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The mystery of the Hugh Glass Monument and its uncertain future

In the lonely buttes and bluffs of western South Dakota near Lemmon, about 140 miles north of Rapid City, it’s easy to imagine the 19th century drama of Hugh Glass.

The trapper was mauled by a bear and abandoned by his party in 1823. Alone and crawling through the Dakota Territory, he tracked his distance from Thunder Butte as he dragged himself back to civilization. That trek is said to have started in what is today rural Perkins County and finished at Fort Kiowa - now Chamberlain. It’s a four-hour trip by car.

Elements of the tale were made into legend in John Neihardt’s 1915 epic poem - "The Song of Hugh Glass." That poem can be found in Neihardt's larger 1930 collection "A Cycle of the West". It immortalized Glass and the rugged terrain he battled with its themes of endurance, isolation, retribution and forgiveness. The saga came to life as a movie, "The Revenant," in 2015.

Hugh Glass's story inspired a monument in rural Perkins County near the claimed site of the bear attack. Neihardt, who traveled extensively throughout the west, helped install a time capsule there in 1923.

Joseph Weixelman is a history professor at Wayne State College in Nebraska – a school that has a residence hall named after Neihardt. Weixelman said he’s intrigued by the stories of these people and the monument they’ve left behind.

“A lot of those questions were answered when we went up in May," Weixelman said. "As they got answered I got more and more involved in the story of Neihardt and Hugh Glass.”

Weixelman said Neihardt left specific instructions on what to do with the time capsule. He wanted it opened this year on its 100th anniversary and left detailed requests which have been followed to the letter.

“We did everything Neihardt wanted us to do," Weixelman said. "We started a fire with flint and steel – the mountain man way – at sunset. As the fire burned, we recited portions of his poem ‘The Song of Hugh Glass’, gave the mountain man yell, and we told ghost stories around the campfire after that.”

Weixelman and his students would like to inter their own time capsule, pending an archeological review of the site. They also recreated a photo from the 1923 expedition.

There is one important hangup though - no one has opened the monument for a very good reason.

“Neihardt was a poet – he was not an engineer," Weixelman said. "I don’t think he left the time capsule where it’s going to be easy to find. The further we go into it, the further it looks like he just buried the time capsule in the cement.”

It appears that opening the original century-old marker will destroy or badly damage it.

Weixelman said there’s another mystery – who actually owns the 1923 monument.

“The state of South Dakota does not feel it's theirs, Wayne State College does not feel it’s theirs, I’m not a player here," Weixelman said. "The Neihardt family has the strongest ownership claim to it. They’ve put in a request to move the monument to the Neihardt Center in Bancroft, Nebraska.”

The center's executive director Marianne Reynolds, explained the family’s claim.

“We work very closely with the Neihardt Trust, and in John’s papers establishing the trust he said that any property found associated to him is the property of the trust," Reynolds said."

Right now, it is unclear when the time capsule will be opened.

All of this raises questions for the residents of Lemmon – a town 15 miles north of the monument. It hosts a festival each year - the Hugh Glass Rendezvous.

They stage the period-appropriate event for a week camping in tents, cooking over fires and wearing clothing of the era.

On a bright August day, Chad Abel, treasurer of the rendezvous association, wears heavy corduroy pants and long sleeves. He said the event keeps Glass’ story, and his pioneer spirit alive.

“To be part of that history, and all of the stories and all of the things that have happened in 200 years is quite amazing – when the state of South Dakota was still not even thought of for another 66 years,” Abel said.

Longtime organizer of the event LaQuita Shockley is the owner of the local newspaper the Dakota Herald. She said the area has its own claim to the Hugh Glass story.

“It was just one of those things that as a local resident I felt was very unrecognized," Shockley said. "It’s such a big part of our local history – this is right here in our backyard.”

Shockley plays one of the most crucial roles at the Rendezvous, the bear, during the family-friendly retelling of the Hugh Glass story. Her bear costume adds to the drama of the moment.

Shockley says the event is an opportunity to put her home, and one of the state’s most isolated communities, on the map.

“It does definitely bring a boost and brings a lot of attention to a very small little speck out here in the middle of nowhere - and of course when they go into town, we always encourage them to visit the Grand River Museum and the Kokomo Art Gallery," Shockley said.

Organizers said the rendezvous will continue, but Shockley added if the monument is destroyed when the time capsule is opened, something will be missing.

“Down the road we will see what happens," Shockley said. "I’m hoping that we will have a capsule opening one of these days we can celebrate and recognize.”

Until that day comes, the original monument stands on borrowed time in the Shadehill Reservoir wilderness of Perkins County. It’s waiting to be discovered by the last few adventurers willing to make a trek off the beaten path to find it.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture