32. Spirit Mound near Vermillion, SD
n On 25 August 1804, obedient to Jefferson’s direction to observe the Indians’ traditions and monuments, Lewis and Clark went inland to visit a "conic form" rising from the plain. Local Sioux, Omaha, and Oto Indians related its fascinating legend with enough passion and color to beguile the explorers into going there, despite the oppressive late August heat, and gave them enough detail to lead them precisely nine miles north and twenty degrees west from the mouth of the Vermillion River. The storytellers called it the "Mountain of little people or Spirits," knee-high, big-headed demons who repelled mortals with "murceyless fury."
Unmolested by the "unusial Spirits," the party climbed to the top of the hill, from which they saw herds of buffalo grazing among distant hills. They made note of the cloud of insects in the mound's lee and the swallows that feasted on them. Clark described the shape and dimensions of the mound, as well as the character of the surrounding landscape, in exceptional detail.
|This Mound is Situated on an elivated plain in a leavel and extensive prarie, bearing N. 20° W. from themouth of White Stone Creek Nine Miles, the base of the Mound is a regular parallelagram the long Side of which is about 300 yards in length the Shorter 60 or 70 yards— from the longer Side of the Base it rises from the North & South with a Steep assent to the hight of 65 or 70 feet, leaveing a leavel Plain on the top of 12 12 feet in width & 90 in length. the North & South part of this mound is join[ed] by two regular rises, each in Oval forms of half its hight forming three regular rises from the Plain the assent of each elivated part is as Sudden as the principal mound at the narrower Sides of its Bass—|
The reagular form of this hill would in Some measure justify a belief that it owed its Orrigin to the hand of man; but as the earth and loos pebbles and other Substances of which it was Composed, bare an exact resemblance to the Steep Ground which border on the Creek in its neighbourhood we Concluded it was most probably the production of nature—
The only remarkable Charactoristic of this hill admitting it to be a natural production is that it is insulated or Seperated a considerable distance from any other, which is verry unusial in the naturul order or disposition of the hills.
The Surrounding Plains is open void of Timber and leavel to a great extent: hence the wind from whatever quarter it may blow, drives with unusial force over the naked Plains and against this hill; the insects of various kinds are thus involuntaryly driven to the mound by the force of the wind, or fly to its Leward Side for Shelter; the Small Birds whoes food they are, Consequently . . . resort in great numbers to this place in Surch of them; Perticularly the Small brown Martin of which we saw a vast number hovering on the Leward Side of the hill, when we approached it in the act of Catching those insects; they were So gentle that they did not quit the place untill we had arrivd. within a fiew feet of them—
One evidence which the Inds Give for believeing this place to be the residence of Some unusial Spirits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this mound— is in my opinion a suffient proof to produce in the Savage mind a Confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe it.
from the top of this Mound we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding in various directions, the Plain to North N. W & N E extends without interuption as far as Can be Seen—
After the expedition was over, Clark apparently gave Nicholas Biddle quite a bit more information about the place and its environs than he had confided to his own journal that day — dimensions, shape, makeup, habitat, and viewshed. The captains and their ten companions enjoyed the delightful prospect, with herds of buffalo grazing among the distant hills. To escape that “murceyless” wind, insects clouded in the mound’s lee, where gentle brown martins flocked to feast on them. Yet the real story of the slow evolution and shape-shifting of such landforms beneath life-loaded inland seas, ice-long glaciers, and inchmeal abrasions by wind and rain was not yet within the purview of Clark’s generation’s understanding.
Nearly 200 years later, it is certain that this “Conic form,” its crown now a scant one hundred feet above the “emence Plain,” began as a pile of seashells some eighty million years ago, then was draped in glacial drift, and finally trodden firm by bovine hooves. The vivid Indian legend survives, with the short story of Lewis and Clark’s visit hanging on it like a matching handbag. But in the past two centuries its aspect has morphed from shortgrass prairie to farmland and feedlot, and within recent years — thanks to the pride and energy of today’s locals, both Indian and otherwise — back to the Expedition-era benchmark. The farm and its sheltering trees are now gone from this picture, and the mound's green mantle blooms each May with the old grasses and flowers.
From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark
Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press.