Wayne State group seeks to unlock mysteries surrounding lonely, South Dakota monument

‘Altar’ honoring mauled mountain man Hugh Glass was placed a century ago by author/poet John Neihardt and others

By: - June 9, 2023 5:00 am
Hugh Glass

The Hugh Glass monument was originally placed on private ranchland near Lemmon, S.D., 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. The Bureau now controls the property. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

LINCOLN — On the windswept plains of South Dakota lies a lonely, century-old historical monument holding a literary mystery and wrapped up in a legal conundrum.

The concrete capsule honors mountain man Hugh Glass, who crawled, limped and rafted 200 miles after being mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his colleagues in 1823 near modern-day Lemmon, South Dakota.

The amazing story of survival and forgiveness was made into a Hollywood movie, “The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and was immortalized in the 1915 epic poem by John Neihardt, “The Song of Hugh Glass.”

The monument to Hugh Glass, as seen today, at its new location. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

But the monument, inscribed as an “altar to courage,” holds many unanswered questions.

A challenge is issued

Could a valuable, undiscovered literary work from Neihardt be hidden inside it, or just a handwritten copy of his epic poem?

Did flooding decades ago destroy the “original manuscript” he left?

Will the block of poured concrete have to be destroyed to unlock the time capsule inside?

Who now owns the monument and could the entity give permission to do that?

Joseph Weixelman
Joseph Weixelman, an associate professor of history at Wayne State College (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

And who would have rights to anything that might remain inside?

A group of students led by Wayne State College history professor Joseph Weixelman is aiming to find answers and is en route to the lonely monument site this week.

The monument was erected in 1923 by Neihardt and members of a Neihardt Club from the Nebraska Normal College, now Wayne State College.

The writer, in a special edition of the college newspaper, said he left an “original manuscript” in the “bosom” of the monument.  Neihardt also issued a challenge to the college to return to the monument and “commemorate the bicentennial of Hugh Glass as he (Neihardt) celebrated the centennial,” Weixelman said.

So the professor and three students in a special summer course called “Neihardt and the American West” have embarked on a quest to do that.

‘Mountain man yell’

Weixelman said that Neihardt, who paid tribute to the mountain man’s excruciating crawl in his epic poem, gave some specific instructions on how to mark the bicentennial.

“He gave us page numbers from his poem to read. We have to start a fire with flint and steel — not a match — and we have to give the ‘mountain man yell,’ whatever that is,” Weixelman said.

John Neihardt with the Hugh Glass Monument on July 31, 1923. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

The group will meet Friday morning with a local sculptor, John Lopez, whose depiction of Glass and the attacking grizzly stands at a state recreation area near Lemmon, a northwest South Dakota town that holds a Hugh Glass Rendezvous every August.

In the afternoon, the students will place a new time capsule near the site of a South Dakota State Historical Marker which commemorates Glass’ “adventure.” Weixelman said that they will also play some games, maybe cards and a foot race, activities that would have been common at a fur trade rendezvous.

Hugh Glass timeline:

 1783 — Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania

 1822 — Joined a Missouri River fur trading venture headed by Gen. William Henry Ashley

 1823 — Mauled by a bear in northwest South Dakota, left for dead, then crawled to a nearby river, fashioned a raft and floated to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River

 1833 — Died near present-day Williston, North Dakota

 1915 — Writer/poet John Neihardt publishes “The Song of Hugh Glass”

 1923 — Neihardt and members of the Neihardt Club of the state college in Wayne erect a monument honoring Glass; leave an unnamed manuscript in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years

 1951 — A reservoir is built, requiring that the Glass monument be moved a few hundred yards

 About 20 years ago — Monument is flooded

 2023 — A Wayne State College class, led by professor Joseph Wiexelman, returns to commemorate the bicentennial of the Glass story

A major objective for the class, he said, will be to answer the question: “Is history an art or a science?”

“Historians talk about this all the time: Is the purpose of history to tell a good story, or is the purpose of history to get the story correct?” Wiexelman said.

Neihardt’s poem dramatizes the horror of the mauling, Glass’ struggle to survive and his eventual decision to not kill the men who left him behind.

Some cast doubt

Wiexelman said there have also been accounts that cast doubt on whether Glass crawled all the way to the Missouri River, suggesting that he was picked up by local Indians.

But what about the time capsule placed 100 years ago by Neihardt and his party inside the monument?

This is where the story gets a little sticky:

The monument was moved some time around 1951, when the Bureau of Reclamation acquired the private ranch where it was originally placed. It now sits on the shore of Shadehill Reservoir, at a state recreation area established there.

Weixelman said that raises a question about who owns the monument now, and who could grant permission to break into it to search for the time capsule and “original manuscript” Neihardt left.

A Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman said Thursday that while the agency supports what the Wayne State group is doing, it is still researching who owns the monument and its contents and what needs to be done to crack into a historical monument.

“It is difficult to say how long this process will take,” said Elizabeth Smith of the Bureau’s regional office in Billings, Mont.

So, the 100-year-old time capsule, for now, will keep its secrets.

Weixelman speculated that Wayne State might have a claim since it was a college club — though now long gone — that erected it.

The Neihardt family might also own the manuscript, he said, or the Neihardt State Historic Site in Bancroft, a repository of Neihardt works and artifacts.

Did the manuscript survive?

But there’s also a question about whether the manuscript has survived the decades.

The original monument to Hugh Glass, with a replacement plaque. The original was stolen. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

Weixelman said that 20 years ago or so, the reservoir flooded, inundating the monument. Whether or not a paper manuscript inside a tin time capsule would have been destroyed is a good question, he said.

“We may open it up and we’ll find nothing in there that’s worth anything,” Weixelman said.

The professor said that on a recent trip to the Glass monument, he found a local resident who said he had lifted and moved the monument, with a backhoe, to its current location.

Weixelman said he learned that behind the monument’s plaque is solid concrete — so it’s not a “door” leading to the time capsule — and that the monument sounds like it is hollow.

That means it will have to be broken into to access the time capsule, which leads to another question: How would you do that without destroying its historic value?

John Neihardt
Author/poet John Neihardt, the cNebraska poet laureate in perpetuity (ourtesy of John Neihardt State Historic Site)

Coralie Hughes, one of Neihardt’s granddaughters, said she can’t remember her grandfather talking about a time capsule or literary work he might have left in the monument. But, she said, she’s intrigued by the current quest.

Tim Anderson, Neihardt’s biographer and a retired University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor, said that 20-30 people attended the dedication of the monument in 1923, including the head of the South Dakota State Historical Society and Julius House, a history professor at the college in Wayne.

Water had to be hauled four miles to the site of the construction by the Neihardt Club of Wayne, Anderson said, citing a 1939 letter about the event.

“By the light of the fire, House read passages from The Song of Hugh Glass to an audience huddled in army blankets; the wail of a coyote just as he read the line about ‘antiphonary chants’ of wolves brought the program to a fitting close,” stated Lucile F. Aly, in her 1977 biography of Neihardt.

From the “Song of Hugh Glass”

 ... And when they lifted him, 
His moan went treble like a song of pain, 
He was so tortured. Surely it were vain 
To hope he might endure the toilsome ride 
Across the barrens. Better let him bide 
There on the grassy couch beside the spring. 
And, furthermore, it seemed a foolish thing 
That eighty men should wait the issue there; 
For dying is a game of solitaire 
And all men play the losing hand alone.
 -- John Neihardt

Anderson said that Neihardt was fascinated by stories of “striving” and overcoming difficulties, so a 200-mile crawl of survival would have fit.

Another Neihardt scholar, retired Minden schoolteacher Joe Green, said that the author was enamored with Glass because he considered him a mountain man “hero” of “my river,” the Missouri River.

Likely a copy of the poem

Both Anderson and Green cited past accounts indicating that the manuscript was a copy of “Hugh Glass.” But Neihardt’s own account of the erection of the monument in the student newspaper doesn’t name the work.

Wiexelman said the students in his class will write letters to be left in the new time capsule, and decide what else to leave for students to discover in the 22nd century.

The professor said he hopes to eventually get permission to explore what’s inside the Hugh Glass monument.

Weixelman said it’s hard for his students to imagine being mauled by a bear and then crawling 200 miles, but it’s also hard to imagine what students will be like in 100 years.

“To me, that’s what makes history interesting,” he said. “We’re part of his long story, and the story never has an end.”

Editor’s note: Paul Hammel is vice president of the Neihardt Foundation when he’s not writing stories for the Examiner.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.