Elevation of Devilish Spirits

Spirit Mound

Brown, autumn grasses and plants before a small, conical hill

Photo © 2008 by Arthur Digbee, used with permission.

Clark's 1810 Map

detail from clark's 1814 map

Detail from Samuel Lewis's copy of William Clark's original map (1810).

In his third draft, Clark describes the view from the top, a description likely used to draw the above map:

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 [Sioux] River below, the River Jacque [James] above & the one [Vermillion River] we have crossed."

Figure 2

Nicholas Biddle

photo, nicholas biddle in 1837s

Courtesy University of Virginia Archives

Mezzotint by John Sartain (1808-1897) from an 1837 portrait by Thomas Sully (1783-1872).

Spirit Mound

"The Dwelling of the Spirit"

photo, spirit mound, 1815

Photographer unknown. From George Washington Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory.

No one knows who shot this photo, nor when, nor why. Outdoor photography originated in the 1850s and slowly reached its first peak for documentary purposes in the 1880s with the pioneer scenic views shot by F. Jay Haynes (1853-1921). But that faintly visible upright object which seems to be on or near the summit provides a clue. That must have been a triangulation monument placed there in 1892, during the survey of the River's shoreline and neighboring topography by the Missouri River Commission. Therefore the photo must date from sometime between 1892 and the year it was first published, 1915.1 Indeed, it might have been taken in 1892 for documentation and visual orientation of the monument's installation.

Because of the low resolution of either the lens or the film, or both, compounded by the high-resolution digital scan of an 80-line-screened print of the photo, it is difficult to say whether the tall grass of the prairie had been mowed down or burned off sometime before this photo was taken, at least on the foreground slope. The latter would have been historically consistent. Prairie fires were often ignited by lightening, and Indians frequently burned them before spring green-up to insure more verdant regrowth that would attract bison and elk. Also, Indians often set prairie fires as prearranged long-distance signals, and the men of the expedition were well acquainted with that strategy. In fact, when they arrived back at the mouth of the White Stone River at sunset, the captains "Set fire to the Praries in two Places to let the Sous know we were on the river and as a Signal for them to Come to the river above" the next morning for a conference where the main party was encamped. To confirm the communication, their men back at camp responded "by firing a prarie near them."

In 1804, the hallmark of every successful explorer was to expect the unexpected, and tell about it when it occurred. President Jefferson gave Meriwether Lewis some clues as to what to watch for: wooly mammoths, a mountain of salt, a volcano, and evidence of the Lost Tribe of Welshmen.2 Lewis and Clark were led by well-traveled St. Louisans to watch for "ancient fortifications" as evidence of pre-historic peoples. On 9 January 1803 Clark, out with Pvt. Collins on a duck hunt, stumbled upon "9 mouns forming a circle" that he figured were part of "an Indian Fortification." Actually they were thousand-year-old foundations for a key part of the Cahokia Mounds culture.3

After the expedition got under way, they found—and often measured and described in appropriate battlement terminology—more than a dozen "antient fortifications," including one opposite the mouth of the Riv. Jacques, which later were proven to be merely overgrown sand bars on the flood plain of the Missouri River. Their proclivities accounted for their initial tentative judgment about Spirit Mound: "The reagular form of this hill would in Some measure justify a belief that it owed its Orrigin to the hand of man," an idea which they promptly dismissed on the basis of convincing evidence that it was "most probably the production of nature."

In terms of natural history, they were more methodical and successful, collecting specimens—and annotating or describing them—of 178 plants plus a total of 122 species and subspecies of fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.4

Genuine Discovery or Fancy Story?

The visit to Spirit Mound was among the more bizarre sidelights of the whole expedition, but evidently it was not entirely unexpected. Seventy-six years earlier, explorer Pierre La Véndrye called the place the "Dwelling of the Spirits" and reported sparkling stones and gold-colored sand. To pass the mouth of the White Stone (Vermillion) River on the 24th, then go back several miles the next day with a specially selected detachment to trace the route to the mound, may not have amounted to much delay. Yes, it may simply be that the captains decided they needed to hang back a bit in order to give the Omahas (Mahars) time to catch up and council with them.

Biddle's Paraphrase

By order of their commander-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson, the two captains conscientiously saw to it that duplicates of their journals were kept as insurance against loss. To our great benefit, the redundancies in their records often contain a few enlightening variants omitted in the earlier drafts. One of the most diverting instances of duplication is present in Clark's own five different descriptions of his and Lewis's side trip on the morning of August 25, 1804, in searing heat, to that small mound with the conical summit, almost 10 miles north of the mouth of a certain tributary. For reasons that are discussed by Gary Moulton in his bicentennial edition of all the journals, the first draft appears under the date of August 24th.5

Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), the brilliant young Philadelphian, assembled from the two captains' journals a paraphrase that was published in 1814 which remained the sole official account of their journey until 1904. In his 695-word selective recombination of the captains' five drafts (collectively 1,903 words), he calls the mound the "Mountain of Little People, or "Little Spirits:"6

Captains Lewis and Clarke [sic], with ten men, went to see an object deemed very extraordinary among all the neighboring Indians. They dropped down to the mouth of Whitestone river, about 30 yards wide, where they left the boat, and at the distance of 200 yards ascended a rising ground, from which a plain extended as far as the eye could discern. After walking four miles, they crossed the creek where it is 23 yards wide and waters an extensive valley.

The heat was so oppressive that we were obliged to send back our dog to the creek, as he was unable to bear the fatigue; and it was not till after four hours' march that we reached the object of our visit. This was a large mound in the midst of the plain, about N. 20° W. from the mouth of Whitestone river, from which it is three miles distant.

The base of the mound is a regular parallelogram, the longest side being about 300 yards, the shorter 60 or 70; from the longest side it rises with a steep ascent from the north and south to the height of 65 or 70 feet, leaving on the top a level plain of 23 feet in breadth and 90 in length. The north and south extremities are connected to two oval borders which serve as new bases, and divide the whole side into three steep but regular gradations from the plain. The only thing characteristic in this hill is its extreme symmetry, and this, together with its being totally detached from the other hills which are at the distance of eight or nine miles, would induce a belief that it was artificial; but as the earth and the loose pebbles which compose it are arranged exactly like the steep grounds on the borders of the creek, we concluded from this similarity of texture that it might be natural.

The Indians have made it a great article of their superstition; it is called the mountain of Little People, or Little Spirits, and they believe that it is the abode of little devils in the human form, about 18 inches high and with remarkably large heads, armed with sharp arrows, with which they are very skillful, and always on the watch to kill those who should have the hardihood to approach their residence. The tradition is that many have suffered from these little evil spirits; among others, three Maha Indians fell a sacrifice to them a few years since. This has inspired all the neighboring nations, Sioux, Mahas, and Ottoes, with such terror that no consideration could tempt them to bvisit the hill. We saw none of these wicked little spirits; nor any place for them, except some small holes scattered over the top; we were happy enough to escape their vengeance, though we remained some time on the mound to enjoy the delightful prospect of the plain, which spreads itself out till the eye rests upon the N.W. hills at a great distance, and those of the N.E. still farther off, enlivened by large herds of buffalo feeding at a distance.

The soil of these plains is exceedingly fine; there is, however, no timber except on the Missouri, all the wood of the Whitestone river not being sufficient to cover thickly 100 acres. The plain country which surrounds this mound has contributed not a little to its bad reputation; the wind driving from every direction over the level ground obliges the insects to seekshelter on its leeward side, or to be driven against us by the wind. The small birds, whose food they are, resort in great numbers in quest of subsistence; and the Indians always seem to discover an unusual assemblage of birds as produced by some supernatural cause. Among them we observed the brown martin employed in looking for insects, and so gentle that they did not fly until we got within a few feet of them. We have also distinguished, among the numerous birds of the plain, the blackbird, the wren or prairie-bird, and a species of lark about the size of a partridge, with a short tail.

The Ten Men

  1. Sergeant John Ordway
  2. Corporal Richard Warfington
  3. Private John Shields
  4. Private Joseph Field
  5. Private John Colter
  6. Private William Bratton
  7. Private Robert Frazer
  8. Private François Labiche
  9. Clark's slave York
  10. Possibly engagé Cann

And where were the rest of the company? At their previous night's camp a few miles farther up the Missouri, occupied with "fleecing" and "jerking" some of the meat of the bison that J. Field had brought down on the 23rd—the first one to be shot by the Corps.

Oppressive Heat

It was a hot and humid day. Seaman had to be returned to the boat at the mouth of the Vermillion river, likely the white pirogue. His breed originated in Newfoundland, so he was genetically conditioned to a colder climate than summer on the Missouri River. But even Lewis, born and bred a hardy Virginian, was stricken by symptoms that indicate he was building up to an attack of heat exhaustion from the glare of the midday sun combined with the humidity of the midwest's prairie. Clark declared on the 25th that his partner:

being much fatigued and verry thursty obliged us to go to the neares water which we Could See, which was the W. Stone Creek at right angles from the Course we came out, and we got water in three miles in the Creek."

Legends of Little People

Many sources have stated that Indian peoples—Otoe, Missouria, Omaha, Lakota, and others—"revered this location."7 But it must be noted that nothing in the stories that those people tell, including Pierre Dorion, Jr., who would naturally be loyal to his wife Rainbow"s Yankton and Lakota people, give any hint that they held it in reverence as a domain of Wakan Tanka [Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka], the Great Mystery, also known as the Great Spirit, the creator of the Yankton Sioux . On the contrary, their stories universally emphasized that the elusive humanoid guardians would kill anyone who trod on its premises for any reason.

The Yanktons maintain that the Little People were the victors in an aboriginal war between two tribes competing for the favors of the spirits. The outcome was the emergence of two families of spirits. The losers were the big Sasquatch, who moved on westward; the victorious Can O'ti na stayed put.

No one told Lewis and Clark that they were not to go there because it was hallowed ground. They were warned away because those Can O'ti na, those "Little People," or "Little Tree Dwellers," would kill trespassers and had done so recently. But where did that name "Little Tree Dwellers" come from? There are not, and have never been, so far as anyone knows, any trees on or near the mound, except for the shelterbelts planted by ranchers and farmers.

Homes of a Different Sort

Clark attributed the small holes near the top of the Mound not as homes for little people, but as burrows for small mammals:

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.

Besides the coyote, Canis latrans, Clark's prairie wolf, and the badger, Taxidea taxus, the "Braroe," those holes could have been homes to foxes.

Atop Spirit Mound

View south, August 3, 2011

Tall-grass prairie for many miles

© 2011 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.

Try to imagine no roads, no fences, no straight-line boundaries, no plowed fields, no houses or other buildings. One young immigrant who arrived in the late 1860s said that looking north from the summit only one tree could be seen between himself and the horizon.8 Only a flock of birds feeding on the wing, on the west (left) side of the mound, and scattered herds of bison and elk on the prairie. Good. That's the way Lewis and Clark and their party saw the scene pictured here.

A Sign of the Times

There it is! That's what the grim, fearsome fairy tale is all about. It's a fictional setup that today would boil down to signs reading "No trespassing!" "No Hunting!" "Survivors will be shot!" It's a Siouan legend that is easily translatable into all other languages, including the Siouan dialect of the Crees, as well as that graphic lingua franca, signing, which anyone can read with a little practice. Look at it this way: On terrain that passes for level—a terrain that could be described by any one of a couple of dozen synonyms, but in America is termed a "plain" or "prairie,"9—the horizon is roughly 3.2 miles away from the eyes of a 5½ to 6-foot tall hunter. But from the summit of that cone the same hunter, whose eye-level would be about 100 feet above the plain, would be able to see buffalo herds more than four times that distance, in any direction.

Fine Soil

Watch Meriwether Lewis. He stoops, or kneels on one knee, and scoops at the soil until he holds a handful of it. Stands and sifts it through his fingers. Sorts it out, sensing it slowly with his thumb. Sniffs it. Tosses it aside, into the wind. Watches its little cloud disappear before it reaches the ground. He nods affirmatively, is mind reaching back to compare this land with his family's vast Clover Fields, and his own 2000-acre Virginia plantation, Locust Hill, a short distance west of Charlottesville. But this land here. This rich earth. His mentor Thomas Jefferson was a passionate man of the soil. If he could see this prairie he'd smile in triumph—the wisdom and good fortune of his purchase of Louisiana would be proved. Why, a man would have to post a guard on the cone-top to ward off jealous squatters. But what would he use to build a house? And what would he heat it with on cold winter nights? How would you cook the meat and vegetables this soil would grow?

Forever the Wind

And there's yet another problem with the "plain country which surrounds this mound." The wind. The day that 22-year-old Sergeant Charles Floyd passed away was remembered for its "fair wind and fine weather." Following his military funeral and interment that afternoon, the day closed fittingly with "a butifull evening." The next day Clark wrote that they "set out verry early . . . and proceeded on under a gentle Breeze from the S. E." However, Sgt. Ordway reported that it was a hard breeze from the south, which soon "blew so hard that we were oblidged to take a reefe in our Sail." Furthermore, "the Sand blew So thick from the Sand bars that we could not see the channel far ahead & it filled the air before us about a mile." Worse yet, for the first time "the white pearogue could hardly Sail for want of Ballass [ballast]," so they moved several kegs of pork to the bow for more stability. The 22nd passed similarly, with Clark writing: "Sailed the greater part of this day with a hard wind from the S.E." But the next day it blew harder, even creating an unexpected navigational hazard:

I am obliged to make the next Corses Short on ackount of the flying Sands which rasies like a Cloud of Smoke from the Bars when the wind rise Blows, the Sand being fine and containing a breat [great] perpotion of earth and when it lights it Sticks to every thing it touches       at this time the grass is white[.]"

Clark's description may account for La Véndrye's golden sands, "sable fort fin couleur d'or" or "very fine gold-coloured sand", the product of wind-blown dust known as loess.

Dickcissel, Spiza americana

Male, breeding plumage, Fairview, Missouri

Small bird with bright yellow chest and yellow band above the eye

Photo by RebelAt, 13 May 2008, licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Unusual Assemblage of Birds

As the men approached the Mound, they could see swarms of birds near top, almost as if the spirits were indeed active on this day. Clark writes:

Some time before we got to the hill we observd. great numbers of Birds hovering about the top of this Mound     when I got on the top those Birds flw off.

Representatives include the Dickcissel, Spiza americana [SPEET-zah UH-meh-rih-KAY-nuh] (Gmelin, 1789), whose scientific name means "American finch." Spiza is the Greek generic name for any finch-like bird, which is to say, a bird having on each foot three forward-pointing toes and one rearward, which facilitates secure perching on horizontal branches. (The formal name for perching birds is passeriformes.) The common name of this species, to some peoples' ears, is an imitation of the bird's vocalization: dick-dick-dick-siss-sissul, or some regional variation on that theme.

Another passeriforme grassland bird at home in this vicinity is the cosmopolitan, polygynous red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus [AH-gel-EYE-us fo-NEE-see-us] (Linnæus, 1766). Its common name comes from the white-fringed red or red-orange epaulets on the male's shoulders, which brilliantly highlight the surrounding glossy black body color.

Others suggest some type of swallow was swarming near the summit, such as the common bank swallow, Riparia riparia.10

Western Thatching Ant, Formica obscuripes

Nuptial Flight Phase

two ants with long wings on a blade of grass

© 2010 by Mark Wetmore

The Arrow's Sting

Clark provides this reason for the "unusual assemblage of birds:"

I discovered that they wer Cetchig 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 [sharp?] on the neck

Ordway describes the annoying insects as "some Stone piss ants &C." Originally, pismire, then pissant, and then piss ant, all versions of the word refer to the urine-like smell of ant hills. The more modern uses of piss ant, i.e., a worthless person or an annoyance, were not typically used until around 1900.11 Never-the-less, the men did find the biting ants annoying.

Today, 18-inch high mounds, the hills of thatching ants, can be found at Spirit Mound. The more mature colonies produce winged virgin queen and male ants who take flight to mate and start new colonies—an important phase in their reproductive cycle. Could those mounds be the Little People's "remarkably large heads" and the biting ants their "sharp arrows"?

Mystery Solved?

Did the Lewis and Clark Expedition solve the mystery of Spirit Mound? Were the Yankton Sioux taking advantage of swarming birds, biting ants, and universal Little People mythology to keep their enemies, perhaps including the men of the Expedition, away from the site? Were they simply protecting their hunting grounds?

Clark appears eager to believe that Indians fell for the apparent ruse:

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— is in my opinion a Suffient proof to produce in the Savage mind a Confident belief of all the properties which they ascribe it.12

To assume that the Yankton or other neighboring tribes either didn't recognize the value of the mound as a lookout site from which herds of big game could be spotted and tracked, even counted if they were close enough, is to insult their intelligence.

Patrick Gass, who did not travel to Spirit Mound, based his account on what he heard from others and appears cynical of the Indian legend:

Captain Lewis and Captain Clarke went to see a hill on the north side of the [Missouri] river where the natives will not or pretend that they will not venture to go, and say that a small people live there, whom they are afraid of.13

Clark may have seen the Indians as too dumb to know better, and Gass may have seen them as lying scoundrels. Or perhaps both journalists recognized, and even respected, universal human traits: superstition, intelligence, a willingness to use myth to preserve a way of life, and the ability to embellish, or even lie, to protect ones' assets. Which is it? Perhaps trying to answer that quesiton would merely be an elevation of devilish spirits.

Editor's Note: This article was nearly finished when Joseph Mussulman passed away. The editor, using Joe's original notes and drafts as well as two oral interviews with the original author, offers this posthumous version.
—Kristopher K. Townsend

  • 1. George Washington Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, 5 vols. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1915), vol. 1, facing p. 10; Map of the Missouri River from Its Mouth to Three Forks, Montana, in Eighty-four Sheets (Washington, D.C.: Missouri River Commission, 1892-95), Sheet 29.
  • 2. In turn, the eminent Scottish mathematician and astronomer William Dunbar assured Jefferson that "the Red River Country was not only a haven for unicorns and sea serpents, but that ingots of silver lay about for the taking." See Medicine Rock elsewhere on this site.
  • 3. See Moulton, ed., Journals, 2:154. Biloine Whiting Young and Melvin L. Fowler, Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 3.
  • 4. Paul Russell Cutright, Lewis & Clark: Pioneering Naturalists, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 399-447.
  • 5. Moulton, Journals, 2:50 6n.
  • 6. History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. Performed during the Years 1804–5–6 by order of the Government of the United States. Prepared for the Press by Paul Allen, Esquire. 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1814), 3:52-54. The editor, who was actually the author of the paraphrase of the original journals, was Nicholas Biddle.
  • 7. Spirit Mound, www.nps.gov/mnrr/learn/historyculture/spiritmound.htm accessed on Oct 18, 2017; Patricia Ann Lynch and Jeremy Roberts, Native American Mythology A to Z, 2nd ed. (New York: Chelsea House, 2004).
  • 8. Kent Scribner, "Spirit Mound After Lewis and Clark," in David Kvernes, ed., The Lewis and Clark Expedition Then and Now, (Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, 2004). 176.
  • 9. Plain: A broad tract of land which is comparatively flat; an expanse of level ground. Prairie: "An extensive tract of level or undulating grassland, usually without trees; . . . Used chiefly of the grassy plains of North America." Oxford English Dictionary.
  • 10. Moulton, Journals, 3:13 14n.
  • 11. Pissmire, Don Willmott, Pissant, https://web.archive.org/web/20131023055613/http://www.randomhouse.com/wo... accessed on 19 October 2017.
  • 12. Moulton, Journals, 11.
  • 13. Patrick Gass, August 25, 1804; Moulton, Journals, 10:31. Emphasis added.