OPINION EXCHANGE | The real history of Mount Rushmore (2023)

Those planning a trek to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore these last several weeks of summer will be among 3 million who annually visit the world-famous sculptures of U.S. presidents. Most will swell with patriotic pride as they stand on a marbled deck under flowing flags at the “shrine to democracy.”

The place brings Americans “face to face with a rich heritage we all share,” says the National Park Service.

The carved visages are iconic Americana, appearing in a gazillion media photos and books and travel features, in advertisements and promotions, on U.S. postage stamps in two eras, and on South Dakota’s license plate (“Great Faces. Great Places.”).

But the back story of Mount Rushmore is hardly a rich history of a shared democratic ideal. Some see the monument in the Black Hills as one of the spoils of violent conquest over indigenous tribes by a U.S. Army clearing the way for white settlers driven westward by a lust for land and gold.

As it was in colonial America, the young country’s expansion was fueled by “Manifest Destiny” — a self-supreme notion that any land coveted by Euro-Americans was, by providence, rightfully theirs for the taking.

Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore has been wildly successful as originally intended: as a tourist attraction to draw visitors to a remote place that otherwise would be largely ignored.

The sculptures were chiseled by an imported Ku Klux Klansman on a granite mountain owned by indigenous tribes on what they considered sacred land — land that the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1980 was illegally taken from them.

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In 2012, a United Nations human rights official endorsed returning the Black Hills (“Paha Sapa”) to resident Lakota, reviving a debate over whether eligible tribes should accept a cash settlement that tops $1 billion in an interest-bearing account. A prevailing response is that tribes want the land, a basis of the 1973 occupation of nearby Wounded Knee by the Minneapolis-based American Indian Movement.

The presidents on Mount Rushmore reside in favored historical positions, of course: Their contributions to building America are amply documented and widely revered, even by young schoolchildren.

But the four also sanctioned, and themselves practiced, dominance over those with darker skin.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.

Abraham Lincoln famously emancipated slaves, but he supported eradicating Indian tribes from western lands and approved America’s largest-ever mass execution, the hanging of 38 Dakota in Mankato for their alleged crimes in the 1862 war along the Minnesota River.

Teddy Roosevelt, in his “The Winning of the West,” wrote: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are … .”

The Black Hills story has many beginnings, but it was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 that opened westward settlement that would seal the fate of Plains tribes, including Minnesota’s Dakota.

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President Jefferson, bent on territorial enlargement to advance his vision of an agrarian empire, cut a sweet quick-sale with Napoleon, who urgently needed cash to support France’s wars against England and others. The U.S. acquired claims to territory occupied by indigenous people — 600,000 by some estimates — who were unaware that the familiar sod under their feet had passed from French to U.S. control.

The so-called “Indian wars” featured the U.S. Army aggressively enforcing America’s expansionist resolve by exterminating indigenous tribes who sought to stay where they’d always been. Indians would lose nearly every bloody battle that would follow.

Unlike Minnesota’s Dakota, also known as Sioux, the Lakota in the Black Hills and Powder River Basin were practiced warriors led by a savvy, unyielding chief, Red Cloud. They effectively fended off territorial intrusion by wagon trains of pioneers and prospectors.

Unable to root out Red Cloud, a humbled U.S. Army signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 granting Lakota autonomy over a broad, 60-million-acre region encompassing all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River — including the Black Hills — and parts of North Dakota and Nebraska. Lakota could also continue hunting migrating bison on a vast range of eastern Wyoming and Montana.

But like every tribal treaty before and since, the U.S. reneged on its Fort Laramie promises almost immediately by failing to prevent small-scale incursions into “The Great Sioux Reservation.”

Just six years after Laramie, Gen. George Custer led a U.S. Army expedition out of Fort Lincoln (present-day Bismarck, N.D.) into the Black Hills to explore suitable sites for forts and routes to them. The action was a purposely provocative treaty violation.

Another mission, to assess the presence of gold, would hasten the treaty’s demise. Custer rosily trumpeted that gold was found, unleashing a torrent of prospectors that the U.S. chose not to contain.

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After a failed bid to buy the Black Hills, the U.S. determined to drive out the Lakota and simply take the area’s riches. Fierce resistance by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was worn down by the Army’s big guns and well-supplied legions, mostly dispatched from Minnesota’s Fort Snelling.

An impetuous Custer relished any fight, but his trademark careless aggression led to his command’s annihilation at the Little Bighorn in 1876. News of the “heroic last stand” prompted a redoubling of U.S. troops in fighting that now included shameless destruction of entire villages and even starving out resisters by wholesale slaughter of bison, the tribes’ staple food.

At war’s end, the “victorious” U.S. carved up the Great Sioux Reservation by first taking back the Black Hills and broad swaths of buffers. The Lakota were forced onto mostly useless land, including the Pine Ridge Reservation on South Dakota’s southern border.

For some years, the U.S. turned its attention to herding western tribes like the Navajo and Apache onto reservations by means as brutal as any of the Plains wars and “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans in colonial America. But the dreaded Army would return to South Dakota.

The Lakota had taken to a spiritual “Ghost Dance” that promised to resurrect their dead to help retake lost land. Their frenzied gyrations while wearing white shirts, believed to deflect enemy bullets, unnerved settlers who requested, and got, Army protection.

On a bitter December day in 1890, a U.S. cavalry contingent intercepted a band of ghost-dancing Lakota and attempted to confiscate what few guns they had. A shot rang out, and panicked soldiers opened fire from all sides, killing 150 men, women and children before hunting down scores of unarmed Lakota and shooting them point-blank as they struggled in the snow.

The infamous Wounded Knee Massacre (incredibly, the U.S. called it a “battle” and awarded medals to its “heroes”) was the last of America’s long, violent campaigns to subdue indigenous tribes all across the continent.

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Manifest Destiny has a long, sinister history that some say lives on today as “American exceptionalism.”

Three decades after Wounded Knee, in 1923, a South Dakota tourism agent advanced an idea for several large sculptures in the Black Hills. He enlisted the support of the renowned Gutzon Borglum, whose most recent work had been carving Stone Mountain, Ga., a grand gathering site for a white supremacist group Borglum belonged to, the Ku Klux Klan.

Borglum embraced the idea, but he wanted to go big. Rather than sculpting Western heroes including Red Cloud, as proposed, Borglum prevailed with a self-promoting plan to do busts of popular U.S. presidents. Crafting Mount Rushmore as we now know it began in 1927 and continued for 14 years.

If you go, there’s much to see in the Black Hills: Devils Tower, the in-progress sculpture of Lakota hero Crazy Horse, magnificent parkland with roaming buffalo, and historic Deadwood. It’s worth a side trip to the Badlands, and maybe a stop at Wall Drug, which got its start offering free ice water to overheated travelers en route to … where else?

At Mount Rushmore, you may learn that the sculptures are arranged for maximum sun exposure, itself a cruel irony: The faces of the four presidents (white conquerors) peer southeast toward a reservation housing vanquished Lakota, who mostly live out forgotten, impoverished lives in the shadow of their sacred Paha Sapa that, legally, still belong to them.

Within that dark shadow is Wounded Knee.

Ron Way, of Edina, is a former official of the U.S. Interior Department and its National Park Service.

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FAQs

What is the real history of Mount Rushmore? ›

Concept, design and funding. Historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea for Mount Rushmore in 1923 to promote tourism in South Dakota. In 1924, Robinson persuaded sculptor Gutzon Borglum to travel to the Black Hills region to ensure the carving could be accomplished.

How do Native Americans feel about Mount Rushmore? ›

To some, Mount Rushmore is hailed as the “Shrine of Democracy.” To American Indians, the monument is typically considered a shrine of illegal occupation.

Who was originally supposed to be on Mount Rushmore? ›

Robinson initially wanted to sculpt with the likenesses of Western heroes like Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud, explorers Lewis and Clark, and Buffalo Bill Cody into the nearby stone pinnacles known as the Needles. 4.

Is there a 5th face on Mount Rushmore? ›

Is there a fifth face on Mount Rushmore? There is no secret fifth face carved into Mount Rushmore. However, for over 20 years, visitors were greeted by Ben Black Elk, unofficially called the fifth face of Mount Rushmore.

What are the six grandfathers? ›

The story behind Mt. Rushmore. The Six Grandfathers (Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe) was named by Lakota medicine man Nicolas Black Elk after a vision. “The vision was of the six sacred directions: west, east, north, south, above, and below.

Why is Mt Rushmore sacred? ›

The creation of Mount Rushmore is a story of struggle — and to some, desecration. The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota Sioux, the original occupants of the area when white settlers arrived.

Who owns the Black Hills now? ›

The land of the Black Hills has a United States Federal Government presence where it is home to five national parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park.

Why was Mount Rushmore built in the Black Hills? ›

Seeking to attract tourism to the Black Hills in the early 1920s, South Dakota's state historian Doane Robinson came up with the idea to sculpt “the Needles” (several giant natural granite pillars) into the shape of historic heroes of the West.

Why did they pick the 4 presidents on Mount Rushmore? ›

Gutzon Borglum selected these four presidents because from his perspective, they represented the most important events in the history of the United States.

Was Mount Rushmore built on sacred land? ›

Built on sacred Native American land and sculpted by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was fraught with controversy even before it was completed 79 years ago on October 31, 1941.

Is Mount Rushmore falling apart? ›

Mount Rushmore is full of cracks and requires constant maintenance. There are many other iconic landmarks in the US that are falling apart.

Will Mount Rushmore ever be finished? ›

Additions are not possible for two reasons. “First, the rock that surrounds the sculpted faces is not suitable for additional carving. When Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore died in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum closed down the project and stated that no more carvable rock existed.”

Can you go inside Mt Rushmore? ›

Mount Rushmore has a secret room that no one can enter. Located behind the facade of Abraham Lincoln, sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed the chamber to hold information for visitors about the monument and information of America's history from 1776 to 1906.

How long did it take to carve out Mount Rushmore? ›

The 60-foot bust memorial was the vision of sculptor Gutzon Borglum and took 14 years to complete. From 1927 to 1941 men and women worked to blast and carve the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into the South Dakota mountain.

Why the Sioux are refusing 1.3 billion? ›

The refusal of the money pivots on a feud that dates back to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by Sioux tribes and Gen. William T. Sherman, that guaranteed the tribes “undisturbed use and occupation” of a swath of land that included the Black Hills, a resource-rich region of western South Dakota.

Why is the Black Hills sacred? ›

To say that the Black Hills (K? e Sapa) hold special significance for the Oceti Sakowin (The Great Sioux Nation) is an understatement. They're not only our traditional homelands, where our ancestors once lived, they're sacred. The Black Hills are the birthplace of our Nation, where we rose from Mother Earth's womb.

Who owned the Black Hills before the Sioux? ›

The region has been inhabited by Native Americans for almost 10,000 years. The Arikara arrived in the Black Hills by about 1500 A.D., followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Pawnee. However, when the Lakota arrived in the 18th century, they drove out the other tribes and claimed the land for themselves.

Why is it called Mount Rushmore? ›

Mount Rushmore was named for Charles E. Rushmore, a New York City attorney who was in the Black Hills working for a mining company in 1884.

Why did they stop carving Mount Rushmore? ›

This repository was intended to tell the story of Mount Rushmore and of the United States . After the United States Congress threatened to cut off all funding for the project unless used specifically to finish the sculpture itself, Borglum reluctantly stopped work on the hall in 1939.

What was Mount Rushmore built for? ›

What is Mount Rushmore a symbol of? ›

Over the decades, Mount Rushmore has grown in fame as a symbol of America-a symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds. All the cultures that make up the fabric of this country are represented by the memorial and surrounding Black Hills.

Who carved Mt Rushmore and why? ›

Borglum came to South Dakota in 1924 at the age of 57 and agreed in principle to do the project. His dismissal from Stone Mountain made it possible to return to South Dakota in the summer of 1925 and set in motion the machinery that eventually led to the creation of Mount Rushmore. Work on the sculpture began in 1927.

Why are they called the Black Hills of Dakota? ›

The name "Black Hills" comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which mean "hills that are black." Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear black.

Who is the richest Native American person? ›

Despite often lacking startup capital and business mentors, innumerable Native-American entrepreneurs have succeeded with a combination of ambition and hard work. One of the wealthiest Native Americans today is Tom Love, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, who co-founded a vast chain of convenience stores.

How much money do you get a month for being Native American? ›

The bottom line is Native Americans do not get automatic monthly or quarterly checks from the United States government. Maybe they should, and maybe one day they will, but at this time it is merely a myth.

What do Native Americans call the Black Hills? ›

Called “Paha Sapa” the Black Hills are home to many tribes, consisting primarily of the Lakota and Dakota nations. However, nearly two dozen other Native American Tribes claim the Black Hills as ancestral and sacred.

Is there lava under Mount Rushmore? ›

A section of it contains a huge plateau of erupted lava. That plateau is less dense than the Earth's mantle, and so, it has caused that section of the Farallon Plate to rise by buoyancy.) Mount Rushmore is the most famous part of the Black Hills. Look at the portraits of the four stone sculptures.

Is Mt Rushmore a volcano? ›

Answer and Explanation: Mount Rushmore is not and has never been a volcano. Many volcanoes are part of mountains, but not all mountains have volcanoes under them. Mount Rushmore is carved into a granite mountain that is part of the Black Hills in South Dakota.

How long will it take for Mount Rushmore to erode? ›

The granite at Mt. Rushmore is eroding at the rate of 1 inch (2.54 cm) every 10,000 years[1]. Each of the noses is about 240 inches (609 cm) long, so they would take some 2.4 million years to erode, barring an ice age that sent glaciers down to scrub them away.

Who was supposed to be the 5th President on Mount Rushmore? ›

List of United States Presidents with their years in office and party affiliation:
1. George Washington1789 - 1797
2. John Adams1797 - 1801Federalist
3. Thomas Jefferson1801 - 1809Democratic - Republican
4. James Madison1809 - 1817Democratic - Republican
5. James Monroe1817 - 1825Democratic - Republican
41 more rows
23 May 2022

How did they decide who to put on Mount Rushmore? ›

These men were chosen because all four played important roles in American history. The four faces carved onto Mount Rushmore are those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Each face carved into the mountain is about 60 feet tall.

Is Mount Rushmore free? ›

There is no entrance fee for Mount Rushmore National Memorial. However, fees are required to park at the memorial. Parking fee is for private passenger vehicles, valid for one year from date of purchase. Parking fee for Seniors, 62 and older, is $5 and Active Duty Military parking is free.

What Indian is carved on Mount Rushmore? ›

History of the monument

Crazy Horse is the real patriot of the Sioux tribe and the only one worthy to place by the side of Washington and Lincoln." Borglum never replied. Thereafter, Henry Standing Bear began a campaign to have Borglum carve an image of Crazy Horse on Mount Rushmore.

What formed the Black Hills? ›

The Black Hills were formed by an uplift that occurred near the end of the Cretaceous Period or the beginning of the Paleogene Period, 65-70 million years ago. The uplift created an elliptical dome, at the center of which is a crystalline core, composed of the oldest rocks in the hills.

Can you take rocks from Mount Rushmore? ›

Protection of Park Resources

The natural and cultural resources are protected. Picking up rocks, collecting plants or feeding wildlife are prohibited. Please do not litter.

Is the making of Mount Rushmore already an erosion? ›

As the Black Hills began to rise, the sedimentary rocks above the crystalline core began to crack, and then erode away. This process of erosion is complete in the area of the memorial-only the granites, pegmatites and metamorphic rocks of the crystalline core are still visible within the boundaries of the memorial.

Who are the 4 faces on Mount Rushmore? ›

Every year, the many visitors to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota draw inspiration from the colossal portraits of four outstanding presidents of the United States: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

What's inside Mt Rushmore? ›

The recesses inside this hall would house bronze and glass cabinets containing important historical documents, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Also included in the hall would be busts of famous Americans and a list of U.S. contributions to the world in science, industry and the arts.

Who paid for Mt Rushmore to be built? ›

The project, which cost $1 million, was funded primarily by the federal government. Borglum continued to touch up his work at Mount Rushmore until he died suddenly in 1941. Borglum had originally hoped to also carve a series of inscriptions into the mountain, outlining the history of the United States.

Is Mount Rushmore lit up at night? ›

From May through early August, the ceremony starts nightly at 9 p.m., and from early August through September 30, it starts nightly at 8 p.m. From October through May, there is no ceremony, but the sculpture is illuminated nightly at sunset.

Is there a lake behind Mount Rushmore? ›

The film made the lake appear to be located directly behind Mount Rushmore when in reality it is actually five miles southwest of Mount Rushmore.
...
Sylvan Lake (South Dakota)
Sylvan Lake
LocationCuster County, South Dakota, United States
Coordinates43°50′44.52″N 103°33′48.57″W
Primary outflowsSunday Gulch Creek
10 more rows

Does it cost to see Crazy Horse? ›

The Crazy Horse Memorial is open all year. Winter hours are from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Entrance fees are: $10 for Adults.

How many people did it take to build Mount Rushmore? ›

October 4, 1927 - October 31, 1941. Mount Rushmore is a project of colossal proportion, colossal ambition and colossal achievement. It involved the efforts of nearly 400 men and women.

Who owns Mt Rushmore? ›

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Governing bodyNational Park Service
Websitewww.nps.gov/moru
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
16 more rows

Are the faces on Mount Rushmore the same size? ›

The head of George Washington is 60 feet tall with a nose that is 21 feet tall. Theodore Roosevelt's head is slightly smaller, Abraham Lincoln's is slightly taller. Each of the eyes on Mount Rushmore are about 11 feet wide.

Was Mount Rushmore built on sacred land? ›

Built on sacred Native American land and sculpted by a man with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was fraught with controversy even before it was completed 79 years ago on October 31, 1941.

Will Mount Rushmore ever be finished? ›

Additions are not possible for two reasons. “First, the rock that surrounds the sculpted faces is not suitable for additional carving. When Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore died in 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum closed down the project and stated that no more carvable rock existed.”

What was Mount Rushmore built for? ›

Is there a secret room in Mount Rushmore? ›

But many Americans might not know the secret behind one of the country's most iconic political monuments. Enter: The Hall of Records at Mount Rushmore. Where the frontal lobe of Abraham Lincoln's brain would be, there is a secret room that contains the text of America's most important documents.

Who owns the Black Hills now? ›

The land of the Black Hills has a United States Federal Government presence where it is home to five national parks: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park.

Why the Sioux are refusing 1.3 billion? ›

The refusal of the money pivots on a feud that dates back to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed by Sioux tribes and Gen. William T. Sherman, that guaranteed the tribes “undisturbed use and occupation” of a swath of land that included the Black Hills, a resource-rich region of western South Dakota.

Who did the Sioux take the Black Hills from? ›

After conquering the Cheyenne in 1776, the Lakota took the territory of the Black Hills, which became central to their culture.

How many years did it take to carve Mount Rushmore? ›

The 60-foot bust memorial was the vision of sculptor Gutzon Borglum and took 14 years to complete. From 1927 to 1941 men and women worked to blast and carve the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into the South Dakota mountain.

Why did they stop carving Mount Rushmore? ›

This repository was intended to tell the story of Mount Rushmore and of the United States . After the United States Congress threatened to cut off all funding for the project unless used specifically to finish the sculpture itself, Borglum reluctantly stopped work on the hall in 1939.

Who was supposed to be the 5th President on Mount Rushmore? ›

List of United States Presidents with their years in office and party affiliation:
1. George Washington1789 - 1797
2. John Adams1797 - 1801Federalist
3. Thomas Jefferson1801 - 1809Democratic - Republican
4. James Madison1809 - 1817Democratic - Republican
5. James Monroe1817 - 1825Democratic - Republican
41 more rows
23 May 2022

Who carved Mt Rushmore and why? ›

Borglum came to South Dakota in 1924 at the age of 57 and agreed in principle to do the project. His dismissal from Stone Mountain made it possible to return to South Dakota in the summer of 1925 and set in motion the machinery that eventually led to the creation of Mount Rushmore. Work on the sculpture began in 1927.

Why is Mount Rushmore important? ›

"The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt."

What makes Black Hills Black? ›

The name "Black Hills" comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which mean "hills that are black." Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear black.

Can you walk on top of Mount Rushmore? ›

Climbing Mount Rushmore is prohibited. Rock climbing is permitted in other areas of the memorial, a brochure is available at the Information Center and Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center.

What is inside the vault behind Mount Rushmore? ›

The repository contains sixteen porcelain enamel panels. Inscribed on the panels is the story of how Mount Rushmore came to be carved, who carved it, the reasons for selecting the four presidents depicted on the mountain and a short history of the United States.

Is Mount Rushmore lit up at night? ›

From May through early August, the ceremony starts nightly at 9 p.m., and from early August through September 30, it starts nightly at 8 p.m. From October through May, there is no ceremony, but the sculpture is illuminated nightly at sunset.

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