Western History: The Black Hills and Badlands

The surreal beauty and natural wonder of the Black Hills belie the upheavals that created the mystical hills. Stunning natural formations, sculpted over eons of time by the forces of nature provide inspiration for local residents and visitors alike.

For thousands of years the Black Hills and Badlands have been a haven for wildlife, eagles, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, mountain cats and a few thousand bison, all that remains of the millions who once roamed the plains. Interwoven with the diversified landscape is the dense tapestry of Native American tribal culture, rich in art and spiritual traditions that provide the region with a living monument to the past and insights into present day life.

With westward expansion the history of the United States changed dramatically. Settlers came in ever increasing numbers. Prospectors, hearing the rumors of gold in the Black Hills came seeking their fortune. The government, determined to link the oceans with a railroad and move the Indians onto reservations, hired the buffalo hunters to destroy the herds of bison that numbered in the millions. These were turbulent times that culminated at the Battle of Little Big Horn, a battle that ushered in a new way of life for both the Native Americans and the newly arrived settlers and adventurers who made the west their home.

The people associated with the Western region are as legendary as the landscape. Sitting Bull, General Custer, Crazy Horse, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are just a few of the characters whose lives and legacies have added to the rich history of the area.

A large land and rugged landscape make men dream on a monumental scale. In 1849, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton proposed that a gigantic statue of Christopher Columbus be carved into the Rocky Mountains. That never happened, but in 1925 when South Dakota State Historian, Doane Robinson, dreamed of a massive sculpture in the Black Hills, sculptor Gutzon Borglum brought the idea to life. The carving began in August, 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the mountain site and Borglum drilled the first holes. It continued until Borglum’s death in 1941 when our “Shrine of Democracy” was considered complete. Today, Mt. Rushmore is world renowned for both its patriotic symbolism and its artistry.

Sculptor Korzak Ziolkowski, responding to a plea from Chief Henry Standing Bear, who told him, “My people must also know we had heroes”, came to the Black Hills in 1947 and began carving his tribute to Crazy Horse just 20 miles from Mt. Rushmore. The massive carving of the warrior on his horse has already taken over 50 years and could take another fifty to finish, but Korzak’s family has sworn to complete it no matter how many lifetimes it takes.

The great west brings to life many cultural aspects of the past and presents a new beginning by combining modern culture integrated with sacred symbolism, history and culture.