I was recently asked why the Turtle Mountains were called mountains and not hills. Is it officially a hill or a mountain? I did not know, so of course I had to do a little investigating. Now here is your $64,000 question: Officially, how many mountains are in North Dakota?
I did not have my Funk and Wagnall’s handy, so I had to go by Webster’s New World Dictionary. It defines a mountain as “a natural raised part of the earth‘s surface, usually rising more or less abruptly, and larger than a hill.” Webster defined a hill as “a natural raised part of the earth’s surface, often rounded and smaller than a mountain.” That really cleared things up!
I subsequently ran across an article on North Dakota mountains by Ed Murphy, North Dakota State Geologist, in the 2006 Summer Horizons magazine. Murphy noted that inconsistencies in the usage of the two terms are widespread. He also noted that the United States Board of Geographic Names used to define a mountain as having at least 1,000 feet of local relief, but abandoned that definition in the 1970’s due to a lack of consensus. So there is no official differentiation.
Officially we have seven mountains in North Dakota: Blue Mountains (Nelson County), Devils Lake Mountain (Ramsey County), Killdeer Mountains (Dunn County), Lookout Mountain (Eddy County), Prophets Mountains (Sheridan County), Tracy Mountain (Billings County), and the Turtle Mountains (Bottineau and Rolette Counties).
Murphy also noted an interesting twist on the Turtle Mountains. Apparently the Mandan and Hidatsa that lived along the Knife River called what we now call the Killdeer Mountains the Turtle Mountains or Turtle Hills. The explorer and geographer David Thompson labeled the Killdeer Mountains Turtle Hill on his 1798 map and referred to them as Turtle Mountain and Turtle Mountain of the West in his journals. Subsequently Lewis and Clark also referred to the Killdeers as Turtle Mountain in their journals. The Killdeer Mountains designation originated from the Sioux name for the area which meant “the place where they kill deer.”
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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