling. All of this celebration of freedom in an area where the lust for gold has trumped the freedom of a hunter-gatherer society by those who had mastery of explosives, metallurgy, and steam energy. I suppose it was inevitable.

View of Crazy Horse Monument from Helicopter

Th’ Gaussling and family splurged (Yoww!!) on a helicopter tour of the Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse area. It was just spectacular. The heliport was a mile from the Crazy Horse Monument so we were treated to two visits to the site.

Crazy Horse in Context

Gutzon Borglum launched his ambitious monument project on a mountain the locals called Mt Rushmore. The final form differed somewhat from early models.

A great deal of resources and effort went into the Mt Rushmore monument. It features a parking garage, gift shops, museum, two indoor theaters, an amphitheatre, cafe, and Borglums studio. The visior is free to simply sit and ponder the monument or dive into the historical details of its construction.

Mt Rushmore Profile View

Borglum fabricated scale models of the subject faces in his workshop below the site and used a geometric device to transfer the dimensions to the mountain. A plumb bob hung below a protractor-style device mounted on the model. A rudimentary coordinate system would provide a basis for scale-up.

Scale Model Faces of Mt Rushmore

Borglum died of complications from surgery in March of 1941. Gutzon’s son Lincoln Borglum carried on with the project after his death. However, Lincoln left the project substantially in the form left by his father. The project was officially halted later in 1941 owing to a lack of funding.

Mt Rushmore

Mt Rushmore is a spectacular thing and everyone should see it. All of the fellows captured in stone had attributes worthy of meditation. The timeline between them and we of the present day is jam packed with fantastic events that they had a hand in initiating. I’m certain that they would say that our technology is different but human nature is the same.