Family of famed poet plans to breach century-old monument to unlock mystery inside

Concrete pillar honors Hugh Glass, a frontier mountain man who crawled, limped and paddled 200 miles after being mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead
Orignial monument to Hugh Glass seen today.
Orignial monument to Hugh Glass seen today.(Courtesy of Joseph Weixelman)
Published: Sep. 25, 2023 at 4:18 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) - After gaining federal permission, the family of a famed poet/author plans to trek to a remote corner of South Dakota in October to retrieve a century-old monument dedicated to a heroic mountain man.

The goal is to finally unlock a mystery hidden inside the monument, erected at the direction of writer John Neihardt as an “altar to courage” of the subject of one of his poems: Hugh Glass, who crawled, limped and paddled 200 miles after being mauled by a bear and left for dead in 1823.

The mauling was depicted in the 2015 movie “The Revenant,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass.

Neihardt wrote that he placed a time capsule in the “bosom” of the concrete monument. The capsule, he wrote, includes an “original manuscript” from him, the author of “Black Elk Speaks,” a million-selling book about the remembrances of a Lakota medicine man.

The monument sits on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation land. The agency recently determined that the Neihardt family rightly owns the monument and gave the OK for the family to remove it from its current site, along Shadehill Reservoir near Lemmon, South Dakota.

Coralie Hughes, a granddaughter of Neihardt, said her family plans to haul it to the Neihardt State Historic Site, a museum dedicated to the poet/author, in Bancroft, Nebraska.

‘No idea’ what will be found

Family members, she said, plan to proceed carefully in breaching the monument after picking it up on Oct. 23-24.

“We have no idea what we’re going to find,” said Hughes from her home in Indiana. “We want to be very careful. We don’t know where the objects are.”

She said it has not been determined exactly when the family will reveal what was inside the time capsule, if it is successfully found. Tentative plans are to do that at the spring conference of the Neihardt Foundation, which is scheduled April 27 at Wayne State College.

Displayed in Bancroft

The monument and its contents will be displayed at the Neihardt center in Bancroft, where the writer began his work on “The Cycle of the West,” a collection of five epic poems about the frontier which included the “Song of Hugh Glass.”

“It will be another attraction for our center. There’s a great story to go with it,” said Marianne Reynolds, the executive director of the Neihardt State Historic Site.

Unlocking the mystery of what’s inside the monument will be the culmination of a saga begun in June when a contingent from Wayne State College trekked to Lemmon in response to a challenge issued by Neihardt — to return to the monument site after 100 years, read some poetry,and “celebrate” as mountain men might have.

The original monument was erected by Neihardt and members of a now-defunct “Neihardt Club” at the college, which the author/poet attended and was known in 1923 as Nebraska Normal College. A local rancher and local judge also helped, as did the head of the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Wayne State contingent led by professor

Wayne State history professor Joseph Weixelman, who specialized in Western history, led a contingent of Wayne students.

But the contingent was denied permission to breach the monument, due to uncertainty about who exactly owned it, and who exactly could give permission to break into it.

The concrete monument was originally poured and created on private ranch land, but later, the property was obtained for federal reservoir, on which a park, managed by the State of South Dakota, now sits.

Just recently, the Bureau of Reclamation accepted the ownership claim of Hughes and other Neihardt desendants, and OK’d its removal to the historic site dedicated to Neihardt, the poet laureate in perpetuity of Nebraska.

Bureau spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith said that agency, in consultation with historians and to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, determined that the monument “was not of significance as a federal historic resource.”

She said that since the monument was moved sometime after the reservoir was built, “it no longer retains historic integrity” as outlined in the federal act.

‘We still own the legend’

Allowing it to be displayed at the Neihardt Center, Smith added, will provide “a long-term public benefit.”

Astrid Blumer, the proprietor of the Summerville Store and Cafe, a local gathering spot near the reservoir and monument, said it will be a little sad to see Neihardt’s monument removed. But, she said, a larger, state historical marker, erected by the State of South Dakota in the 1970s, will remain.

“So the story will not be forgotten,” Blumer said. “And that’s what important.”

“It’s a great story. We still own the legend,” she added.

Lemmon recently held its annual Hugh Glass Rendezvous to commemorate the bicentennial of the mauling.

Hughes said that the family’s wish is to crack into the monument as a family, and not have a large group looking over their shoulders.

“If you’re resorting to hand chisels and brushes, you don’t want a herd of people around,” she said. “It could easily take two days to chip our way in.”

There’s some uncertainty about whether anything is left inside the time capsule. The monument was reportedly inundated by floodwaters at least three times as it sat alongside the federal reservoir.

Hughes said it was in total keeping with her grandfather’s personality to erect such a monument, then bury a time capsule inside for others to unearth in 100 years.

“He had a great sense of humor, and he could make anything into an adventure,” she said. “He was so much fun.”

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