Sacred Mountain—Climbing Inyan Kara

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From many miles away, solitary mountains have captured the attention of explorers and surveyors. Undoubtedly, thoughts of climbing to the summit dominated their minds as they drew closer. Likewise, Native Americans were drawn to isolated mountains and even revered them with spiritual practices. Inyan Kara Mountain is located in northeastern Wyoming approximately five miles off the western edge of the Black Hills and 13 miles south of the town of Sundance. The mountain rises to a height of 6370 feet above sea level and, at well over 1300 feet above the surrounding terrain, can be described as a solitary peak.

The name, Inyan Kara, is a modern term derived from the Lakota word, "Heeng-ya ka-ga", which means "rock gatherer", or "the peak which makes stone". Inyan means "stone" in the Dakota language. The word Kara is not part of this language, but is thought to have been a corruption of "Ka-ga" which translates, "to make". The name probably refers to the fact that the mountain has long been a place for native peoples to gather quartzite for knapping into projectile points and other tools. There is a site near the base of Inyan Kara that shows evidence of flint-knapping for over 10,000 years, so it is assumed the mountain was an important location for native people to gather stone for projectile points and other tools.

Early Native Americans and explorers stated the mountain rumbled, however there was no evidence of this noise being heard after 1833. Geologists have surmised the noises were the result of hydrogen escaping from underground burning coal seams.

One of the earliest military expeditions to approach Inyan Kara was led by Lt. G. K. Warren of the U. S. Topographical Engineers. This expedition, with a backing of $25,000, left Fort Laramie on September 4, 1857, and reached the area of the mountain on September 12. At this location, the expedition met a large force of Sioux Indians who made every indication that the military party would not be allowed to pass through the area. Some of the natives were intent upon attacking Warren’s small group of 21 men. The battle would have undoubtedly been lopsided in favor of the Indians had they not feared later retribution.

The Indians were camped near a large herd of buffalo whose hair had not sufficiently grown to make robes, so they were closely following the herd as the season progressed until they felt it was time to start taking them. The Warren expedition was denied any attempt to kill any of the buffalo fearing they would stampede and thwart the efforts the Indians had taken in herding them. Warren decided it was an unnecessary risk to allow his party to their own interests and subject a cruelty to the Indians to drive them to commit any desperate act which would surely bring retribution upon them at a later date.

Near the mountain were forty teepees which were mostly occupied by friendly members of the Minikanyes. Warren’s party camped nearby as negotiations continued through an interpreter. The Indians were joined by a large group of Unkpapas and Sihasapas who were half-avowed enemies, but had no issue with joining forces against the white man. To make matters further uncomfortable, Warren’s party suffered two days and nights in a storm of sleet and snow with little protection. The Indian interpreter considered the danger so imminent that he deserted his military party and joined sides with the Minikanyes. Under such embarrassing circumstances, Warren decided to wait a third day with the hope of the arrival of a leader named Bear’s Rib who could decide if the party would continue or be turned back. During this time, Warren’s party obtained astronomical readings and determined the position of Inyan Kara. They finally decided to turn east and go around the south side of the Black Hills instead of through them.

The Warren party determined longitude by moon culminations while the latitude was determined by double altitudes of Polaris. Great local magnetic disturbances were found on the summit of Inyan Kara of such magnitude that even the smallest rock when brought near the needle would carry it completely around the circle with little trouble.

Inyan Kara was the location where the Indians had plundered Sir George Gore’s hunting party a year earlier in 1856. Gore was a wealthy Irish nobleman from Sligo, Ireland, who came to America for sport and adventure. His party had reportedly killed an estimated 6000 bison, 1600 elk and deer, and 105 grizzly bears. When the Sioux Indians, led by Chief Red Cloud, surrounded the sportsmen near Inyan Kara, an altercation ensued. The Sioux took the Gore party’s horses, guns, and clothes to give a clear message that such depredations of the important game in the area would not be tolerated. Gore and his men were allowed to survive with their lives to ensure the message reached others, but only because a member of their party understood the Sioux language and was able to convince Red Cloud to spare their lives. One member of the Gore party died two days later from wounds received during the altercation. Warren’s group observed that one of Gore’s best horses was seen mounted by one of the Indians.

The mountain lured another military party in 1874 when Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a large expedition, estimated to be around 1,000 men, through the Black Hills in search of gold. Among the equipment of the expedition were three Gatling guns and one three-inch gun. The size of the party was not to cause trouble with the Indians, but rather to prevent it. During a climb to the summit of Inyan Kara on July 23, 1874, the inscription "G CUSTER 74" was cut into a flat rock near the highest point. Most historians agree that Custer himself probably did not make the inscription, but instead was the work of either Colonel William Ludlow or by General George A. "Sandy" Forsyth. The view from the summit was less than the men expected because the Sioux had set fire to a large portion of the prairie to the south and west. The haze from the smoke obscured most of the easily viewed distant peaks they had hoped to view. After a two hour wait, the smoke only grew denser, so the party returned to camp. Three weeks later news of the discovery of gold by the Custer Expedition was made public and forever changed the dynamics of the region.

Approximately four miles east of the mountain is a location where two of Custer’s party of 1874 are buried. Private John Cunningham died of dysentery on the evening of July 22 while Private Joseph Turner died as a result of a gunshot from an altercation with another soldier the previous day. Both graves were marked with military headstones in 1935 by employees of the Black Hills National Forest.

One year later, in 1875, a geological expedition led by Henry Newton and Walter Jenney gave special attention to the geology of the mountain. The geologists surmised that Inyan Kara was the result of a molten intrusion that never erupted. Among the Newton-Jenney party was Dr. Valentine T. McGillicuddy who performed the role of topographer, surveyor, and physician, and Horace P. Tuttle who was the astronomer. McGillicuddy had earlier been appointed topographer and physician on the International 49th Parallel Expedition in 1871-74 when a portion of the boundary between the United States and Canada was surveyed. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was as the first white man to climb to the summit of Harney Peak in the Black Hills, a feat that even General Custer had not achieved. On September 3, 1875, McGillicuddy and Tuttle recorded their own observations upon the summit of Inyan Kara.

In October of 1881, twent
y-year-old U. S. Deputy Surveyor Louis Stahle passed about 465 yards west of the summit of Inyan Kara while establishing the west line of T49N, R62W of the 6th PM. Stahle also surveyed the subdivisions for this township during the second week of May of 1882 passing 350 yards to the south of the summit. The majority of Inyan Kara resides in Section 19 of T49N, R62W. Louis Stahle was the younger brother of famed western surveyor Edward F. Stahle. Both brothers were from a family of civil engineers and surveyors from the San Francisco, California, area that had taken residency in Cheyenne, Wyoming. On April 8, 1884, Louis Stahl, according to witnesses, initiated a fight with Jack Morris in a saloon in Spearfish, Dakota Territory. After a verbal confrontation, Stahle drew his revolver and fired at Morris, narrowly missing him. Morris fired back and fatally struck Stahle. The young deputy surveyor died at the age of 22.

The U. S. Coast & Geodetic Survey came to the area in 1912 to establish a triangulation network including the placing of a point on the summit of Inyan Kara designated "Inyankara", but never stamped upon the bronze disk. In addition to the triangulation station, a similar reference mark was placed nearby. On May 23, 1925, Donal B. Pheley of USC&GS, in company with U. S. Surveyor Everett H. Kimmell remonumented two GLO corners approximately six miles west of Inyan Kara. Bronze disks were placed at the standard corner common at the SE Corner of Section 36, T49N, R64W, and at the closing corner at the NE Corner of Section 1, T48N, R64W. The two monuments are 177.06 feet apart and were used as eccentric points to the triangulation station on the mountain.

The U. S. Geological Survey came to the mountain in 1957 under the direction of B. L. Schwartz as part of their topographical quad sheet mapping of the area. USGS chose to use the USC&GS reference mark, located 20.90 feet from the triangulation station, as their point on the summit. This was typical practice that the two government agencies did not use the same point upon mountain peaks. The elevation upon the reference mark, as established by vertical angle by USGS, was determined to be 6368 feet.

In late 1971, the necessary paperwork was initiated to include Inyan Kara Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was approved on April 24, 1973. During the summer of 1993, cadastral surveyor Lynn A. Forbes from the Bureau of Land Management performed a dependent resurvey and restored or reestablished many of the section corners in the area of the mountain that had been originally established by U. S. Deputy Surveyor Louis Stahle 111 years earlier.

Inyan Kara Mountain is located on federal land, but permission is needed to access it from private property. On May 28, 2013, fellow surveyor Kurt Luebke, my wife Jenny, and I decided to climb to the summit of the mountain. After securing permission from a nearby landowner and parking our vehicles at his residence, we began our ascent up the eastern slope. The mountain is best described as in the shape of a horseshoe with the opening to the northeast. Inside the horseshoe a separate peak rises up for the summit. After a steep climb, we reached the top along the northeastern tip of the horseshoe where we obtained our first view of the summit across the deep valley between it and our location. We then followed the tree-covered ridge to the south and then west and then north. The ridge along the top is rocky and perhaps only 10 feet wide in some places, but offers a relatively easy route to hike. At the southwest side of the horseshoe, the ridge drops and then comes back up toward the center peak which is solid rock.

We reached the summit from the south just as an intense summer thunderstorm from the north and east threatened to inundate us at any moment. We immediately found the 1912 USC&GS triangulation station as well as the reference mark both in perfect condition. Inyan Kara does not see a lot of hikers, so those that do hike to the summit are generally not the type likely to deface or steal the survey markers as seen at so many other easily accessible mountain peaks. The Custer inscription on the summit, safely concealed by loose stones, was still easily readable.

Due to the approaching storm and nearby lightning, our stay on the summit was short, perhaps only about 15 minutes of intense photographing and documentation. Fortunately, the main part of the storm passed around the north side of the mountain as we made our way around the ridge at the bottom of the horseshoe on the south side. Upon reaching our vehicles, the time spent climbing and returning from the mountain was exactly 4 hours after an estimated hike of about 5.5 miles.

Inyan Kara Mountain stood as an early landmark for expeditions which led the work to develop part of the American West. Inyan Kara’s significance is often overshadowed by higher or more popular peaks in the Black Hills, but for many explorers and surveyors it has been a site of both interest and prominence.

Jerry Penry is a licensed land surveyor in Nebraska and South Dakota. He is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

A 1.708Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jerry Penry, PS

Jerry Penry has been surveying for 34 years, is licensed in Nebraska and South Dakota, and has been employed with Lancaster County Engineering for 21 years. He is also serving his second term on the Board for the Professional Surveyors Association of Nebraska.