Spirit Mound Historic Prairie

Location and owner/manager:

Clay County north of Vermillion. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

From the southeast at Interstate 29 exit 26: Go west on Highway 50 eight miles to Highway 19 in Vermillion and turn right. Go north on Highway 19 a little over five miles to a parking lot on the left. For reference this parking lot is one tenth of a mile beyond the intersection of Highway 19 and 312th Street. Free. No camping. Pets on leash.

Spirit Mound Historic Prairie is a three hundred acre prairie that was added to the South Dakota state park system in 2001. This prairie is largely a restoration - perhaps only five acres are unplowed native vegetation. The land here was once part of two pioneer homesteads while the slope around Spirit Mound that was too steep to conveniently farm was used for many years as a feed lot. A three quarter of a mile trail goes through the prairie to the summit of Spirit Mound. At the beginning of this trail there are a few interpretive panels that describe the unusual history of this locality.

The first written account of the vicinity of the mound was made by members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the late summer of 1804 during their voyage up the Missouri River. On Friday August 24 the Corps of Discovery stopped near the mouth of the Whitestone River to hunt game and to examine the surrounding terrain which included two unusual mounds. To the south of the river was a hot smoking mound which many years later picked up the name of the ‘Ionia Volcano’ while to the north was an isolated hill that William Clark on a map he drew referred to as ‘this place called by the Indians Hills of Little Devils’ surrounded by a ‘Beautiful Plain.’ In his field notes from August 24 Captain Clark described the hill and its sinister reputation in more detail:

“Capt Lewis and my Self Concluded to visit a High Hill Situated in an emence Plain three Leagues N. 20° W. from the mouth of White Stone river, this hill apear to be of a Conic form and by all the different Nations in this quater is Supposed to be a place of Deavels or that they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 inches high; that they are very watchfull and ar armed 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 attemp to approach the hill; they state that tradition informs them that may indians have suffered by these little people and among others that three Maha men fell a sacrefice to their murceyless fury not meany years since— so much do the Mahas Souix Ottoes and other neibhbouring nations believe this fable that no consideration is sufficient to induce them to approach this hill.” (“August 24, 1804” in The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 2005. U of Nebraska Press / U of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries-Electronic Text Center. 5 Oct. 2005).

On Saturday August 25 Lewis and Clark accompanied by about half of the men of the expedition and Seaman – Lewis’s large lumbering Newfoundland - set out to pay a visit to this hill of little devils. Clark described the day’s events as follows:

“This morning Capt Lewis & my Self G D. Sjt. Ouderway Shields J. Fields colter Bratten Cane Labeeche corp Wovington Frasure & York Set out to Visit this mountain of evel Spirits, we Set out from the mouth of the White Stone Creek, at 8 oClock, at 4 miles Cross the Creek in an open plain, at 7 ms. the dog gave out & we Sent him back to the Creek at 12 oClock we rose the hill Some time before we got to the hill we obsevd. great numbers of Birds hovering about the top of this Mound when I got on the top those Birds flw off. I discovered that they wer Cetechig a kind of flying ant which were in great numbers abought the top of this hill, those insects lit on our hats & necks, Several of them bit me verry Shart on the neck, near the top of this nole I observed three holes which I Supposed to be Prarie Wolves or Braroes, which are numerous in those Plains. this hill is about 70 foot high in an emince Prarie or leavel plain from the top I could not observe any woods except in the Missourie Points and a few Scattering trees on the three Rivers in view. i' e' the Soues River below, the River Jacque above & the one we have crossed from the top of this Mound we observed Several large gangus of Buffalow & Elk feeding upwards of 800 in number” (ibid., “August 25, 1804”).

Thus the expedition found no little devils armed with sharp arrows at the top of Spirit Mound but did find some basis for local lore regarding the hill – namely, the large number of birds and stinging ants flying about near the summit. Clark further elaborated on this in another entry:

“The Surrounding Plains is open void of Timber and leavel to a great extent: hence the wind from whatever quarter it may blow, drives with unusial force over the naked Plains and against this hill; the insects of various kinds are thus involuntaryly driven to the mound by the force of the wind, or fly to its Leward Side for Shelter; the Small Birds whoes food they are, Consequently resort in great numbers to this place in Surch of them; Perticularly the Small brown Martin of which we saw a vast number hovering on the Leward Side of the hill, when we approached it in the act of Catching those insects; they were So gentle that they did not quit the place untill we had arrivd. within a fiew feet of them— One evidence which the Inds Give for believeing this place to be the residence of Some unusial Spirits is that they frequently discover a large assemblage of Birds about this mound …” (ibid.).

The other captain of the Corps – Meriwether Lewis – had a much briefer entry in his natural history notes describing the trip to Spirit Mound. He noted that “on our return from the mound of sperits saw the first bats that we had observed since we began to ascend the Missouri.” (ibid.).

Spirit Mound is one of but many mounds and buttes in the Great Plains which were treated with a mix of fear and respect by local Indian tribes. These high points in a rolling landscape were frequently used to observe or seek refuge and sometimes served as open air graveyards. Ocheyedan Mound in northwest Iowa even had a similar reputation as Spirit Mound of angry little devils at its summit (Foster, Lance M. 1999. "Tanji na Che: Recovering the Landscape of the Ioway" in Sayre, Robert F. (ed.) In Recovering The Prairie. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press). The ‘Ionia Volcano’ that the Corps of Discovery marveled at in the same vicinity as Spirit Mound may also have had a sinister reputation but of a different sort. Ninety years after the Lewis and Clark expedition William Huse a local newspaper publisher gave a colorful account of the Ionia Volcano’s use by the Arapaho as a sacrificial site to a fire god: “Here, say the old legends, on a stone platform or altar rudely built by the Indians, the preliminary ceremonies and torturings of the unhappy victims took place before they were consigned to the embraces of the more merciful fires of the volcano.” (Huse, William. 1896. The History of Dixon County, Nebraska. Norfolk, NE: Press of the Daily News. p281). His source for the ‘old legends’ is not given however and he further notes that the Ionia Volcano itself collapsed into the Missouri River in the late 1870s.

Many maps of the presettlement prairie within North America show the eastern quarter of present day South Dakota where Spirit Mound is located as being well within the zone of tallgrass prairie. However based upon the journals of Lewis and Clark a case can be made that in 1804 the landscape surrounding Spirit Mound was beginning to take on aspects of a mixed or even short grass prairie. From the vantage point of this hill the members of the expedition took note of a vast treeless plain occupied by large herds of bison and elk. A few days later about sixty miles upriver the expedition would encounter their first prairie dogs and pronghorn which are mammals of the short grass prairie. Another indicator that the Corps of Discovery was on the edge of the mixed grass prairie is what they dined on following their return trip from Spirit Mound. Besides jerked meat they feasted on ‘Prarie Lark’ which Captain Clark described as ‘the Size of a Pigeon and Peculier to this country’ (Journals, ibid). This ‘Prarie Lark’ most likely was either western meadowlark or horned lark which typically are birds of the mixed or short grass prairies respectively.

In wrapping up the Corps of Discovery’s trip to Spirit Mound I will simply quote from Captain Clark one last time – ‘on a Buffalow roabe we Slept verry well’ (ibid.) – which no doubt was a welcomed conclusion to a day in late August 1804 that was much too hot for dogs and evil little spirits.