Long ago in the mists of time, seven little Indian girls were chased by bears seeking to eat them. Terrified, they jumped onto a 3-foot high rock for refuge and prayed, “Rock take pity on us, rock save us!” The rock heard them and grew higher, lifting the girls out of harm’s way.
Leaping up, the bears clawed the rock, leaving huge scratches. As the rock continued to grow higher and higher, their claws broke off and fell to the ground.
Then the seven little girls were pushed up into the sky and became the seven stars of the star cluster Pleiades in the Taurus constellation.
That’s the story the Kiowa Indians tell about Devils Tower, a huge basaltic monolith in the northwest corner of the Wyoming side of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“No Kiowa living has ever seen this rock,” said I-See-Many-Camp-Fire-Places, Kiowa soldier at Fort Sill, Okla., in 1897, “but the old men have told about it. It is very far north where the Kiowa used to live.
“It is a single rock with scratched sides. The marks of the bears’ claws are there yet, rising straight up — very high. There is no other like it in the whole country; there are no trees on it, only grass on top.
“The Kiowa call this rock ‘Tso-aa,’ a tree rock — possibly because it grew tall like a tree.
Other Plains Indian tribes have their own version of the legend.
Artist Herbert A. Collins painted a Cheyenne version where a man and his wife aided by his six brothers on top of Devils Tower fend off the giant bear trying to reach them — the beast scratching the rock with its claws.
Rising dramatically 1,267 feet above the nearby Belle Fourche River, and 867 feet from its base, Devils Tower today is America’s first national monument and a favorite site for rock climbers.
The Lakota Sioux call the huge rock Mato Tipila, which means “Bear Lodge.” Other Sioux called it Mateo Tepee — meaning “Grizzly Bear Lodge.” Other names include Bear’s Tipi, Home of the Bear, Tree Rock and Great Gray Horn.
More than 20 Indian tribes consider Devils Tower a sacred site, where every June, tribes come to celebrate their heritage — camping there to pray, fast and dance, as well as to conduct Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest rituals and funerals. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
The Indians don’t like intrusion into their sacred area by the hordes of tourists and rock climbers. They’ve even petitioned the name be changed back to “Bear’s Lodge,” but despite ongoing discussions and court cases, it’s still called Devils Tower.
In an effort to resolve the matter however, the National Park Service issued a compromise rule requesting that climbers respect the tribes’ wishes and voluntarily not climb the rock during the month of June. About 85 percent honor the request.
The first non-natives to see the monolith Devils Tower were members of Capt. William E. Raynolds’ Yellowstone expedition in 1859 — though fur trappers may have seen it much earlier.
On a side trip on July 20, 1859, the expedition’s photographer and topographer James D. Hutton — accompanied by Sioux interpreter Zephyr Recontre — is believed to have been the first man of European descent to see the monolith.
The expedition regretfully left no written description of the tower.
Thirteen years later, U.S. Army Col. Richard Dodge, commanding the military escort for a U.S. Geologic Survey expedition, gave it the name Devils Tower, explaining: “The Indians call this shaft The Bad God’s Tower, a name adopted with proper modification, by our surveyors.”
The Indian name was misinterpreted as “Devil’s Rock” — later officially dropping the apostrophe that had been unintentionally omitted earlier because of a clerical error.
Henry Newton (1845-1877), geological assistant to the expedition, described the rock as a “remarkable structure, its symmetry, and its prominence made it an unfailing object of wonder …
“It is a great remarkable obelisk of trachyte, with a columnar structure, giving it a vertically striated appearance, and it rises 625 feet almost perpendicular, from its base. Its summit is so entirely inaccessible that the energetic explorer, to whom the ascent of an ordinarily difficult crag is but a pleasant pastime, standing at its base could only look upward in despair of ever planting his feet on the top …”
But planting feet on the top was first accomplished in 1893 by Wyoming ranchers William Rogers and Willard L. Ripley, who installed a ladder made of wooden pegs — some which still exist. Now most of the five to six thousand visitors who climb the tower each year, according to NPS, “rely solely on their physical strength in order to make a climb.
“The modern technical equipment that is used for safety is designed to be efficient, removable, and non-damaging. Pitons, the steel ‘pegs’ that were historically hammered into cracks, have almost exclusively been retired from use.”
National Park Service describes the rock of Devils Tower as “phonolite porphyry … similar in composition to granite but lacks quartz.” It’s a grayish rock studded with feldspar crystals, its sides consisting of columnar basalt with four to six sides — most being hexagonal, and looking from a distance like a bundle of pencils.
Those towering columns separated by cracks were formed when magma (molten rock) cooled underground — maybe taking over a century.
They are about 7 feet wide at the base of the tower, and decrease in size to around 4 feet at the peak.
There’s one column on the Durrance Route that is expected to fall off, according to geologists, but park rangers aren’t worried about it. The last one that fell was 10,000 years ago.
Scientists agree that the monolith was formed by some kind of volcanic action, but differ on just how.
Some say Devils Tower was formed some 40 million years ago by an igneous intrusion. In 1907, scientists Darton and O’Hara said the monolith must have been an eroded remnant of a laccolith — a large mushroom–shaped mass of igneous rock that pushed upward between layers of sedimentary rocks without reaching the surface, but creating a bulge on the surface like a giant boil.
Others say Devils Tower is a volcanic plug — the neck of an extinct volcano — with the lava and ash that it would have produced eroded away over time.
There’s another theory about how Devil’s Tower was formed:
Creation scientists believe Biblical timelines that make Earth only thousands of years old — not billion as evolutionary scientists espouse — saying that Devils Tower was the result of Noah’s Flood mentioned in Genesis, with top soil and other debris washing away since then, leaving a lava plug exposed.
Dr. John D. Morris of the Institute for Creation Research writes, “Elsewhere, such horizontal layers of vertical columns cover extensive areas, far larger than similar layers which have formed in historic times.
“This seems to speak eloquently of past volcanic processes being regionally catastrophic, proceeding at rates, scales, and intensities far exceeding the ones we observe today. Surely Earth’s geologic past was different from its present, particularly during the great flood of Noah’s day.
“Evidence of catastrophic processes operating on a regional scale — that’s what we would expect to find as results of the Flood.”
Evolution scientists insist that the necessary cooling time for such immense volumes of basalt would take far longer than mere thousands of years.
Hollywood however doesn’t care about those arguments.
In 1977, Steven Spielberg made a science-fiction film called “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” about UFOs, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr. Devils Tower was used as the landing place for aliens who took a volunteer group of humans into space. The film made more than $300 million, but cost only $20 million to make.
Looking down on Devils Tower from the Pleiades, the seven little Indian girls see a carpet of jumbled rocks, native grasses, cactus and sagebrush — the home of chipmunks, mice and pack rats whose happy “life at the top” is interrupted by daring climbers, and also the occasional snake seeking a meal.
Mato the hungry giant bear didn’t get his meal.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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How long to climb Devils Tower?
It generally takes four to six hours to climb Devils Tower using the popular Durrance Route, with Todd Skinner from Wyoming climbing it fastest without ropes or any safety protection in 18 minutes in the 1980s. Rappelling back down takes one to two hours.
Devils Tower fatalities…
There have been six climbing fatalities on Devils Tower since 1937. Three of these fatalities occurred while descending (rappelling) the Tower. The last one was Matthew Sorenson, 38, in 2017.
Parachuting onto top…
In October 1941, parachutist George Hopkins jumped from a plane and landed on top of Devils Tower — winning a $50 bet. They dropped a 1,000-foot long rope for him to make the descent from the tower. The rope however landed out of reach and he was stranded in the cold, rain and 50-mph winds for six days before he could be rescued. He survived with food, water and blankets dropped to him — as well as a bottle of whiskey.
Teddy Roosevelt did it…
On Sept. 24, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt — hero of the Battle of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War — declared Devils Tower the nation’s first National Monument. Almost 1,350 acres in size, the monument is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and has some 400,000 visitors a year. When Teddy signed the proclamation, the apostrophe in Devil’s was inadvertently left out. It has never been corrected.
More than 150 rock climbing routes have been established on Devils Tower. The National Park Service warns climbers that they could run into snakes, spiny plants, poison ivy, falcon attacks, wasps and falling rocks.