The Presidents’ Heads

Black Hills

South Dakota

May 2015

Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills, an isolated mountain range rising up from the vast Great Plains in the western part of South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.  This area is rich in American history and the story of the Mount Rushmore monument is one of many slightly ignored capsules of what made us who we are today.

Roughly 13 002 years ago, give or take 20 minutes, Native tribes came to this area, the oldest mountains in the United States.  Since then, it’s been occupied by Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Arapaho and Pawnee.  In the 18th century, the Lakota drove out the other tribes and claimed the land for themselves.  Looking at the tree-covered mountains from a distance, there was a darkness.  The Lakota named this range Pahá Sápa, “hills that are black.”  The Black Hills.

The Lakota tribe, also known as the Teton Sioux, believed this land to be sacred.  This is where they made contact with the spirit world.  This is where they received spiritual power.  This is where they ventured on their vision quests and performed the Sun Dance.  This is where plants grew that they harvested for medicine and for ceremonial use.

Inevitably, white people started trickling into this area in the 18th century but most stayed away, honoring this sacred Lakota land.  The U S Army however, established outposts nearby, antagonizing the Natives, spurring them to stage occasion raids.  By 1868 the federal government entered into a number of treaties, forever ceding the Black Hills to the Lokota in exchange for an agreement to cease hostilities against settlers, pioneers and railroad workers.

Over the next decade, in spite of the treaties, devilish white settlers illegally trespassed here, ignoring all of the Indian settlements and activities.  Then a very bad thing happened, very bad for the Natives.  Gold was discovered in the Black Hills.  Almost instantly, one hundred thousand prospectors and miners invaded the land, violating virtually every word of the treaties, and federal law as well.  The United States seized title to millions of acres of hunting grounds in the Black Hills and legalizing gold mining.  Disregarding the treaties, they built railroads and decimated bison herds, forcing the Sioux and other tribes into small enclaves in the Black Hills.  Many battles ensued and by 1876, the U S Army had conquered the Lakota tribe forcing survivors onto reservations.  Fourteen years later, the last band of independent Sioux warriors surrendered beside Wounded Knee Creek.

White men come in like a river.  They told us that they wanted only a little land.  But our people knew better.
— Black Elk

When the Natives surrendered at Wounded Knee Creek, it was supposed to be a peaceful affair.  But soldiers confronted the Native tribes.  It was to be a quiet gathering, but soldiers carry guns.  Not surprisingly, one of the guns fired.  Pandemonium ensued and it led to a massacre.  Within minutes more than two hundred Indian warriors, women and children lay dead.

When I look back now, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young and I see that something else died there — a people’s dream died there.  It was a beautiful dream.
— Black Elk

Gold and cattle and tin in the Black Hills generated tremendous wealth, but not enough to contain the ambitious “new order” settlers, frontiersmen and prospectors caught up in the rapidly developing great American tradition:  wanting and needing more.  And more.  Jonah LeRoy “Doane” Robinson, South Dakota state historian, decided that gold and cattle and tin weren’t enough.  He, like so many others, wanted more.  “Let’s bring in the tourists and they will bring in the money,” he might have said.  How to bring them to visit?

Robinson came up with the idea of commissioning a sculptor to transform the tall granite rock formations in the Black Hills into memorials of major figures from the mythic narrative of the American West.  Building these outsized monuments along a new highway would be an excellent way to lure tourists away from Yellowstone National Park.  He could envision big ole dollar bills winging their way into the mountains and into his pockets.

So let’s see.  What mythic heroes should be portrayed, giant size, on the spires?  Following were Doane Robinson’s choices.  I’ve tried to color in these characters with some real life background…

George Armstrong Custer

Custer, as a cavalry officer, was distinguished for his military successes, of which there were many, even though he was almost constantly in trouble with his superior officers for his reckless temperament, not incompatible with his unassailable courage, probably responsible for many of his victories.  Ironic, isn’t it, that he’s most famous for a catastrophic strategic boner.

In 1876, Custer came upon an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne at camp in the valley of the Little Bighorn River.  As part of a larger effort by the U S government to clear the Black Hills area of the Natives, Custer decided to lead his 700 soldiers in attack.  Not aware that the Sioux/Cheyenne camp housed 7000 people, it wasn’t much of a battle.  It took about three hours for all of his 700 soldiers to be whacked.  This battle was nicknamed “Custer’s Last Stand.”

While the Natives won this battle, the U S responded by rounding up more than 3000 Native warriors and herding them onto reservations.  The rest scattered throughout the Black Hills.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

Lewis and Clark were army soldiers handpicked by Thomas Jefferson to lead an exploratory trip across the western half of the continent.

The two explorers, when meeting a Native tribe for the first time, would explain to the tribal leaders that their land now belonged to the United States, and that a man far in the east, President Thomas Jefferson, was their new “great father.”

How did the Native tribes — at least 55 distinct, separate groups — feel about the westward expedition conducted by Lewis and Clark?  Especially the part where they learned that their land was no longer their own?  Surprisingly, some tribes were okay with it, even offering food, horses and supplies to Lewis and Clark.  Some tribes were not at all pleased and in a number of cases, they nearly came to fisticuffs.

Seriously, how the hell did L & C get away with that?  One clear element that kept the world from exploding upon delivery of their message was the presence of Sacagawea.

Sacagawea from the Hidatsa Tsakáka Wía

Sacagawea was a bilingual Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition as an interpreter and guide, and who looks a little like Demi Lovato when her hair is a dark color.

Sacagawea served as a translator for the scouting party with the various Indian tribes who each had their own language.  She also had a sense of the terrain of this essentially unexplored area of the Louisiana Purchase which was helpful during their surveying slogs through unblazed territory.  She was a highly skilled food gatherer able to find wild licorice, prairie turnips and wild artichoke buried by mice for the winter.  She had skill in distinguishing roots, plants and berries;  some could be eaten or used for medicinal purposes.  And she did all this while caring for her infant child who had been born two months before they all set out on the expedition.

The presence of a Native American woman — with an infant! — gave a gentle appearance to this troop, especially to many Native Americans who had never seen a white face before.  You can imagine that Sacagawea eased the tension.

Red Cloud Mahpíya Lúta

Red Cloud was a Sioux chief who, as combat commander and political leader, fought bravely but unsuccessfully to save his people and their land from the invasion of the white people.  Red Cloud’s continued physical assault on interlopers finally convinced General Ulysses S Grant to abandon forts along a route essential for the trade of gold.  Later Red Cloud attended receptions at the White House and in New York but his efforts, eloquent and diplomatic as they were, could not overcome the greed inspired by the discovery of gold.

Later in life, when he was done fighting, Red Cloud moved his people to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  He continued to work to improve the lives of his tribe and died here at the age of 88.

John C Frémont

Frémont, in spite of the diacritical mark in his name, was an American.  He served as a military officer and was an early explorer and mapmaker of the American West.  Frémont played a major role in opening up the West to settlement and at one time was an unsuccessful presidential candidate of the newly formed Republican party.

Buffalo Bill Cody

Above all Cody was a showman.  His background as a scout, bison hunter, Pony Express rider and Indian fighter all contributed to his fame.  More than anything else, he is best known as the man who gave the Wild West its name by creating the myth of the American West.  He fashioned the modern image of the cowboy as a knight on horseback.

Buffalo Bill claimed to have killed 4280 bison in seventeen months.  That’s more than eight every day, somehow earning for himself his nickname.  The combination of real life exploits and his “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” show, with the mythical treatment he got in literature, raised him to the rank of one of the most popular personalities of his time.

These then are the heroes Doane Robinson chose to be immortalized in stone.


So it seems that the Native Americans are screwed.  Yah, we knew that.


To get things rolling, Mr Robinson turned to the most famous sculptor of the time, Gutzon Borglum.  Uh-huh, that’s the guy I was thinking of too.  Much of Borglum’s fame came from his creation of the monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia.  This massive bas-relief carving depicts military heroes of the Confederacy:  General Robert E Lee, General Stonewall Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  And their horses.

Actually, Borglum never finished this carving.  Heck, hardly had he lifted chisel and hammer when he was fired.  Not many people know this.  Also not widely publicized is the fact that Borglum was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.  One of the purposes of carving up Stone Mountain — at one time Borglum denied this — was to revitalize the Klan.

In this land of the Black Hills, stone spires, called “the Needles,” jut into the air.  Doane had these in mind for the monumental carvings and he gave his list of nominees — Custer, Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Frémont and Buffalo Bill — to the sculptor.  But Borglum found the Needles too fragile to support the figures.  Instead he selected Six Grandfathers, one of the nearby prominent stone mountains as his venue.  Naturalists and preservationists loudly criticized this choice but Doane responded, “God only makes a Michelangelo or a Gutzon Borglum once in a thousand years.”

Hell of a convincing argument, don’t you think?

Oh, and yes, this was Native land.  Well, never mind.

Borglum had other ideas as well.  Out went the ideas of carving these choice personalities and in came a “Shrine of Democracy,” displaying Presidential portraits.  Work started in 1926.

What about Borglum’s conscience?  His what?  He dedicated the carving, on land sacred to the Lakota people, as a clear sign of United States expansion.  The conquest of the Lakota people and the theft of their sacred land was justified by Manifest Destiny.  You could almost hear white expansionists murmur, “It was meant to be.”

A year later President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the construction of the monument.  Nine years later President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the monument again.  Neither man made mention of the Natives who lived in the area and how, throughout the ages, this had been their land.  Tourists and visitors to the new monument were oblivious to the fact that Six Grandfathers had once been Indian land, and that it was still sacred to them.

To the Natives, this monument was a symbol of white America’s arrogance, racism and spiritual insensitivity.  To wit…

.  The white man’s perspective on the building of the Mount Rushmore Memorial:  “When the carving began…”

.  The Lakota and other tribes’ perspective:  “When the desecration happened…”

.  The white people who settled in America built things and called them sacred:  churches, statues, memorials.

.  The Lakota saw the land as naturally sacred, full of living things and therefore worthy of worship as is;  plants, animals and even people, rivers, rocks and mountains, all imbued with spirit.  It is a living landscape, all lives connected.

You know the cause of our making war.  It is known to all white men.  They ought to be ashamed of it.
—Black Hawk

An Indian who is as bad as the white man could not live in our nation.  He would be put to death and would be eaten up by the wolves.

—Black Hawk


What is this Six Grandfathers business?  You ever hear of that before?  Six Grandfathers?  It’s the name given the mountain that formed in the time between the dinosaurs’ extinction and the beginning of the most recent ice age.  It is the name given by the people who have lived in the Black Hills for thousands of years, the people who have had a geographical, societal, historical and spiritual connection to the mountain for all these ages.  Six Grandfathers is older than the Alps, the Himalayas and the Pyrenees Mountains.  And Six Grandfathers is the mountain upon which the Presidents’ Heads is carved.

…Every little thing is sent for something, and in that thing there should be happiness and the power to make happy.  Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus we should do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the World.

In 1884, a New York City attorney named Charles E Rushmore came to the Black Hills to examine some property titles concerning the burgeoning tin mining in the area.  On his way back to camp, he asked his guide, Bill Challis, what the name of this prominent mountain might be.  As we know, the Lakota already had a name for it.  But Challis, in an act of ignorance, whether intentional or not we’ll never know, essentially replied, “Hanged if we know!  Let’s call the damned thing ‘Rushmore.’”  All the other white people were okay with this.  And there it is.

All four presidents whose heads are on Mount Rushmore were white.  Which is to say, not Native.  Were they unsympathetic to the Natives and their lives?  You be the judge…

George Washington — face dedicated in 1934

First Washington liked the Native Americans, then he didn’t.  In 1779, he ordered Major General John Sullivan to attack the Iroquois people:  “…lay waste all the settlements around… that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”  He also instructed the general not to “…listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.”  Within five years 28 of 30 Seneca towns had been destroyed.

Thomas Jefferson — face dedicated in 1936

Jefferson had no interest in fighting with the Native peoples.  Rather his simple plan was this;  All tribes were to give up their culture, religion and way of life and adopt western European culture, Christianity and a sedentary agricultural lifestyle.  Jefferson was too smart to believe such a thing could possibly happen so he instructed Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who was responsible for Indian affairs:  “…never lay [the hatchet] down until that tribe is exterminated, or driven beyond the Mississippi.”

Abraham Lincoln — face dedicated in 1937

Lincoln was supposedly not particularly hostile to the Indians.  Yet, he ordered the execution of 38 members of the Dakota tribe in the largest mass hanging in United States history.  These 38 were among the 300 rounded up with the intention of effecting mass execution.

True, Lincoln acted in response to an Indian raid that took the lives of 400 soldiers and settlers but the Indians argued that they were acting in frustration and anger that grew from years of mistreatment:  being shuttled to small reservations, broken treaties and promises, payments of debt with substandard goods, forced marches, the seizing of land, starvation and an offering of $200 for Dakota scalps, all by white settlers and the government.

Theodore Roosevelt — face dedicated in 1939

He had some conflicting opinions on what should be done with the Indians.  To wit…

This continent had to be won.  We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that…it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain…of squalid savages.  It had to be taken by the white race.

—Theodore Roosevelt

I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.

—Theodore Roosevelt

In my judgment the time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Give the red man the same chance as the white.  This country is founded on a doctrine of giving each man a fair show to see what there is in him.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Currently, it is raining, so it appears that our former presidents all are tearfully regretful for their xenophobic, prejudiced, intolerant racist opinions.

Have you seen this sculpture, these Presidents’ Heads?  It’s very big.  The faces alone are 60 feet tall, about the height of a six-story building.  You don’t get something this large without shelling out a lot of money.  The carvings at Mount Rushmore cost nearly a million dollars ($989 992.32 according to the National Park Service.)  In 1927 dollars, it’s a million.  Currently, it’s the equivalent of more than thirteen million dollars.

Here’s how they got the money.  Sculptor Gutzon Borglum and U S Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota invited Calvin Coolidge, president of the United States, to visit the area of Custer State Park.  Their intention was to butter him up and thus loosen up some government dollars.  Their plan?

At the northern corner of Custer State Park is an inn.  It’s called the State Game Lodge.  Borglum and Norbeck put up the president and his wife Grace at the Lodge.  Every night they had workers quietly stock the stream outside his room with thousands of trout.  Not surprisingly Coolidge found the fishing to be excellent, so excellent that he chose to stay for two months, much longer than he had planned.  The sculptor and the politician used this time to convince the president to fund the carving of the monument.

Lisa and I stay at the State Game Lodge too but unlike the president, we stay for only one night.  We pay for it ourselves.  We sup in the expansive dining room.  Our menu is presidential:  elk osso bucco, quail stuffed with rattlesnake and rabbit sausage and pheasant spring rolls.  No dessert, thank you.

The Coolidges were most fond of animals.  In fact, Lisa and I enjoy our presidential-like dinner under a portrait of Grace Coolidge holding her favorite pet, Rebecca.  Rebecca the raccoon.


Annoying as he could be, Gutzon Borglum was quite a presence.  While he was commissioned to carve certain figures into the Needles rock formations, he decided that would not do.  Nope.  He changed the venue and he changed the choice of whose heads would be stoned.  Pretty much everything.

Instead of any of the Doane Robinson-chosen personalities, he chose four presidents to be the long-lasting symbols of America’s greatness.

I’ve already laid into these four chief execs so how about I balance it a little.  I mean, they weren’t all bad.  Just a lot bad.

Here’s why these four were chosen…

George Washington

.  our first president, which is a big deal

.  led the colonists in the American Revolutionary War to win independence from Great Britain

Thomas Jefferson

.  author of the Declaration of Independence

.  purchased the Louisiana Territory doubling the size of the country

Abraham Lincoln

.  held the nation together during its greatest trial, the Civil War

.  credited with ending slavery in the United States

Theodore Roosevelt

.  instrumental in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal, linking the east and the west

.  as the “trust buster,” ended large corporate monopolies and ensured the rights of the common working man (apparently it didn’t stick)

Robinson summed them up thus…

.  GW represented the birth of the United States

.  TJ represented the growth of the U S

.  AL represented the preservation of the U S

.  TR represented the development of the U S


The Mount Rushmore monument is very crowded.  Here is this enormous monument, as large as a six-story building (and Washington with a nose 21 feet long.)  And yet, 90% of the time, most visitors migrate to the insides of the buildings.  There’s the gift shop, the artist’s studio, a restaurant, the history association building, the book store and an audio tour building.  Everywhere is crowded, especially because today it is raining.  Even so, the Presidential Trail with its 422 steps that get you a little closer to the presidential heads is crowded.

Indoor exhibits show us how much workers got paid, a twenty-foot tall model of the head carvings and what the original plan looked like, photos of the project as it progressed, explanations of how the carving was accomplished, explanations of how great these four presidents were, the Avenue of Flags with its 56 state and territory flags and on and on and don’t forget the gift shop.

Of course, Lisa and I climb the 422 steps to get closer to the royal faces.  From here we see things from a different perspective.  For example, if you look at the left side of Lincoln’s head, you will see that he has no ear over there.  For that matter, he has no left side of his head.

That’s not all that’s not here.  The original design, as one can see in the sculpture’s model in his studio, includes all the guys’ chests, hands and arms, ears and clothing down to their presidential waists.  In a back room you can find a drawing of this concept with Roosevelt holding two fingers in a rabbit pose behind Lincoln’s head.  It’s a hoot.

I made up the part about the rabbit ears.

A random tourist stated to his companion, loud enough for us to hear, his belief that, if you can get up to the faces, you can climb up inside the nostrils and peek out the eyes.  Huh-uh.  Can’t do that.  Never could, never will.  It’s a monument, not an amusement park.


The heads were not the only part of the originally designed memorial.  A Hall of Records was to be built into a cave behind the heads and a massive panel in the shape of the Louisiana Purchase was to be affixed to the rock on Washington’s right.  The plaque was to be engraved in eight-foot-tall gilded letters with the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Louisiana Purchase.  Never happened.

The building progressed for thirteen years until the 1940s.  At this time, the country needed to redirect its energy from the monument to the war.  Then Gutzon Borglum died.  His son, Lincoln — yes, named after his dad’s favorite president — applied some finishing touches and the Mount Rushmore Memorial was declared complete.


I don’t know if you’ve heard about this but over the years, there have been some women who have contributed to the cause of the United States of America.  It’s true.  And there are some people who believe that we should honor these women.

For example, in 1937, a bill was introduced in Congress to add the head of women’s rights leader Susan B Anthony to Mount Rushmore.  As we know just by looking, it didn’t happen.  Twenty days after Lisa and I summited Harney Peak, the high point of South Dakota, U S Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that by 2020, a woman will be featured on the $10 bill.  Women are important.  Try not to be shocked.


I overheard a tourist ask a ranger, “So which one is President Rushmore?”

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