The names we give to places do more than provide labels for a map. A name represents the meaning which a place holds to a person or group. It helps us remember what a place is, who lives there, and why it is important. It identifies the significance of an area's history.
The place we know as Devils Tower was not always called by this name. American Indian tribes who lived in this region had their own names for the formation. The most common and widely used during the time of United States exploration of the Black Hills (1855-75) was Bears Lodge. Other names used by Native Americans included Grey Horn Butte, Tree Rock, and The Place Where Bears Live.
Bears Lodge or Devils Tower?
Most maps from 1857 to 1901 mark this feature as Bears Lodge (a translation from a common Lakota name for the Tower, Mato Tipila). The name change happened during this time period with information brought back by an expedition led by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge. His expedition sent a small contingent, including geologist and mapmaker Henry Newton, to study the Tower. Afte Newton's group returned, Dodge wrote that "the Indians call this place 'bad god's tower,' a name adopted with proper modification..." And so the label "Devil's Tower" was created.
No other records indicate that Native Americans associated this place with bad gods or evil spirits. It is suspected that a bad translation led the men to confuse the words for bear and bad god. Others feel Dodge deliberately changed the name of an important indigenous site. Although maps still called the Tower "Bears Lodge," Col. Dodge published a book about his expedition which became very popular. The new name "Devil's Tower" became lodged in the public consciousness, and was adopted by the early 1900s.
A Grammatical Error
When the Tower was dedicated as a national monument in 1906, the proclamation inadvertently left out the apostrophe from the word "Devil's." Since that time, the place has been known as Devils Tower.
Changing a Name
Controversy exists today over the proper name of this place. In 2014, petitions were submitted to change the name from Devils Tower to Bear Lodge. While the park can educate people about the proposal to change the name, the National Park Service does not have authority to change the name of a place.
Last updated: April 9, 2019