|The Formation of Bear Butte
Bear Butte is
actually the remains of ancient volcanic activity.
The landmark has long had spiritual significance to Native Americans.
Struggles on the Land
The climate of this dry grassland proved too hard for homesteaders to tame.
The Formation of Bear Butte
Bear Butte (pronounced Bear Beaut) Mato Paha in Lakota is not truly a
flat-topped butte. It is actually the remains of ancient volcanic activity. Scientists
believe Bear Butte was formed around 65 million years ago when magma (molten rock) from the earths interior pushed up under
the crust, but never reached the surface. The magma cooled and hardened. Over the
millennia, the covering rock and topsoil washed away, exposing the cone-shaped rocky
formation we now know as Bear Butte.
Long before recorded time, the area now occupied by such landmarks as Bear Butte, the
Devils Tower in Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota was covered again and
again by vast ancient seas. Over time, these seas and the winds left deposits of various
materials. The weight of each new layer helped compress the ones below, eventually forming
sedimentary rock over millions of years.
Some 65 million years ago, molten rock from deep beneath the earths surface
forced its way into the sedimentary layers creating formations like the Rocky Mountains
and the Black Hills and leaving a line of molten intrusions in the landscape on the
northern edge of the Black Hills, stretching from Bear Butte to the Devils Tower in
Wyoming, some 60 miles away. Eventually, all the surrounding soil and rock eroded away,
but the harder volcanic (igneous) rock remains, forming Bear Butte.
Bear Butte rises 1,253 feet about the surrounding plain. It is 4,426 feet above sea
The landmark has long had spiritual significance to Native Americans. Even Gen. George
Custer, who camped near Bear Butte during his exploration of the Black Hills, was struck
by the power of the place and took time out to ride to the top.
According to the Cheyenne, Noavosse (The Good Mountain) was where the Cheyenne prophet
Sweet Medicine received four sacred arrows, four commandments and a moral code. Here, the
Sioux, who call the site Mato Paha (Bear Mountain), pay tribute to and communicate with
the spiritual ruler Wankan Tanka.
Bear Butte became a state park in 1961, but the use of this sacred site is still a
point of contention. In 1983, the Lakota and Tsistsistas sued in federal court, claiming
development of the park and construction of facilities for tourists diminished the
spiritual value of the park. The lawsuit failed, as did an appeal.
Today, there is a compromise. A ceremonial area and special campground are reserved for
religious purposes and tourists are asked to respect the area. Hikers may notice cloth and
small bundles hanging from trees, representing the prayers offered by individuals.
Thousands of tourists visit the park each year.
Because of its natural and historical heritage, Bear Butte State Park has been
designated a National Natural Landmark and a National Recreation Trail.
Struggles on the Land
Dan OBriens ranch, northwest of Bear Butte, rests on "The Bench."
This elevated area of the Plains, about 3,000 feet above sea level, offers a spectacular
view of the Black Hills to the south/ southwest and grasslands and flat-topped buttes or
mesas to the north.
Early in this century, homesteaders flocked to the Great Plains. Homesteaders tried to
make a go of it on the land that makes up OBriens ranch, too. But the climate
of this dry grassland proved too hard to tame.
The area that makes up his ranch averages around 15 to 20 inches of moisture each year.
Once in a while, theres a lot more 27, 28, 29 inches. Some years,
theres a lot less. In the 30s, for example, nearby Belle Fourche had several
years with very low rain totals:
- 7.77 inches in 1931
- 12.94 inches in 1933
- 8.46 inches in 1934
- 10.72 inches in 1935
- 8.96 inches in 1936
- 11.90 inches in 1938
- 9.35 inches in 1939
- 13.14 inches in 1940
In 1952, Fort Meade, in the immediate Bear Butte area, had less than 13 inches (12.95)
of rain. In 1960, the total was just 12.37 inches.
In 1910, there were 3,339 farms in Meade County in South Dakota. By 1940, the number
was down by almost 60 percent 1,365. Today, about 800 farms and ranches remain.
One family that lived on what is now the OBrien ranch held on until the
"Dust Bowl" years, an extended drought across the Great Plains that lasted
through the 30s. Another settlers dreams foundered on the rocky road of
OBrien has struggled, too. He tried to make a go of it with sheep, but severe
weather killed part of his flock, ending that venture in disaster. He raises cattle, but
finds that they need constant care to survive in the harsh environment. His latest
experiment is buffalo the American bison a native to the region and a tough
survivor. OBrien is optimistic that buffalo will give his ranch the economic
stability it needs.