Spirit Mound

spirit mound in south dakota
Spirit Mound in South Dakota

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

On August 25, 1804, Lewis, Clark, and several of their men walked nine miles to Spirit Mound from their camp on the south bank of the Missouri River. They were determined to see the mound that was so feared by the indigenous people of the area. In his journal Clark explained the legend of Spirit Mound:

“. . . and by the different nations of Indians in this quarter is Suppose to be the residence of Deavels. That they are in human form with remarkable large heads, and about 18 inches high, that they are very watchful and are arm'd with Sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance; they are Said to kill all persons who are So hardy as to attempt to approach the hill; they state that tradition informs them that many Indians have Suffered by these little people.So much do the Maha [Omaha], Soues [Sioux], Ottoes [Otoes] and other neighboring nations believe this fable, that no Consideration is Sufficient to induce them to approach the hill. One evidence which the Inds give for believing this place to be the residence of some unusial Spirits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this mound . . .”

The intense heat fatigued everyone, especially Lewis’s dog Seaman who was sent back to the river to rest. Finally, Lewis and Clark reached the top of Spirit Mound where they "beheld a most beautiful landscape; Numerous herds of buffalo were seen feeding in various direction; the Plain to the North N.W. and N.E. extends without interruption as far as can be seen."

Today, Spirit Mound is one of the few remaining physical features on the Upper Missouri River that is readily identifiable as a place Lewis and Clark visited and recorded.

Spirit Mound is a High Potential Historic Site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

On August 25, 1804, Lewis, Clark, and ten other men hiked about nine miles north of the Missouri River to visit Spirit Mound. According to Clark, the Omaha, Sioux, and Oto tribes traditionally believed that the hill was inhabited by devils “in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 Inches high”. They were said to be “Very watchfull” and “arm’d with Sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance”. The men encountered no such inhabitants, but found a hill “Situated on an elivated plain in a leavel and ex­tensive prarie […] with a Steep assent to the hight of 65 or 70 feet, leaveing a leavel Plain on the top of 12 feet in width & 90 in length”. Clark observed that soil consistencies with the surrounding terrain indicated the “mound” was a natural landform. He wrote of the view, “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.”

In 1868, European-Americans began to settle in the area. Over time, Spirit Mound was extensively degrad­ed by the impacts of livestock and crop production. By the early 1980s, the landscape was cluttered with over 20 buildings, a feedlot, agricultural fields, roads, fences, and about 1,500 non-native trees. The locally-formed Spirit Mound Trust worked with the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase the 320-acre site from private owners, and then donated it to the state of South Dakota for restoration and preservation. The Spirit Mound Historic Prairie was established as a state park in 2001, with a focus on prairie restora­tion. In 2004, the Spirit Mound Summit Trail was designated as a national recreation trail.

For more information, visit the Spirit Mound Trust website. 


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Last updated: July 29, 2019