Tale of mysterious monument thickens as relative of famed author pledges to find out what’s inside

State of South Dakota wants to discern ownership of Hugh Glass monument before deciding if it can be breached

By: - August 2, 2023 5:45 am

Author/poet John Neihardt supervises the final construction of a concrete monument erected in 1923 to commemorate the heroics of mountain man Hugh Glass, who crawled miles after being left for dead after a grizzly bear mauling.(Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman and University of Missouri)

LINCOLN — 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 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, South Dakota, 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.

The monument to Hugh Glass as seen today on the shores of the Shadehill Reservoir near Lemmon, South Dakota. (Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)

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, 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.

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

Cassie Vogt, the South Dakota state archeologist, told the Examiner that 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 Game, Fish and Parks Commission.

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.

‘Educational experience’

Despite not gaining access to what’s inside the Hugh Glass monument, a Wayne State history professor said it was a “good educational experience” for the seven students who traveled with him to the site in June.

Joseph Weixelman, who retired after the trip, said the group met the rest of the “challenge” posed by author/poet John Neihardt, which was to read some passages at sundown from his epic poem, “The Song of Hugh Glass,” start a fire “with steel and flint,” and play games that mountain men might have played at a “rendezvous” (a gathering of mountain men).

 The games were modified a bit, he said. The “tomahawk throw” involved a plastic projectile, and “skinning a beaver” became skinning a banana with a plastic knife.

The students, Weixelman said, placed letters and items from 2023 inside a time capsule that they plan to leave at a local museum in Lemmon.

They also issued a challenge for Wayne State students to return in 100 years to open the latest time capsule,and again celebrate the story of Hugh Glass.

 “We want to keep the challenge going,” Weixelman 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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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.