Plains Folk

Medicine Rock


A welcome sign for the town of Gettysburg, South Dakota, reads, “Gettysburg: Where the Battle Didn’t Happen.” Actually, a skirmish did take place near here during the Civil War. It was a grisly episode of the Dakota War.

It amazes me how little the public, outside of the state of Minnesota, knows about the Dakota War of 1862-65. The years 1863-64 witnessed the largest armies that ever marched and the largest battles ever fought on the Great Plains of North America. This was the big show.

So a few weeks ago, on a junket to Pierre, we went to visit a rock. Not just any rock, but the Medicine Rock. That’s what white settlers called it. They were, and we are, clueless as to what spiritual significance it held for natives of the plains, who have not disclosed such.

The Medicine Rock is a flat, rounded slab of glacier-born dolomite limestone large enough you could park a Model T automobile on it—which, unfortunately, some did a century ago.

A century before that white visitors to the upper Missouri region became aware of the existence of the Medicine Rock. In 1825 Brigadier General Henry Atkinson and Major Benjamin O’Fallon, during a treaty-making excursion, borrowed Indian horses and rode out to examine the rock.

In 1873, writes Libbie Custer in Boots and Saddles, she and her husband “encamped . . . near what the Indians call ‘Medicine Rock;’ my husband and I walked out to see it. It was a large stone, showing on the flat surface the impress of hands and feet made ages ago, before the clay was petrified. The Indians had tied bags of their herb medicine on poles about the rock, believing that virtue would enter into articles left in the vicinity of this proof of the marvels or miracles of the Great Spirit. Tin cans, spoons, and forks, that they had bought at the Agency, on account of the brightness of the metal, were left there as offerings to an unseen God.

The Custer visit took place after the Dakota War incident I am about to describe. In 1864 Brigadier General Alfred Sully was leading his Northwest Expedition up the Missouri to fight the Dakota and their Lakota allies. His topographical engineer, Captain John Fielner, strayed from the column to examine the Medicine Rock.

Two Yanktonai warriors ambushed Fielner near the rock and shot the officer, who died that night. Sully send cavalrymen of the 1st Dakota Regiment in pursuit of the assailants, and they killed them. Sully ordered that the Yanktonai’s heads be severed and placed atop poles.

The Medicine Rock was not forgotten, however, for in subsequent years, settlers made excursions and picnics there. In 1889 Joseph C. Collester, superintendent of schools in Pierre, made plaster casts of the footprints in the rock and sent them to the Smithsonian.

Flash forward to 1953, and the waters are rising behind Oahe Dam, soon to inundate the fabled rock. Over the hill from Gettysburg comes a caravan of volunteer firemen. They load up the Medicine Rock and haul it home, where it is duly emplaced on the east side of town. In 1983 the rock is moved to its own gallery in Gettysburg’s Dakota Sunset Museum, where we visited it.

Those two Yanktonai men who were killed and beheaded in 1864—it’s possible they were defending a sacred site against profanement by invading soldiers. Certain it is that the desecration of their remains did not frighten the Dakota and Lakota, who soon after would engage Sully in the Gettysburg of the Plains, the Battle of Killdeer Mountain.

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