Podcast Episode 78: History and Myths of Devils Tower

Devils Tower, a geological marvel in Wyoming, formed around 50 million years ago and was designated as the first U.S. national monument in 1906. However, its significance extends beyond geology, as it holds profound cultural and spiritual importance for Native American tribes such as the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Kiowa. Known as “Mato Tipila” to the Lakota Sioux, it is a sacred site where legends tell of a young girl saved from a bear by the Great Spirit, leading to the tower’s creation. Various tribes conduct religious ceremonies and vision quests here, and collaborative efforts with the National Park Service aim to preserve its cultural significance while allowing limited public access, highlighting the importance of safeguarding both natural wonders and indigenous cultural heritage.

Legendary History of Devils Tower


Ep 78 Devils Tower

[00:00:00] Scott: Long before the towering wonder of Devil’s Tower emerged, a tale unfolded in the rugged wilderness of Wyoming. The Lakota tribe lived throughout North America, following the herds of buffalo and living off the land. Amidst this beauty of the undisturbed Wyoming landscape, two young girls played among boulders reveling in this wild expanse where mighty bears held sway but rarely attacked their human neighbors.

[00:00:44] Yet one day, in a moment of bad luck, one bear emerged from the shadows, driven by a primal hunger and looking for prey. The bear saw the girls and began to run towards them, with the girls quickly scrambling away with all their might to reach the pinnacle of the nearest boulder. Desperation etched upon their faces, they seemed trapped.

[00:01:06] In the relentless advance of the Predator, when the guardian of this ancient land, the Great Spirit, cast its watchful eye upon the enfolding drum, and with a breathtaking display of its divine power, the Great Spirit caused the very rock beneath the girl’s trembling feet to surge skyward. In an awe inspiring moment, the once modest boulder transformed into a towering sentinel, defying gravity itself with the girls lifted to safety and their hearts filled with a profound sense and wonder at what just happened.

[00:01:41] Undeterred, the relentless bear continued its assault, clawing and scrabbling at the newfound tower, but the great spirit’s enchantment held firm. The mighty bear’s efforts were in vain, and its claws leaving indelible marks upon the stone, etching a testament to the power of nature in the supernatural.

[00:02:00] To this day, as one gazes upon Devil’s Tower, those ancient claw marks bear witness to the indomitable spirit of survival, the majesty of nature, and the enduring awe inspired by what eventually became the very first national monument. of the United States.

[00:02:29] Welcome to Talk With History. I’m your host, Scott, here with my wife and historian, Jen. Hello. On this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels, YouTube channel journey, and examine history. through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there.

[00:02:49] Now, Jen, as I was saying, I do not have a joke today because I think I’m going to convert this joke and review segment, as I was telling you just last night, into a segment called Bad Jokes, Good Reviews. And so if someone leaves me a good review on this podcast, a five star review, or maybe let’s say five stars over on Spotify, I will give you guys a bad joke.

[00:03:13] I will, I will do my due diligence and give you give the audience a bad joke. So that’s fair. If we can get a good review out of someone, I will, I will muster up the courage to tell a bad dad joke here on the podcast. But today, Jen, we’re getting towards the end of our Western road trip that we had this summer.

[00:03:30] We had a jam packed couple weeks. And this was a place that you wanted to bring me and the kids because it was somewhere that you had grown up. visiting multiple times in Wyoming. Yes, 

[00:03:44] Jenn: so anytime anyone visited us in, when I grew up in Cheyenne, they wanted to see Devil’s Tower. Of course. And most people at that time, and even today a little bit, know Devil’s Tower from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

[00:03:58] It’s where they keep kind of making this tower out of the sand, like the, you know, the people who are getting the message to meet the aliens, right, and the aliens want to have this first like encounter with people at some feature, geological feature. And if you’ve ever been to Devil’s Tower, No Devil’s Tower, it really stands alone in the middle of nowhere as this geological feature.

[00:04:24] feature. So that’s how most people 

[00:04:27] Scott: know it. Yeah. And even if like, I’ve never actually watched the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I think the vast majority of American culture would probably recognize the movie poster. Yes. And that is the large alien kind of flying saucer looking thing with the lights shining down over Devil’s Tower.

[00:04:44] Yes. Right. Which is basically this circular monolith with lines kind of going up the side. So it looks like. You know, people have joked or they’ve done it in movies before with like kids playing with their food and mashed potatoes. Yes. They build like a little, yeah, 

[00:04:59] Jenn: devil’s tower. Yeah. It looks like, I mean, it really does look like a tree trunk.

[00:05:02] Yeah. It looks like a massive tree trunk. They got cut off. Yes. That’s what it looks like. And actually the American Indians call it. Devil’s Lodge Butte. And so that’s their name for it. And if it’s translated, that’s what it is in their language. And I 

[00:05:19] Scott: thought that, didn’t they have like another like Bear’s Lodge or something like that?

[00:05:22] Yeah. Is that another name for 

[00:05:23] Jenn: it? Yeah. Bear’s Lodge or Bear’s Lodge Butte. So, but it’s in Northeast Wyoming. So we kind of show it in the video because it’s kind of a route that people will usually do Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Devil’s Tower. battle little bighorn because it really is all within a couple hours of each other if you want to do kind of like this Western circle.

[00:05:46] Scott: Yeah. And it’s funny because we had done our Western road trip and we saw our friend JD from history underground. He was kind of like a few weeks behind us. Right. And he had just done devil’s tower. And he was up a little bit more, and then he went over to Cody, Wyoming, which is kind of the northwestern corner of Wyoming.

[00:06:02] We didn’t make it 

[00:06:03] Jenn: over there. So Devil’s Tower kind of falls into that arena, even though they only get about half a million visitors a year, which is a lot less than Rushmore, it does fall in that same kind of like path that people will take. But it is impressive when you see it for the first time, because it rises about 1267 feet above the river.

[00:06:25] Summit to base. It’s about eight hundred and sixty seven feet. So when you’re looking out on a flat plane and And the north eastern side of Wyoming is flat because you’re not by the Teton mountain range It rises up like you can see it and you start to see it 

[00:06:39] Scott: miles out. Yeah, so there’s a pretty popular turnoff kind of like a like an overlooked turnoff before you even get into the Where the National Monument is that is Devil’s Tower that we stopped at that a lot of people stop back because you can see it from a couple miles away.

[00:06:56] And that’s that’s actually what we did is we pulled out at this turn off and we took some pictures and you think you made a real stuff like that so you can see it from a couple miles away. And like you said, it’s it’s It just stands out on its own, which is the draw for a lot of people. Yeah. Yeah. 

[00:07:11] Jenn: I mean, it is from sea level.

[00:07:13] It’s about 5, 000 feet high. And what’s interesting is the base of it’s about 800 feet wide, and then the top is 300. So it kind of like, looks like a tree trunk. Like I said, as it’s kind of grown from the ground, it’s really thick at the the bottom and then gets kind of thinner as it goes up to the 

[00:07:30] Scott: top.

[00:07:30] Yeah. And we got lots of great video footage of it on this particular trip. I think this video has done a little bit better than I expected. And I think part of that is because we do a good job of showing what it looks like. And I found some YouTube footage that actually someone flew a drone over it, which you’re not allowed to do.

[00:07:45] Yeah. Because it’s a national park. Because it’s a national park. But they actually show what it looks like on the 

[00:07:49] Jenn: top. Yes. You know, and we’ll talk about that a little bit. because you can go to the top to both talk about that. You have to climb it though. It becomes the first national monument though, and now it’s a national park by Teddy Roosevelt.

[00:08:03] We’ll make it the first national monument in 1906 and February 24th, which actually is close to when we’re filming today. And so When he does that it becomes 1, 300 acres so it encompasses not just the the rock itself but all the kind of area around it is the National Monument. So that’s all like the National Park and if you’re going to visit you know before we get into more I want to talk about if you’re going to visit plan a half a day because what really I think stops the travel to Devil’s Tower in the popular.

[00:08:42] is the traffic. 

[00:08:43] Scott: Yeah, getting into where you can actually park and walk up to Devil’s Tower. That is is a pretty singular 

[00:08:51] Jenn: route and there’s not a lot of parking. So they will if once it’s filled up they will stop. Uh, traffic coming in and wait until people leave before they let other people in. 

[00:09:00] Scott: Yeah. We got in there just kind of before that because we’re, we’re early risers by nature.

[00:09:04] Yes. And the kids. And so. So that, 

[00:09:06] Jenn: that’s the popular months though. Winter time. I’m sure you’re fine. But if you’re going to visit, I would plan for half a day. And so can you get to the top? What can you do when you get there? Really when you get there? There’s a great visitor center and it’ll go into some of the stuff we’re going to talk about today.

[00:09:23] And then there’s some trails you can take around the monument. You know, the smallest is I think about a half a mile and they go all the way up to two miles. It depends on how far you go. Far out around you want to go those trails will also give you some of the history of it as well And you’ll learn some stuff about the monument and the indigenous plants the indigenous animals More about the American Indians that live there, but it’s all pretty Easily maneuvered, but you can only get to the top by climbing 

[00:09:55] Scott: In general visiting Devil’s Tower is a very light lift.

[00:09:59] Yes. It’s very easy. It’s it’s a Not a lot of planning needs to go into it. Just get there at a decent time, get some parking, you can walk around. It’s a very kind of low effort visit.

[00:10:18] However, if you want to get to the top of Devil’s Tower, there’s a lot more that goes into that and it’s actually something that’s been on my list of things to climb. For those listening, if you guys didn’t know, I, you know, I spent about a decade climbing all throughout the West, throughout Southern California and Yosemite.

[00:10:34] I’ve climbed I’ve climbed El Capitan twice. Climbed half half dome. So I’ve, yes, that is, that does mean that I slept on the rock. It’s a big deal. It took me, it took me three and a half days to climb El Capitan. It took me two and a half days to climb half dome. I failed the first time I tried half time because my friend got injured and we had to come down.

[00:10:55] So I’ve climbed through in Zion. I’ve, I’ve all throughout largely the kind of the Southwest, you know, and largely in California. And I even tried to open up, we tried to open up a climbing 

[00:11:06] Jenn: gym. Yeah. Scott has scared me to death more than once 

[00:11:09] Scott: without, so I’ll recount some climbing stories on a future podcast sometime.

[00:11:13] If we ever start talking about the climbing history, but I love that stuff. I haven’t climbed in quite some time, but yeah. I spent the vast majority of my 20s and early 30s climbing all throughout the West wherever I could. So Devil’s Tower is a very popular destination for climbers. It 

[00:11:29] Jenn: is because it has, and if you’re a climber, it has easy routes to difficult routes, 5.

[00:11:34] 7 to 7 if you go to a climbing gym, that’s usually like the basic easy route. And it was first climbed July 4th, 1893. To much fanfare, it was William Rogers and Williard Ripley that made the first ascent on, they did a wooden ladder for the first 350 feet and then climbed the rest. And then when they got up there, they put up an American flag, but there was already a flagpole up there.

[00:11:59] Was it really? Which means they probably climbed it a couple days earlier before they did the July 4th big deal, right? But what I find really interesting is two years later, in 1895, his wife did it. Mrs. Rogers did it. So she’s the first woman. Oh, that’s cool. She actually did it. But since then, you know, what’s, what’s, what’s cool about Devil’s Tower makes it kind of like an easy one day climb.

[00:12:23] It’s only six to seven pitches. And so what does that mean? It’s like rope lengths. So when you think about six to seven pitches, that’s, that’s, that’s 

[00:12:31] Scott: a day. Yeah. So, so for those not familiar with kind of. climbing general terms. 800 feet. That would be about 6 to 7 pitches. A pitch is typically right around 100 feet, you know, or half a rope length is typically 60 meters.

[00:12:46] Um, and so, you know, 60 meters, what times three, that’s 180 feet. So it’s 90 to 100 feet, right? So that’s half a rope length. So And if you’re moving on an easier route, you can do that. Yeah. You know, 800 feet, maybe six hours if you’re moving smoothly. Um, unless you kind of get hung up in particular spots or something like that.

[00:13:06] So it’s, it’s definitely kind of a one day climb up and I’m sure they have repelling routes down with fixed anchors, which means they’ve actually bolted. They’ve most likely bolted anchor spots on a particular repelling route. And for the national parks, they’ve actually, they’ve typically worked very well with the climbing community because both sides want things to be done safely.

[00:13:30] So climbers continue to have access and the National Park Service and their park rangers aren’t worrying that climbers are just out there just kind of cowboy style doing whatever destroying. So they’re ideally they’re working together and the climbing community is typically very, very good. About working with the park services on, on keeping these things safe because everybody wants to get up and get down safe.

[00:13:50] Yes. 

[00:13:50] Jenn: So they get about 5,000 climbers each year. There’s over 220 routes. But what makes Devil’s Tower relatively easy? I would say easy. You and I, ’cause it’s not flat wall climbing is, it’s a lot of chimney climbing. Yeah. Right. Because those cracks make it easier to kind of get yourself in. And we show this on the video when Scott will climb, he’ll carry basically like a rack of.

[00:14:12] climbing aids or anchors and cams, which kind of go into the crack, expand, think of something that kind of expands after you, and You clip your rope into that and you that’s how you climb and then someone will come up behind you and take those out Yeah, so you’re not leaving anything behind and you’re not hurting the rock and that’s really what really good climbers and good Naturalists don’t want to leave anything behind.

[00:14:39] They don’t want to put in what we call pitons, which is old school hammering metal into the rock. Nobody wants to do that because you don’t want to deface the 

[00:14:47] Scott: rock. Yeah, and, and, you know, went back when these things were first being climbed. That’s what they would typically use pitons, but they didn’t have the little more advanced kind of climbing technology we have nowadays.

[00:14:58] And if you think of a cam, you know, picture something in your head of kind of two kind of rotating heads that are together, right on a trigger. So, so think of kind of like a stick with a, with a trigger that you can pull with, with your two kind of fingers with a thumb underneath, right? So those, those three fingers pulling a trigger as if you were kind of like holding a toothbrush almost.

[00:15:18] And at the end of that toothbrush is two heads. When you pull the trigger, they kind of get more narrow and then you put it into the crack. And when you let go of that trigger, they expand a little bit. And what they do is they bite into the rock. And, and allow that to catch you. That’s your kind of high point.

[00:15:33] And then you do that multiple times up. We won’t go too deep into like how to climb, but that’s how climbers. 

[00:15:38] Jenn: Yeah. Cause people always ask me that what, what’s it mean to free solo? I’ll say that real fast. Free solo is what that guy did on the face of El Cap where you climb with nothing. No, no rope, no cams.

[00:15:51] Very dangerous. If you slip and fall, that’s it. The reason why you climb with all of this stuff is so if you slip and fall, you’re okay. I mean, you might get hurt, but you’re okay. Like, you don’t die. And they have, 

[00:16:01] Scott: I think they have like guiding services. Yes. 

[00:16:03] Jenn: I don’t even know if they allow free solo on Devil’s Tower.

[00:16:13] What’s neat about the climbing too is in June. they ask climbers not to climb. And 85 percent of climbers do adhere to that. And the reason why they do that is because Devil’s Tower is still considered a very sacred place for the American Indians. And the reason why it’s considered so sacred is because it’s what they consider the birthplace of wisdom.

[00:16:32] And what that means is, as far as the America, the American Indians, This is how they basically honored or indoctrinated medicine men. They would go to the base of Devil’s Tower for like a four day fast and pray and they would do rituals at the base and that would make the end of your basically credential indoctrination to being a medicine man in the American Indian 

[00:17:03] Scott: culture.

[00:17:04] Oh, that’s interesting. So is that all across kind of all tribes? 

[00:17:06] Jenn: Yes, 22 tribes. Oh, wow. And so… Because it probably stood alone in such a vast plain area, it was, you know, considered to them a very spiritual place and still is today. And because June is when that ritual takes place, they asked for climbers not to be on the rock during that time.

[00:17:25] And like I said, 85 percent here, there’s been some controversy about climbers fighting it, but most climbers are pretty cool about that. But that, that is why At one time, they tried to change the name and we’ll talk about the name Devil’s Tower

[00:17:43] in 2000, 2004, I think about the time frame they tried to change the name to Bear Lodge, because that is the American Indian name, if you interpret it into English. And that’s what’s used all the time. And so why are we calling it Devil’s Tower if all the American Indians call it Bear Lodge? And they tried to change the name.

[00:18:04] They had a petition. It went through Congress, but just didn’t get the approval. But 

[00:18:07] Scott: you explained in the video how it got the Devil’s Tower’s 

[00:18:10] Jenn: name. So Devil’s Tower in 1874. Five, there was a expedition, a military expedition to basically, you can think 1875, we’ve had a lot of videos about this. What’s going on?

[00:18:24] Gold, Black Hills, expedition out there to see if there’s any gold in Devil’s Tower. And this Colonel, Colonel Richard Dodge had an interpreter with him who interpreted the American Indian language wrong and called it Bad God Tower. And if you think a bad God is the devil, so Devil’s Tower, and it just really stuck.

[00:18:48] And they made charts of the area at the time, and they labeled it Devil’s Tower. And so that is what initially went to Congress. That was initially what People started to learn it as, and it’s Devil’s Tower without the apostrophe. And really, there’s so many things that say that now, and it’s, it would be very hard, difficult to change the name, that that’s the name that’s really has stuck since 1875.

[00:19:12] Scott: I found that so interesting because really the, the, the lore. Right? The Native American lore behind the name, behind the tower itself. If obviously you heard a version of that story in the intro today, but there’s, there’s kind of many different versions and a lot of it involves young men or young women trying to escape bears or a giant bear and with the great spirit kind of raising this thing up to protect them.

[00:19:40] And then the bear trying to. to get them at the top. Um, so it’s just kind of so interesting how that, how that evolved. 

[00:19:48] Jenn: Yeah, because when you think about it, the stories, they’re saved by the great spirit, which is a good spirit, not a devil, right? But that’s what we know it as. today but you told the Lakota story of the girls who were being chased by the bears and prayed and it rose up the bears claws made the marks and they prayed and they eventually went up and became the stars in the sky in the sky and they’re a constellation now.

[00:20:16] The other one is a Sioux story, two boys being chased by one huge bear, I think Mato, M A T O. That’s what they called the bear, a huge bear with claws like teepee poles. Yeah. So that big, so that big and that bears teepee pole claws made the huge grooves in the side. And they also pray to the great spirit, which raised it up so the bear couldn’t get them.

[00:20:40] And the great spirit sent it. great eagle to carry them back to their 

[00:20:44] Scott: village. And that’s actually the picture we show, you know, relatively early in the video, but that’s a picture that you will commonly see is this giant bear clawing at Devil’s Tower as kind of the depiction of the Native American story, right?

[00:20:58] That’s the common kind of one single picture. You’ll see paintings, you’ll see would carve signs. Yeah. And we even had some YouTube comments of people saying, whoever painted that picture didn’t really know what a bear looks like because the bear actually has like a long tail, you know? So I was like, eh, it’s whatever.

[00:21:12] That’s the, that’s the picture that’s just been popularized. Yes. So that’s what you will see. And that’s where that came from. 

[00:21:17] Jenn: And it. It totally makes sense, because if you see the deep grooves on the tower, that totally makes sense for why it would be that story. And so, like I said, you can climb it, you can get to the top, what’s on the top, there is Transcribed wildlife on the top.

[00:21:34] There’s chick monks, there’s birds, there are rattlesnakes. So if you climb to the top, but you’re not allowed to stay overnight on the top, you must rappel down. It has to be a day climb. They make you register for your climb in the morning and you register when you come back. It’s again for search and rescue.

[00:21:50] But there was one person who stayed up there for six days. So in 1941, this this guy parachuted in. Oh, 

[00:22:02] Scott: yes. I read about it. 

[00:22:04] Jenn: And he made it to the top when he parachuted in, he landed on the top, but his gear went off the side. 

[00:22:11] Scott: So he was stuck. So he’s stuck. He didn’t have anything to 

[00:22:13] Jenn: rappel with. Six days until someone could climb up in 1941 and bring stuff to him to rappel down.

[00:22:19] So he was up there for six days. Oh my gosh. Uh, and so there’s not a lot up there. Right? What they have up there is a lot of, what do they call it, where the stuff that grows on granite? Like moss and stuff. Yeah. But it has a name like, like, like Lycum or something. Lycan. Lycan. Like, there’s a bunch of Lycan up there.

[00:22:37] Yeah. So you could eat that, I guess, to survive. But people always wonder, how do animals get up there? I mean, birds, of course, can fly up there. But there have been reports of climbers saying that they can see. Chick munks and snakes going into the grooves Sure. And climbing up to the top. Absolutely. So that’s how the animals 

[00:22:54] Scott: get up there.

[00:22:55] Yeah. I actually have a friend Eric, that I climbed Halftone with. He’s climbed Devil’s Tower before. Yeah. And I think he actually saw a snake when they were up, when they were up there, up top. It wasn’t close to them. Yeah. But he had, he had mentioned that, ’cause I had climbed kind of throughout, I climbed in Zion and stuff like that with him.

[00:23:10] But that’s, that’s one that he, he kind of ticked off his list that, that I’ve, I haven’t had a chance to do yet. 

[00:23:14] Jenn: And again, another reason to not free solo. Cause you reach and grab a snake. You’re not going to hold on. That’s right. That’s right.

[00:23:26] Another thing to not miss when you do Devil’s Tower is they have this very cute prairie dog village. They do. On the way in, on the way out, you can stop either way. It’s so neat to see. They pop their heads out, they run all around. They’re indigenous to the area. And it’s, they, they’re very curious about people.

[00:23:44] They’re not shy. 

[00:23:45] Scott: Well, and you see the little, they look like little mounds, right, and they’re sticking their heads up out. I mean, it’s, it’s classic. The kids loved it. Yeah. Right. I got some video footage of it and stuff like that. But they’re just big gophers. Right. Yes. But they’re running around and they’re, they’re safe.

[00:23:57] Right. They’re kind of, you can’t, you’re not supposed to walk over there and stuff like that. But it is, it is pretty as a, as a family. trip. That’s a great spot to stop either on, like you said, on the way in or on the way out for the kids to kind of see these prairie dogs running around. So 

[00:24:12] Jenn: yeah, it was really was a great visit.

[00:24:14] I will say you’re allowed to camp there from May to October. Again, it’s still Wyoming. It’s still going to get cold. Devil’s Tower will get snow. But I bet during those winter months, it’s not as crowded. So 

[00:24:26] Scott: yeah, and I highly encourage folks and I say this often, but We really did get some, we were kind of surprised at how well this video did, you know, kind of in the first couple days, largely because I think we got some really great video footage of Devil’s Tower.

[00:24:39] So if you’ve never had a chance to take a look to see or really see video footage of it, I’m going to put the link to this video in the show notes. 

[00:24:47] Jenn: And one last thing. What really is Devil’s Tower? People ask me, what is it? So really what they believe it is is 50 million years ago magma inside a volcano cooled And then the, the rock around it kind of eroded.

[00:25:06] And then this is, this is basically what you’re seeing is the inside of an active volcano that no longer active. And this was what the liquid magma look like hardened inside. That’s what they believe this is. And you see other examples of this in like Monument Valley. 

[00:25:25] Scott: It’s very interesting. We receive some occasional interesting comments on this video because people like to believe what they want to believe sometimes and so we get the occasional comment, Oh, it’s just a great tree stump or, you know, aliens or whatever it is, but it’s Absolutely worth it if you’re in that part of the country on the road trip, doing the whole Mount Rushmore, crazy horse, little bighorn circuit.

[00:25:46] So we highly encourage you to go because that’s one of the things we want to do on this podcast is tell you guys about these locations that we want to go and ideally inspire you and give you resources. Get out there and go see it for yourself because you really can’t replace being somewhere in person.

[00:26:04] Even with a podcast like this, as much as we try, or even with a video, it’s always better in person. So we encourage you guys to plan a trip, get out there and kind of just see some of some of the country and some of the history out there. Yeah. 

[00:26:15] Jenn: If you have a national parks pass, it’s free. 

[00:26:18] Scott: So thank you for listening to the talk with history podcast and please reach out to us at our website, talkwithhistory.

[00:26:23] com. But more importantly, if you know someone else that might enjoy this podcast. Please share it with them. Especially if you think today’s topic would interest a friend, shoot them a text and tell them to look us up. We rely on you, our community to grow, and we appreciate you all every day. We’ll talk to you next time.

[00:26:38] Thank you.

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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