Relative of famed author wants to find out what’s inside mysterious South Dakota monument
Ownership of concrete Hugh Glass marker remains unclear
The Hugh Glass monument was originally placed on private ranchland near Lemmon, at the confluence of two forks of the Grand River. But it was later moved to make way for construction of a Bureau of Reclamation dam. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)
A lonely monument to the heroics of a frontier mountain man may surrender its secrets after all.
That is, if someone can determine who actually owns the monument erected in 1923 to commemorate Hugh Glass, who purportedly crawled, limped and rafted 200 miles after being mauled by a bear and left for dead.
This week, a relative of famed author/poet John Neihardt, who led construction of the monument a century ago near Lemmon, pledged to make an ownership claim and seek permission to break into the concrete marker.
That way it could be determined if a time capsule and “original manuscript” left by Neihardt, along with other items of value, are inside.
‘We all love a mystery’
“Let’s do it,” said Coralie Hughes, a granddaughter of Neihardt — who died in 1973 and is Nebraska’s poet laureate “in perpetuity” as well as a member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
“We all love a mystery, and this is a good one,” Hughes added from her home in Indiana.
Neihardt wrote an epic poem about “the crawl” as he called it, and led a group of students and professors from the Nebraska Normal College (now Wayne State College) to northwest South Dakota in 1923, which they believed to be near the site where Glass was attacked a century earlier.
The author wrote in 1923 that he left a time capsule and an “original manuscript” in the “bosom” of the monument. He then challenged members of the “Neihardt Club” of the Nebraska Normal College to return in 100 years to open it, read passages from his poem and celebrate like mountain men would.
But in June, a group from Wayne State College that took up the challenge was rebuffed in its effort to discover what’s inside the Hugh Glass monument.
‘Can’t dig without permission’
“It would still be interesting to find out what’s in there, but you can’t dig without the state archeologist’s permission,” said Joseph Weixelman, the Wayne State Western studies professor who led the group to Lemmon in June.
Cassie Vogt, the South Dakota state archeologist, said there are two conundrums to resolve: who really owns the monument, and whether permission should be granted to crack into something with such historical value.
The monument was originally placed on a private ranch, but the land was acquired later by the federal Bureau of Reclamation to build a reservoir. The monument now sits on a campground managed by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
But who owns the monument?
Neihardt, who led its construction, and his descendants? Wayne State College, whose club (now long disbanded) helped to build it? Or possibly the Neihardt State Historic Site, which was established to preserve and promote his legacy and works?
On Tuesday, Neihardt’s granddaughter said she’s ready to step up to see if her family can obtain permission to dig into the monument.
Important to discover what’s inside
“If it was important enough for my grandfather to put something in there, it is important enough to find out what it is,” Hughes said.
Hughes said one possible document to help confirm ownership by the Neihardt family would be papers creating the Neihardt Trust, which declared that anything produced by her grandfather would be property of the trust.
There are also photographs showing Neihardt leading the construction of the Hugh Glass monument, as well as Neihardt’s writings in the student newspaper describing what was done and challenging students to revisit it in 2023.
But when asked if that would be enough proof of ownership, an official with the South Dakota State Historical Society didn’t know.
The 1923 monument is not recorded by the Historical Society, said spokesman Kevin Larsen, so it’s clear the society does not own it.
“Someone interested in opening the monument would need the appropriate permissions to access it,” Larsen said.
Vogt, the South Dakota state archeologist, said it would ultimately be up to the Bureau of Reclamation and South Dakota parks agency — who own and manage the land on which the monument sits — to jointly decide whether someone should break into the monument.
‘Sad to see it wrecked’
Not everyone is crazy about the idea.
LaQuita Shockley, the owner/editor of the Dakota Herald, based in Lemmon, said it would be a shame to destroy the monument only to find that what’s inside wasn’t that valuable.
There are also questions about whether flooding at the reservoir ruined any papers inside the time capsule.
“Is what’s encased in there worth destroying the monument?” Shockley asked. “It would be sad to see it wrecked.”
Lemmon plans to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Hugh Glass story with a mountain man rendezvous, from Aug. 22-28.
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