“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.