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 live in this region have 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 Bear Lodge. Other English translations of names used by Native Americans include 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 Bear Lodge or 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. After 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. Cartographers, geologists, and others in the academic community continued to use Bear Lodge for many years. The General Land Office (responsible for granting homestead and property rights in the late 1800s) sent a letter to a field office in 1890 regarding land claims around the future monument: "it appears that a great national wonder locally known as the 'Devils Tower' technically called the 'Bear Lodge Butte...' is being sought for speculative purposes." Regardless, 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.
The US Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is the federal agency responsible for managing place names. Since its inception in 1890, the BGN utilizes a policy not to make place names possessive (e.g. "Devil's Tower"): "Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are discouraged within the body of a proper geographic name" (US BGN Principles, Policies, and Procedures). Although Dodge wrote it as a possessive, and many white settlers used the phrase "the Devil's Tower," drafting of the monument's proclamation likely resulted in instituting this policy of non-possessive place names. And so "the Devil's Tower" became simply "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: December 13, 2019