Lewis and Clark’s Tower Butte

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Have you ever felt like you are standing on "hallowed ground," knowing that some very important surveyors had previously occupied that same location? This was the situation when Gene Thomsen and I, both Nebraska surveyors, stood at the base of the very hill where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had stood exactly two hundred years earlier on September 7, 1804.

Although Lewis and Clark often described their stopping locations during their "Corps of Discovery" trip up the Missouri River, the exact locations of many of these sites are very hard to pinpoint. A large portion of the river has been channelized, and many of the landscape and other natural features they described are no longer discernable. However, one feature has remained virtually unchanged for the past two centuries and was one of Lewis and Clark’s final stops in the area of the present day borders of Nebraska and South Dakota. Captain Clark referred to the land feature as a round mounting resembling a dome, or a cupola that he had spotted the previous day. Two of the other crew members who had accompanied Lewis and Clark on this expedition also recorded their impressions. Sergeant Gass described it as being a round knob of a hill in a prairie. Sergeant Ordway described it as being a round naked high knob, and that it resembled something made by the hand of man.

After traveling only five and one-half miles that late summer morning, the explorers decided to spend the rest of the day on shore. With four other men, Lewis and Clark trekked the halfmile distance to the hill to examine it more closely. It was at this location that the explorers first encountered the prairie dog that French traders had earlier reported. Other members of the party were summoned to bring every available pot or kettle full of water to drown one out of its burrow. The "Tower Butte," as it became known, could have slipped into obscurity after the visit by Lewis and Clark; however, in subsequent years, several different surveyors made their presence at this hill that had long been known to the Native Americans as a great lookout location. In the mid-1850’s the Teton Sioux were uprising, so General William S. Harney was instructed to establish a permanent military post along the Missouri River, which was in the vicinity of the Tower Butte. The fort was established on June 26, 1856, along the westerly side of the river in present day South Dakota, and was given the name Fort Randall.

Four years later the vast Fort Randall Military Reservation was created by Executive Order on June 14, 1860. The reservation consisted of 96,000 unsurveyed acres and extended across both sides of the Missouri River and into present-day Nebraska and South Dakota. The perimeter of this reservation was believed to have been surveyed by Lt. J.C. Clark of the 4th Artillery in the latter part of 1860. The common last name between Lt. Clark of the 4th Artillery and Captain Clark of the "Corps of Discovery" is apparently only coincidental.

Lt. Clark took advantage of the rounded hill which had been previously described and explored by Lewis and Clark and designed his survey to pass over the top of the dome. This would give him excellent sight distance across both sides of the Missouri River. When the boundary was completed, it lay in a rectangular shape in a northwest to southeast direction. The southeasterly corner of the reservation was situated about four miles southwest of the hill described by Lewis and Clark in Boyd County, Nebraska. Permanent cast iron monuments six inches square and six feet tall marked "U.S. MIL. RES’N." were erected at the four corners of the reservation, and at both sides of the Missouri River crossings both above and below the fort.

Thirty years later the domed hill once again saw the presence of a surveyor when U.S. Deputy Surveyor Robert Harvey retraced the military boundary while subdividing the land into sections outside the reservation in 1890. Harvey undoubtedly erected his instrument atop the hill when setting his own corners on the reservation boundary. He later went on to become one of Nebraska’s most respected surveyors and obtained the position of being the first state surveyor. The military fort and reservation were closed two years later in November 1892, which then allowed the area to be opened for settlement. In August of 1895 the hill described by Lewis and Clark once again saw another surveyor when U. S. Deputy Surveyor C. H. Bates retraced the reservation boundary when he surveyed the area inside the abandoned reservation. Both Harvey and Bates noted the two prominent iron posts located on the Nebraska side. Many of their original marked corner stones are just waiting to be rediscovered on the native Nebraska prairie.

Strange Facts
In 1948 the hill saw more surveying activity when the Coast and Geodetic Survey established a triangulation station known as "Lynch" on the top of another nearby hill located just north of the famous hill. Although this hill is at nearly the same elevation, it supports vegetation, unlike the one described by Lewis and Clark that has remained mysteriously devoid of vegetation after all these years.

The two iron posts along the abandoned military reservation in Nebraska remained as permanent sentinels of the abandoned military boundary that was rich in history until they were both stolen around 1979. A bizarre twist of events occurred in 2000 when a lawyer drove into the nearby town of Lynch with the two monuments. He had specific instructions to settle an estate of a client who had died a few years earlier. Evidently his client had kept the monuments hidden, but had indicated in his will that they be erected in the towns of Gross and Lynch after his death. The two landowners whose land on which the monuments had once resided, bitterly contested the decision to erect them in the towns, stating they should be returned to their rightful locations. The local sheriff, along with the attorney representing the man who had given up the monuments, refused to give them up, citing that it could not be proven that they were in fact the same two that had been stolen in 1979. The monument given to the town of Gross was immediately set in concrete, while the one at Lynch was slid over a concrete post. Within days, the one at Lynch disappeared from the post, but was secretly returned a few days later. It was then also permanently set in concrete.

Little did Lewis and Clark know that the round top hill now known as "Old Baldy" to which they had walked to further investigate would be an attraction to other surveyors. Had they not taken the time to describe this landmark in their journals, it wouldn’t have the attraction it still holds two hundred years later.

Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation.

A 1.705Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine complete with images is available by clicking HERE

About the Author

Jerry Penry, LS

Jerry Penry is employed by Lancaster County Engineering in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has been a licensed surveyor since 1994 specializing in section corner monumentation and GPS surveying. He has presented surveying seminars with a historical aspect combined with modern day application. His special interests in this field include extensively researching historically relevant information, making the original surveyors' work come alive. His meticulous research and thorough writing sheds light on the original surveyors' tools, conditions and limitations. He is also very knowledgeable in various other historical matters including railroad history. He has written numerous surveying articles for newsletters, magazines and journals, and has authored or co-authored several books including The Chicago and North Western Cowboy Line: A History of the Longest Rail-to-Trail Project in America, and The Sunrise Serenade: A World War II Bomber Crew Story. Contact Jerry Article List Below