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The Formation of Bear Butte

Bear Butte is actually the remains of ancient volcanic activity.


Spiritual Significance

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 yeaBear Butte - Photo by SD Dept. of Tourismrs ago when magma (molten rock) from the earth’s 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 Devil’s 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 earth’s 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 Devil’s 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 level.

Spiritual Significance

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 O’Brien’s 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 O’Brien’s 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, there’s a lot more – 27, 28, 29 inches. Some years, there’s 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 O’Brien ranch held on until the "Dust Bowl" years, an extended drought across the Great Plains that lasted through the ’30s. Another settler’s dreams foundered on the rocky road of romance.

O’Brien 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. O’Brien is optimistic that buffalo will give his ranch the economic stability it needs.


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