South Dakota's mysterious Spirit Mound
YANKTON, S.D. – Late summer 1804, and the Corps of Discovery had moved up the Missouri River and onto the cusp of a landscape so vast, so open and so rich with grasses, grains and game it would come to be known simply as the Great Plains.
The gently rolling, open country was, however, far from empty. The Sioux and other native peoples had lived, hunted and thrived here for centuries. The explorers knew about the Indians and the natives undoubtedly were aware of the small band of strangers moving up river. In keeping with their military orders, Corps commanders Meriwether Lewis and William Clark planned to meet with local tribal leaders as soon as possible.
But they were first anxious to visit Paha Wakan, or Spirit Mound, a place of great fear among the natives. Clark, in his creative spelling, describes the mound and the fear it triggered. “in an imence Plain a high Hill is Situated, and appears of a Conic form 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 watchfull, and are arm’d with Sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance; . . . So much do the . . . nations believe this fable that no Consideration is Suffecient to induce them to approach the hill.”
The Americans were determined to see it, possibly with an eye toward their planned meeting with tribal leaders. Knowledge that the visitors had ascended Paha Waken might add a layer of strength and respect to their side of the negotiations.
On the morning of August 25, 1804, Clark and Lewis took 11 men along with Lewis’s dog Seaman and climbed aboard a pirogue and headed toward the north shore of the Missouri and into the mouth of the Vermillion River. The rest of the party continued up the Missouri. Two men were left to guard the boat and other 11, along with Seaman, began the trek to the mound, a distance of about seven miles.
The weather was sweltering and Seaman, a 150-pound Newfoundland, suffered badly from the heat (“our Dog was So Heeted & fatigued we was obliged Send him back to the Creek,” Clark noted). At least one man returned with him. The rest of the men proceeded northward. They reached the mound around midday.
Due to shifts in the Missouri’s course during the past two centuries, along with impoundments and channelization that have altered the river and flanking landscape, there are few places along the Lewis and Clark trail where visitors today can stand where the explorers stood and see what they saw. Spirit Mound is one of them.
The hill, which is roughly teardrop shaped, is a bedrock knob about 70 feet high; a remnant of glacier action more than a dozen millennia ago. Today the Spirit Mount Historical Prairie includes 320 acres and is easily accessible off highway 19. A narrow but well-maintained path curls around the western side of the mound and leads, up the north face, to the summit. I visited on a windy summer day. There were only a handful of other visitors on the trail. The mound’s crown is surprisingly small but affords a commanding view of the surrounding plain, which is dotted with a few distant homesteads. Highway 19 marks the eastern boundary. It’s a quiet spot; sans the rhythmic whistle from the almost constant windy conditions that ruffle the grassy hillsides. I detected nothing evil or devilish about the place.
Lewis, Clark and their party also found no devils or other malevolent spirits. They did discover an enormous number of insects and birds near the summit, which Clark speculated might have given rise to the devils’ legend.
William Clark found the view stunning. It was the first time he and Lewis had had a commanding look at the landscape that they had been sent to explore.
“from the top of this Mound,” Clark noted in his journal entry of August 25, 1804, “we beheld a most butifull landscape; Numerous herds of buffalow were Seen feeding in various directions, the Plain to the North N. W & N E extends without interuption as far as Can be Seen . . . the Soil of those Plains are delightfull.”
Suffering from thirst and the heat, the men turned northeast, the shortest route to the Vermillion River, where they rested before returning to the boat. The next day they rejoined the main party.
Camp River Dubois: 'Boot camp' of the Lewis and Clark expedition
Yankton, S.D., is a compact, bustling river town of about 15,000, but it feels larger. Efficient, friendly and independent, the general vibe is: Have fun and enjoy yourself but be polite. Everyone seems to do so.
The Missouri River that flows beneath the famed Meridian Bridge and past Yankton’s Riverside Park – a popular access and exit point for canoeist, kayakers and other paddlers – isn’t the river of Lewis and Clark. But it’s close. Yankton anchors the lower, 59-mile stretch of the Missouri National Recreational River, one of the few free flowing stretches of the Missouri. It’s swift, shallow braided channel is marked by shifting sand bars and islands; root wads, snags and other dangers, which is the river described in the captains’ journals. If Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived today this is one piece of water they would recognize. The 59-mile district of the MNRR begins below Gavins Point Dam about 10 miles upriver from Yankton and ends just downstream from Nebraska’s Ponca State Park.
The upper 39-mile MNRR district begins below Fort Randall Dam and extends downstream to the quaint, landmark town of Running Water, S. D. (population 36 and a stop on the Native American Scenic Byway). Niobrara State Park is just upstream on the Nebraska shore.
“The 59 mile section of the Missouri River from Gavins Point dam to Ponca offers much of the wild and scenic character that Lewis and Clark would have experienced,” said Kasi Haberman, director of the Yankton Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But today this stretch attracts those interested in getting back to nature. Some of our most popular recreational activities include kayaking, canoeing, birdwatching, camping, hiking, hunting and fishing..”
Yankton also hosts the annual South Dakota Kayak Challenge. The 72-mile, two-day Missouri River kayak race from Yankton to Sioux City, Iowa, typically attracts more than 200 paddlers.
After Spirit Mound
The Corps of Discovery spent four days camped near today’s Yankton. Much of that time was spend in a friendly council with the Yankton Sioux. One of the campsites was near Calumet Bluff, an area that today serves as one of the anchoring points for Gavins Point Dam, behind which forms Lewis and Clark Lake, the first of six impoundments on the middle section of the Missouri.
However, there was cause for concern. One member of the party was missing. The day after the visit to Spirit Mound, the group was camped just downriver from today’s Yankton. Two pack horses strayed during the night. Private George Shannon, the Crops’ youngest member, was dispatched to find them. He located the horses but failed to find his companions. The captains sent two men to look for Shannon, who apparently thought the party had continued up river without him and was trying to catch up. The searchers reported their failure to overtake the young man.
Clark was worried. He had reason to be.
“This man not being a first rate Hunter,” he noted, “we determined to Send one man in pursuit of him with Some Provisions.”
They eventually found the missing private “weak and fiable,” as Clark noted, with just a hint of disdain: “he had been 12 days without any thing to eat but Grapes & one Rabit . . . a man had like to have Starved to Death in a land of Plenty for the want of Bullets or Something to kill his meat.”
Missouri river towns preserve rich Lewis and Clark history