Devils Tower: Born From the Earth After a Bear Mated with a Woman
Devils Tower in Wyoming, USA holds both historical and ancestral importance. This magnificent geological feature has long been considered sacred by the many of the Native American tribes who have lived in the area and it was the first landmark declared a United States National Monument.
Where is Devils Tower?
This is a natural geologic formation which is part of the Bear Lodge Mountains, a small mountain range in Crook County, Wyoming. Whilst geologists are not entirely certain about how this tower was formed, several theories have been put forward.
The most widely accepted theory postulates that Devils Tower is actually a laccolithic butte. Such a feature is formed when a large amount of igneous rock rises to the surface of the earth but is sandwiched between two layers of sedimentary rock. As a result, a bulge in the earth is created, and the molten rock is unable to escape, thus allowing it to cool slowly underground.
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Devils Tower monument, Wyoming, USA. ( Public Domain )
An alternative theory suggests that it is the interior of an extinct volcano and was formed after the remaining debris and ash eroded away.
Native American Legend of Devils Tower
The Native Americans who live in area, however, rely on their folklore to explain how the tower came into being, and these tales vary from one tribe to another. As an example, according to Cheyenne folklore, a band of warriors and their families went to the area to worship the Great Spirit, as it is believed to be a sacred site. Whilst they were there, a huge bear mated with one of the warriors’ wives, and when the warrior found out about it, he was determined to kill the bear.
Painting of Southern Cheyenne chief Chief Killer by E.A Burbank, 1899. ( Public Domain )
The bear, however, was so huge, that the warrior retreated to the camp for reinforcements. This was to no avail as well, and the terrified warriors, who had climbed up a big rock, began to pray to the Great Spirit to save them. As a result of their entreaties, a rock was made to grow out of the ground, which became Devils Tower, and from the top of this rock the warriors were able to kill the bear.
In fact, most of the Native American stories about Devils Tower involved bears, and therefore the site is also known by the Native American tribes as ‘Grizzly Bear’s Lodge’, ‘Bear Lodge Butte’, and ‘Bear’s Tipi’, amongst others.
Most Native American stories about the site involve bears. ( CC0)
The Search for Mountain Gold
Whilst the Native Americans were already aware of Devils Mountain, and have revered it for a long time, it was only recognized by others around the 19th century. It was only in 1875 that this tower received its current English name.
In that year, a scientific expedition in the area, which was aimed at confirming the presence of gold there, was conducted by the geologist Walter P. Jenney, who was guided by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge. According to Dodge, the tower was referred to by the Native Americans as the ‘Bad God’s Tower’, and hence the name Devils Tower was adopted by the team. It has been suggested that Dodge may have mistranslated the name of the landmark, as, in the Lakota language, for example, the words for ‘bad god’ and ‘bear’ are quite similar.
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Devils Tower, on west bank of Belle Fourche River, south of Hulett. Crook Wyoming. Circa 1900. ( Public Domain )
Devils Tower Makes History
Finally, on September 24, 1906, Devils Tower became the first United States National Monument. The proclamation was made by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had signed the Antiquities Act into law not long before that.
Since then, the site has become a tourist destination, and climbing the tower has become a popular activity. According to the National Park Service, between 5000 and 6000 rock climbers visit each year.
Original 1893 climbing ladder to the top of Devils Tower National Monument. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Devils Tower Star Trails. Source: David Kingham/ CC BY NC ND 2.0