75 Years On, How Mount Rushmore Should Be Remembered

  • Photo of Mount Rushmore via by Lisa Thao, via Flickr.

    Photo of Mount Rushmore via by Lisa Thao, via Flickr.

“This colossus is our mark,” wrote sculptor Gutzon Borglum in 1936, on a break from strategically blasting the face off a South Dakota mountain that once belonged to the Lakota Sioux tribe. He was in the process of forging his most ambitious project to date: Mount Rushmore, a 6-story-tall, 180-foot-wide monument to four U.S. presidents, the bewigged and mustachioed Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. 

Carved into a granite mountain top, Borglum intended the sculpture to be an immortal symbol of America’s greatness. “I am assured that these carvings will endure as long as the Rocky Mountains endure; their message will outlast Egypt’s entombed mortality,” he puffed, with bombast that rings of the kind of pseudo-fascist Trumpisms currently glutting the election cycle. This month, on the eve of its 75th anniversary, Mount Rushmore still stands tall. But the sculpture’s message and its maker are more complex, and their backstories more sordid, than most history books let on. 

The origin story of Mount Rushmore begins in 1923, with a vision for a monument quite different than the one that towers above a craggy, fir-cloaked patch of South Dakota today. That year, the state’s official historian, Doane Robinson, concocted a plan to simultaneously drive more tourists to the state and honor a handful of legendary Western heroes. Why not carve the likenesses of Buffalo Bill Cody, Lewis and Clark, and Sioux chief Red Cloud right into the hard granite of the state’s stunning but sparsely attended Black Hills?

It was a lofty idea, and to include a Sioux chief on a monument slated for the Black Hills was, remarkably but perhaps not surprisingly, a controversial one at the time. The Sioux had called the region home for generations, a history recognized by a hard-won 1868 treaty that granted land in the area to the tribe, supposedly for posterity. The treaty disintegrated in the 1870s, however, when gold was discovered in the hills and the U.S. government reneged on the agreement, pushing the Sioux (tenacious chief Red Cloud among them) out of their sacred land in a series of bloody battles.

Robinson’s idea for the monument was connected to this layered history. If erected, it would tell a multifaceted story of Westward Expansion (Lewis and Clark), swashbuckling cowboys-cum-soldiers (Buffalo Bill Cody), and the Sioux struggle (Red Cloud). But all that changed when Gutzon Borglum—a sculptor known for his hot temper, virtuosic skill, and implacable ambition—entered the picture.

  • Photo of Gutzon Borglum via Wikimedia Commons.

    Photo of Gutzon Borglum via Wikimedia Commons.

Borglum was born in Idaho in 1867 to a Mormon father who had two wives—Borglum’s mother and her sister. It was a fact that the sculptor edited out of his personal history, instead preferring one in which he was hatched on the Oregon Trail in 1871 and “suckled on Italian art” during his youth. This sort of fabrication was typical of Borglum, a Stetson-donning, thickly mustachioed man who thought highly of himself and often tweaked his biography to match his grandiose self-image. He brought this flair for the dramatic to the scope and scale of his sculptures, too. After a stint in Paris, where he befriended Auguste Rodin, he returned to the States and set to carving powerful men in stone.

When Robinson wrote to Borglum to pitch his idea for the monument, the sculptor was at work on his first large-scale mountain carving: a commission from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) that was meant to memorialize the “Lost Cause.” Borglum took up the ambitious task of chipping away at Georgia’s Stone Mountain to create a bas-relief of Confederate leaders, with Robert E. Lee front and center. The project was funded in part by the Ku Klux Klan, who had a large presence in the region. And Borglum himself, previously aligned with Roosevelt’s more inclusive politics, was said to have joined the Klan during his time at Stone Mountain.

Not long after—according to John Taliaferro’s excellent account of Borglum’s project, Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount Rushmore—the artist derided black Americans as having “eaten into the very moral fiber of our race character,” and labeled immigrants “slippered assassins.” (The latter is chillingly resonant of the current Republican nominee’s penchant for stereotyping immigrants with offensive descriptions.)

But true to form, Borglum expanded on the original proposal for Stone Mountain, exceeded the project’s budget, angered his patrons, and was ultimately pushed out. It was in this charged moment that he agreed to realize a mountaintop sculpture in South Dakota—quite possibly the biggest the country had ever seen. But he didn’t care for Robinson’s idea of inscribing Western heroes into the fabric of the Black Hills. “I want to create a monument so inspiring that people from all over America will be drawn to come and look and go home better citizens,” Borglum said in 1927, the same year he broke ground on Mount Rushmore. In Borglum’s mind, the visages of four U.S. presidents would offer a more alluring spectacle, and a more inspiring message—one of the triumphs of American democracy—than Buffalo Bill and Red Cloud could.

Over the course of 14 years, Borglum and his team shaped a ridge of Mount Rushmore (named after a New York lawyer who advised on gold prospecting in the region, despite the fact that the mountain had long been known as Six Grandfathers by the Sioux) into the sculpture that we see today. The task took countless dynamite blasts, the labor of some 400 men, and the undying bullishness and keen talent of Borglum. Mount Rushmore is no doubt a breathtaking work of mythical proportions and a monument to great men. But the sculpture tells a one-sided, sanitized history of the region—one mirrored in history books that gloss over the troubling politics of its maker.

  • Photo of Crazy Horse Memorial, with Mount Rushmore in the background, by Kari, via Flickr.

    Photo of Crazy Horse Memorial, with Mount Rushmore in the background, by Kari, via Flickr.

Today, 15 miles from Mount Rushmore, a response to the monument also stands tall. Crazy Horse Memorial has been in progress since 1939, when Lakota chief Standing Bear approached a young sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked briefly on Rushmore. Together, they forged a similarly awe-inspiring likeness of famed Sioux chief Crazy Horse into a neighboring mountain, part of a landscape that his tribe still considers sacred.

Gutzon Borglum believed that art should be “built into, cut into, the crust of this earth so that those records would have to melt or by wind be worn to dust before the record…could...‘perish from the earth.’” But the question remains, what record does Mount Rushmore leave? So this October, as the monument rings in its 75th anniversary and the awesome feats of one sculptor and achievements of four presidents are celebrated, let’s not forget the histories of racism and violence that are inexorably tied to this American monument. Art can, after all, leave an indelible mark. And it’s up to us, and the histories we preserve, to shape how that mark will be read by future generations.


—Alexxa Gotthardt