Mandan Village Sites on 1911 U.S. Geological Survey

CRYING HILL

By Cooper Wingert
Aug 28, 2017

Cooper Wingert is a nationally respected historical researcher and award-winning author who has written seven books on the American Civil War.
(Read more about C. Wingert)

Rising up from the surrounding plains, Crying Hill dominates the Mandan and Missouri River Valley skylines, now as it has throughout human history. Sought out by Plains Indians centuries ago as a place for prayer, protection, and solitude, the rising ridge continues as an epic place to bring regional identification, recreational activities, and spiritual identification to generation after generation of Mandan residents.

Contrary to an incorrect modern myth that states that Crying Hill was a point from which mothers and wives watched to see if their sons and husbands were among returning warriors (/c/ the Mandan Indians were agrarian), the name Crying Hill derives from its centuries-old recognition as a sacred place; a natural cathedral to where the Mandans and later cultures could go to “Cry Onto the Lord” – to beseech, ask for guidance, and seek solace – with a spirit common across all faiths. (1)

Historically, the site is most closely linked to the Mandans, one of eight distinct tribes which for centuries have lived within the modern-day boundaries of North Dakota. Mandan tradition describes a route of migration from a southerly location, near the Gulf of Mexico, northward, following the Missouri river. While Mandan men hunted buffalo, women farmed crops such as corn, beans, turnips, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers. (2)

A Mandan settlement formed at the base of Crying Hill, known alternatively as the village of “Good Fur Robe” or “Scattered Village.” While a few anthropologists and archaeologists have argued that Good Fur Robe, namesake of the settlement, was a “mythological cultural hero of the Mandans who was involved in the origins of many sacred ceremonies” which formed the core of Mandan spiritual life, it is indisputable that the Mandans fashioned earthen “lodges,” which were “built-over, but nevertheless distinguishable” to early 20th century ethnographers. (3)

Per a June 21, 1981 Bismarck Tribune historical article by Stan Stelter:

“Mandan’s founding generally is linked to the growth of the railroad westward in the late 1800’s, but its roots are much deeper. The area was once occupied by ancestors of the Mantani, or Mandan Indians, who reportedly occupied the land hundreds of years ago, apparently moving in from the southeastern United States. The Indians had a sedentary type of culture and maintained a life of hunting, gardening, and fishing along the Missouri River bottomlands. (4)

“As a result of continuing attacks from a nomadic tribe, the Mantani – a Dakota word for riverbank dwellers – began drawing together near the confluence of the Heart and Missouri rivers around 1600. (5)

“One historian estimates the Mandan population at the mouth of the Heart in 1700 at 8,000. Historians say one of those settlements was made by Good Fur Robe. It was called “The Crying Hill” because a nearby hilltop –reportedly the hilltop in the eastern portion of present-day Mandan – was used as a mourning place. (6)

“The village also was known as “Two Faced Stone” for the outcropping of granite, serving as the source for a mystical experience by the medicine man. In 1738, in one of his visions, he foresaw visitors from the north, according to historical accounts. That coincides with the earliest recorded visit to the area by a white man, Sieure de la Verendrye, and his son. While exploring the Louisiana Purchase territory, the Frenchman arrived in the area thought to be the present site of the (then) Amoco Oil Co. refinery on Mandan’s northeast edge. More than a hundred years passed, however, before white settlement began.” (7)

From this and subsequent outlying villages, the Mandan continued to make pilgrimages to Crying Hill, one of three recorded sacred hills in the region. One common reason was that the Mandan visited Crying Hill and other sacred sites when coping with fertility. The Mandan believed in the concept of “rebirth”—that children who had died in infancy, before being named, returned to these sacred sites, awaiting a new parent. Thus, a childless mother might come to Crying Hill to pray for a child.

According to Mandan tradition, if she desired a girl, she would carry with her girl’s clothing and a ball; if she desired a son, she would bring with her a small bow and arrow. The Mandan believed that at Crying Hill and other similar sites, children selected their mothers “when desiring to be born into the tribe.”(8) Additional renditions indicate that pregnant women would go to Crying Hill to pray for a boy. (9)

Crying Hill was also used for mourning purposes. The bodies of deceased Mandan were wrapped in buffalo robes, carried to Crying Hill, and mourned by their family and neighbors before being buried at the site. Mandan were not buried in the modern sense, but were “dressed and wrapped in a new buffalo hide, and set upon scaffolds, a little higher than anybody in the tribe could reach, with the feet of the deceased facing east. Then, when the scaffolds collapsed from wear, the family would pick up the skull of the skeleton, and place it among other skulls, in a circle 8 or 9 inches apart from each other.”(10)

“You could see the women with their sewing materials or a hide that needs tanning, going out to the plain to spend a better part of the day conversing with the bones of their deceased like they are really there in person. Then when dark falls, or when they are done conversing, they go back to their lodge to come back another day.”(11) This tradition is similar to families who visit loved ones in cemeteries today, occasionally taking with them a blanket, chair, or book.

In the late 1970s, excavations by a local contractor unearthed bones predating the year 1700, seeming to confirm accounts of Crying Hill as a “common burial area,” according to archeologist Nick Franke of the North Dakota State Historical Society.(12)

Other regional ethnic groups have incorporated Crying Hill into their daily and spiritual lives. Anthropologists have uncovered evidence of the Crying Hill’s use by the Hidatsas, another local tribe on sometimes tenuous terms with the neighboring Mandan,(13) as well as the use of Crying Hill by members of the Lakota, Dakota and Arikara ethnic groups as a site for ritual and prayer.(14)

As Crying Hill was coming into its heyday, European-descent explorers made contact with Mandan-region Native Americans and their accounts shed vital evidence on life around Crying Hill.

In December 1738, an expeditionary force led by Canadian-born French trader Pierre Gaultier daVarennes et de La Vérendrye reached Mandan villages near Crying Hill. A group of eight men, led by one of Vérendrye’s sons, visited a Mandan village called “The Mortar” located four miles north of modern-day Mandan, then moving south to a village nearer Crying Hill. Although archaeologists are skeptical that Vérendrye’s son visited the “Good Fur Robe” village, what is beyond dispute is his encounter with a Mandan village very near the Crying Hill site.(15)

Nearly 70 years later, in October 1804 the famed Lewis and Clark expedition passed by the original village site at the base of Crying Hill, which had already been abandoned. Walking the western banks of the Missouri river, William Clark viewed the ruins of multiple Mandan villages on both sides of the river, and “Scattered Village” at the base of Crying Hill was almost certainly among them.(16) Recordings of such possible visits appear in the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in their entry of 19th October Friday 1804:

“Near one of those knolls, on a point of a hill 90 feet above the lower plain I observed the remains of an old village, [NB: high, strong, watchtower &c.] which had been fortified, the Indian Chief with us tells me a party of Mandans lived there. Here first saw ruins of Mandan nation.”(17) (William Clark)

THE MANDAN SIGN
As non-Native settlers continued to push west and into the Missouri River valley, and particularly with the founding of Mandan in 1872 by Frederic Gerard, a Trader and later a Scout for George Custer, white settlers assumed the area as their own.(18)

In June 1934, Mandan Boy Scouts constructed a “MaNDan” sign on the southern slopes of Crying Hill. The capitalized letters spanned 70 feet tall, and the entire word was 300 feet in width.

As described by the Mandan Historical Society:(19)

“… “Crying Hill” has welcomed visitors and returning residents with its notation for over 50 years. The landmark is comprised of three separate features; (1) concrete letters denoting the city’s name on the northeast face of the hill; (2) the word ‘Mandan’ spelled out in trees on the south face of the hill; and (3) the hill itself, a sacred place culturally important to the Native American population.”

and again:(20)

“In the days before GPS coordinates and radio navigation aids, the forerunner to the ND State Aeronautical Commission encouraged rural areas to denote their community’s name on water towers and hillsides to assist airplane pilots in identifying their location during cross-country flights. Another version of the truth attributes the practice to plain civic pride.

“Culminating two years of intermittent work and spearheaded by Mandan Pioneer newspaperman Edwin D. Tostevin. The sign was suggested by Tostevin in 1932 during
a meeting of the Mandan Lions Club. The Mandan Boy Scouts completed a 300 foot long by 70 foot high sign on the south side of Mandan’s Crying Hill in June 1934. Mandan’s layout features the two middle characters as upper case letters 85 feet high to represent the abbreviation of North Dakota.

“The project involved forty-seven truckloads of rock which area business sponsors had delivered to the base of the hill. The stones were collected from fields around the city. The Boy Scouts applied more than 12 gallons of white paint to the stones to brighten the letters before hauling and placing the rocks. The local Boy and Girls Scouts maintained the sign for more than 30 years.

“In August 1963, eight gallons of paint and 12-hours of effort by the Mandan Jaycees members went into rehabbing the sign. A second line consisting of white painted railroad timbers was added to promote the Custer Drama at Fort Lincoln State Park.

“In June 1959, work was again completed on refurbishing and replacing stones and repainting the sign. Railroad ties were added to the display which denoted “Trail West” to promote the new Custer-based drama debuting at Fort Lincoln State Park in July 1959. The project was sponsored by the Mandan Jaycees with member Larry Sullivan serving as project chairman.

“With the construction of Interstate 94 on the north side of the hill in 1968, the original white-colored sign was transferred from the hill’s southern side to the east side in 1987 to be viewed by approaching traffic. Instead of using stones, large concrete rectangles were constructed. This designed was expected to discourage vandals from removing stones and/or destroying the letters.

“The marker is the largest sign in North Dakota.

“Trees were planted in the late 1990s across the original location of the sign, i.e. the southern face of the hill, also spelling out “MANDAN.” (21)

Crying Hill, with its highly visible “MaNDan” sign, continue to hold enduring cultural, social, and spiritual significance for both Native American and non-Native populations, as well as serve as a source of community heritage and pride.

CURRENT AND CONTINUING USE
Several contemporary Christian congregations, prayer groups, and youth organizations regularly use Crying Hill for sporting, spiritual, and outdoor activities, and it continues to be researched, written about, and included in numerous personal postings and professional journals.

Most recently, an early-morning prayer service was held on Crying Hill on August 17th, 2017, and involved participants from several states. A much larger activity organized by the
Native American Development Center (NADC) requested permission to use Crying Hill, also in August of 2017, but planning for this activity was moved indoors to the North Dakota Heritage Center due to forecasted inclement weather.

Until recently, regional tourist maps encouraged visitors to “Climb Crying Hill”, and different community volunteer days and groups have slated this culturally-important yet still private property for activity.

OWNERSHIP
By far, most people in the Mandan and surrounding communities, and those who pass by on Interstate 94, assume that Crying Hill is municipal, city park board, or state land. It is not, and in fact its owner has been removed from the land by Mandan City Police, who believed he was trespassing on city land.

In late May 2003, North Dakota-native Patrick Atkinson was receiving routine physical therapy for an injury he suffered in a 1984 car bombing in El Salvador, when he learned from his physical therapist that Crying Hill, a Native American heritage site, was slated for sale and eventual commercial development.

A quick drive brought him to the very site, where he saw ample evidence of the site’s religious significance. Sage had been planted and cared for, while piles of prayer stones, sometimes stacked five stones high, beseeched an unknown individual’s prayer. Still, he had the lingering question—was it relevant in the 21st century?

His son Ernesto Atkinson, now a family therapist in Chicago and Milwaukee, and a professional artist, is of Mayan-Cakchiquel Native American descent, and told him it was. Ernesto convinced his father that the site was home to a centuries’ old religious heritage that should be preserved for future generations, and that it was a birthplace for the entire regional community.

Atkinson then met with then-Mayor Ken Lamont, who encouraged Atkinson in the purchase of the land with the idea that Atkinson would gift the land to the people of Mandan, through a donation of the land to the Mandan Park Board or the City of Mandan. Atkinson purchased the nearly five acre property.(22)

Soon after Atkinson’s May 2003 purchase of Crying Hill, he founded The Crying Hill Foundation, as a 501(c)3 non-profit community organization dedicated to preserving the site. The Foundation’s mission statement articulated the unique opportunity Crying Hill offered to “develop and promote Native American awareness, and works and activities of charity that will improve the family, economic, educational, spiritual, physical and cultural situation of the community, children and their families.”(24)

However, Atkinson’s plans to preserve Crying Hill for public use were not met with universal praise. Pre-arranged efforts to donate the land to the both the City of Mandan and the Mandan Park Board were turned down after campaigning by a few neighboring property-owners,who stated it would disrupt their “idea of solitude”.(25) So too was the construction of a federally-funded surface trail, complete with landmark identifiers and benches, along Crying Hill’s ridge.

By October 2003, the proposed trail up and across the Crying Hill property Atkinson had purchased with personal funds and a bank loan to donate to the people of Mandan had fallen in priority, according to a funding ranking schedule provided by the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, the preservation of Crying Hill—which had months’ earlier seemed inevitable—was placed on the back-burner. Five years later, in 2008, the site was listed among a group of endangered historic landmarks in North Dakota.(27)

Today, Crying Hill remains in as much danger as ever. Major residential development is planned for most of Crying Hill; a failure to preserve the historical southeast corner of Crying Hill, with its MaNDaN sign and forest, would be devastating to the local cultural, recreational, and spiritual heritage. As the editorial board of the Bismarck Tribune so aptly remarked, Crying Hill is a “magic place.” For now, Atkinson maintains the land open and respectfully posted with:

Centuries of deep and ponderous human interaction among several centuries and cultures have given Crying Hill this regional identification. While Crying Hill can be lost forever with the stroke of one pen; the magical appeal it possesses and has given the Mandan community for centuries never to be regained.

As then-mayor Ken Lamont wrote in 2003 when Patrick Atkinson began the effort to preserve as much of Crying Hill as was possible for the people of Mandan,(28)

“There is a strong sense of community in our area with a deep respect for its history. Crying Hill carries a significant role in that history. It represents an important
part of tradition and culture to the Native American community, our very first citizens.

“Patrick Atkinson’s efforts to preserve the eastern ridge of Crying Hill and efforts to share its significance with future generations plays an importance beyond comprehension to creating understanding of the Native American culture and tradition.

“It is our responsibility to generate avenues for awareness. I want my grandchildren to understand, more importantly appreciate, the influences and contributions of the Native American people.”

Crying Hill has transitioned with the ages and today continues to meet the social, local identity, recreational, and spiritual needs of many different generations, groups, and cultures.

Unchanged yet always changing through the ages, Crying Hill is, quite simply, an epic representation for the Mandan community.

 


REFERENCES

  1. Regional Native American Oral History, Mandan, ND.
  2. Manatani: History of  Mandan and Martin County, (Mandan, ND: Mandan Chamber of Commerce, 1964), 4-5.
  3. Stanley A. Ahler (ed.), “Prehistory on First Street NE: The Archaeology of Scattered Village in Mandan, North Dakota,” (Flagstaff, AZ: PaleoCultural Research Group, 2002), 1.10-1.17.
  4. http://bismarcktribune.com/gallery/north-dakota-history-in-photos-mandan/collection_efe58106-050f-11e7-8571-ffedd30bdd47.html#2
  5. http://bismarcktribune.com/gallery/north-dakota-history-in-photos-mandan/collection_efe58106-050f-11e7-8571-ffedd30bdd47.html#2
  6. http://bismarcktribune.com/gallery/north-dakota-history-in-photos-mandan/collection_efe58106-050f-11e7-8571-ffedd30bdd47.html#2
  7. http://bismarcktribune.com/gallery/north-dakota-history-in-photos-mandan/collection_efe58106-050f-11e7-8571-ffedd30bdd47.html#2
  8. Alfred W. Bowers, Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization, (Moscow, ID: University of Idaho Press, 1950, reprint, 1991), 60.
  9. “Hill has a rich history,” Bismarck Tribune, June 10, 2003.
  10. http://mandanindians.weebly.com/religion.html
  11. https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/mandan-and-hidatsa.htm
  12. “Bones Likely Prehistoric,” Bismarck Tribune, July 19, 1979.
  13. Ahler, “Prehistory on First Street NE,” 1.14-1.16.
  14. “Endangered Landmarks,” Grand Forks Herald, May 3, 2008.
  15. Ibid., 1.10-1.12; La Vérendrye, The Publications of the Chaplain Society Journals of La Verendrye, (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1927), 331-341; Ken Rogers, “Workers uncover Mandan artifacts,” Bismarck Tribune, July 18, 1998; Mike McCleary, “New facts unearthed,” Bismarck Tribune, October 17, 1998.
  16. Reuben Gold Thwaites (ed.), Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804-1806, (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1904), 199-202.
  17. https://www.nps.gov/jeff/learn/historyculture/mandan-and-hidatsa.htm
  18. http://bismarcktribune.com/gallery/north-dakota-history-in-photos-mandan/collection_efe58106-050f-11e7-8571-ffedd30bdd47.html#2
  19. “Mandan Hill – 501 N Mandan Ave,” http://www.mandanhistory.org/arealandmarks/mandanhill.html.
  20. “Mandan Hill – 501 N Mandan Ave,” http://www.mandanhistory.org/arealandmarks/mandanhill.html.
  21. http://www.mandanhistory.org/arealandmarks/mandanhill.html
  22. Sue Bartholomew, “Saving Crying Hill,” The Mandan News, June 2, 2003; Frederic Smith, “More Magic: Crying Hill Site,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 1, 2003.
  23. Sue Bartholomew, “Atkinson creates foundation for preservation of Crying Hill,” The Morton County & Mandan News, May 29, 2003.
  24. “More magic: Crying Hill site,” Bismarck Tribune, July 1, 2003.
  25. Virginia Grantier, “Proposed trail threatens privacy, homeowner says,” Bismarck Tribune, August 23, 2003.
  26. Virginia Grantier, “Proposed Crying Hill trail ranked low on funding list,” Bismarck Tribune, October 31, 2003.
  27. “Endangered Landmarks,” Grand Forks Herald, May 3, 2008.
  28. Ken LaMont, 2003, “A Reflection on Preserving Our Culture and Our Heritage,” http://cryinghill.org. Accessed August 27, 2017.