Plains Folk

Climbing the Salt Mountain


Hopping from one great boulder of gypsum to another, I sense a shade of history almost as compelling as the spectacular view of the landscape. I am standing atop the famous Salt Mountain described by President Thomas Jefferson in a message to Congress in 1803. Here is the description by Jefferson.

“One extraordinary fact, relative to salt, must not be omitted. There exists, about one thousand miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain. . . . This mountain is said to be one hundred and eighty miles long, and forty-five in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees, or even shrubs upon it. Salt springs are very numerous beneath the surface of this mountain, and they flow through the fissures and cavities of it.”

This description places the Salt Mountain somewhere in present-day North Dakota. That’s just one of the issues around Jefferson’s faulty intelligence about the tract of real estate, which we know as the Louisiana Purchase, he proposed to acquire from France. The President at least half-believed that a lost band of Welsh colonists dating from the 1100s lived among the Mandan on the upper Missouri, and that somewhere up there, woolly mammoth might still lumber across the grasslands. Given the solubility of sodium chloride, the proposition of a Salt Mountain is just nutty. How could our philosopher president have gotten such an idea?

Remember that in 1803, our intelligence about the West came from Spanish or French sources. In either Spanish or French, it is impossible to render the phrase “salt mountain” without inserting a preposition that converts the phrase into a “mountain of salt.” And in English, then, the meaning shifts from a mountain having something to do with salt to a mountain literally composed of salt. Prior to 1803, the army explorer Zebulon Pike had written of a “mountain of salt”–note the exact phrase–and reported he had seen bushels of salt mined from it in St. Louis. We need to focus, however, on the latter part of Jefferson’s description, the part about salt springs flowing from the foot of the mountain.

The fellow who sorted all this out was the gentleman explorer, George Champlin Sibley, who ventured onto the plains in 1803 specifically to locate Jefferson’s Salt Mountain. A government trader in present northwest Missouri, he traveled with Osage guides–not up the Missouri, however, but southwest, to the Cimarron River. There Sibley found the site he renamed, in order to end the confusion, as the “Rock Saline.” Now known as the Big Salt Plain of the Cimarron River, it remains in private hands.

Now, I am not a big advocate of the federal government acquiring a lot of land, but the Big Salt Plain is a case I think calls for it. Overlooking several thousand acres of red sand threaded by the salty Cimarron looms an escarpment, strewn with white gypsum boulders, that settlers came to call the Narrowneck. They knew the site well, as had centuries of natives before them, because of the importance to them of the mineral, salt. From the base of the Narrowneck seep springs of brine that, as the water evaporates, dam themselves with masses of salt crystals, great masses of them. The surrounding plain, too, is encrusted with salt.

When I first came to the Big Salt Plain, in 1975, the heaps of salt around the springs were impressive. At that time an old guy named Ezra Blackmon had a modest evaporation plant on the plain, producing highway salt. After his passing, the site was acquired by Cargill Corporation, which greatly expanded the pumping and evaporation operation. This past summer, when I revisited Jefferson’s Salt Mountain, the brine springs barely flowed. I believe the Cargill operation has depleted them, to the detriment of one of the great historic sites and natural wonders of the plains. I do not think the damage is irreversible. The Salt Mountain could rise again.

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