High Plains Western Heritage Center

By Caitlin Gustafson, Abagaile Hill, Cody Most

In our college class, Home on the Range, we’ve studied the concept of what it was like historically to live on the Great Plains. We have done this by watching documentaries like the Homesman and listening to speakers talk about the many aspects of The Great Plains. We have also taken time in class to discuss the novels written by Mari Sandoz, which describe the different aspects of life in the High Plains. As part of our final grade we were required to take a trip to a site which described life in the Great Plains. We chose the High Plains Western Heritage Center due to the fact that it described this type of life so well.

Figure 1 features Abby Hill (left), Cody Most (center), and Caitlin Gustafson (right).
Figure 1 features Abby Hill (left), Cody Most (center), and Caitlin Gustafson (right) during the visit to the High Plains Western Heritage Center.

On October 3, 2015, we visited the High Plains Western Heritage Center located in Spearfish, South Dakota (Figure 1). This museum represents a five state area consisting of Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The site is located on Heritage Drive. To visit this site there is a $3 admission fee for 6-16 year olds, and a $10 admission fee for 16yrs and older. This museum focuses on interpreting what the life of settlers and Native Americans was like. Although the museum covered many topics, today we are going to focus on the history of cattle drives, the history of sheepherding, and the interaction between Native Americans and settlers.

Figure 2 shows a statue of Tennessee Voughn.
Figure 2. Majestic statue of Tennessee Voughn.

When we first arrived at the museum we entered a large room that discussed cattle drives in the United States, specifically in the Midwest. The cattle drives were a very important aspect to the settlement of this area. The original cattle drive trail stretched from Mexico to Montana. Along this route the cowboys delivered beef to the reservations, mine fields, settlement areas, and military forts. One of the more prominent cowboys discussed in this room was James A. (Tennessee) Voughn. The museum had a tribute to Voughn; it was a large statue of him atop a horse (Figure 2). James was born in Tennessee in 1851. He moved to Texas and during his time there he worked with sheep. Frustrated with the slow pace of the sheep industry, Tennessee Voughn took interest in the cattle industry. For 18 years, Voughn spent his time working for one of the largest cattle outfits, the Drisklls. This outfit was the first to drive cattle to Dakota in 1879. He also made six other drives to Dakota and Wyoming as part of the Drisklls Outfit. Nine years of his life were also spent working for the Turkey Track Outfit in Dakota. Voughn made a name for himself due to his ability to drive cattle over the trails and deliver them in good condition. Tennessee Voughn died in 1934.

Figure 3: A sample of the barbwire collection.
Figure 3: A sample of the barbwire collection.

Due to the invention of barbwire and development of the railroad, the significance of cattle drives eventually died (Figure 3). Today the trail is recognized by the Plains Region. Recently nine states – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana – have contributed to a project which identifies the general route of the Great Western Cattle Trail. This project began on July 12, 2003, which was when the first concrete marker was set in Altus, Oklahoma. Since that date markers have been placed regularly throughout Texas and north to Ogallala, Nebraska. To honor the Great Western Cattle Trail, the High Plains Western Heritage Museum is home to the largest barbwire collection, along with the oldest South Dakota brand book. The history in this part of the museum is very important because the placement of the original cattle drive trial was a key part to the settlement of the Midwest, and high plains area.

Figure 4 depicts a Sheepherder Monument.
Figure 4: An example of a Sheepherder Monument.

Then we walked up a set of stairs into a room the discussed the sheep industry in the Midwest. Sheep herders also had a presence on the High Plains. One clear symbol of the herders coming and going was shown through Sheepherder Monuments (Figure 4). Sheepherder Monuments were a way of letting other settlers know that they had been there. Herders often spent many hours on the high peaks of hills watching their sheep herds in the valleys below. During their down time, they built these monuments to stifle their boredom. The ability to build these structure required time, patience, and precision. Most of these were made of sandstone, which was a common type of rock found in the area. One of these structures particularly stood out to viewers due to the fact that it was made from volcanic stone. Some of these monuments have stood for decades and can still be found in rural areas.

Finally we went back down stairs into a room and hallway that discussed the relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers. Before the arrival of settlers, Native Americans dominated the High Plains. Two major tribes of this area consisted of the Cheyenne and Sioux. Both of these tribes valued buffalo for their food and traditional purposes. Many tribes were completely dependent on the buffalo, which provided food, clothing, housing, fuel and weapons to the people. Similar to other tribes, the Cheyenne used the buffalo in many ways. To them, the buffalo was a virtual store house. The buffalo was also used by the Sioux to keep track of their past histories (Figure 5). These were recorded through pictures that were drawn onto the hide. These drawings symbolized the most memorable event that happened during the year.

Figure 5: A buffalo hide with drawings on it. These drawings represent the most memorable event of the year.
Figure 5: A buffalo hide with drawings on it. These drawings represent the most memorable event of the year.

Therefore, the year was then named after that event and known to surrounding tribes by that name. To tell these stories the museum displayed several buffalo hides with drawing depicted on them, along with the tools and many other accessories the tribes built when using the buffalo.

The museum also presented a display of the Theon Stone which clearly showed the hostility between the settlers and Native Americans. This was found by Lewis Theon on March 14, 1887, while he and his younger brother were out searching for sandstone which was to be used to build a basement for a town business. While digging at the foot of Lookout Mountain, he came upon a stone which had a message inscribed on it. Upon further inspection he read the words, “Indians hunting me.” Intrigued by this find he set the stone aside until he was done with his work. Later, after rubbing the dirt off the stone, he was able to read the entire message. On one side of the rock, the message read, “Came to these hills in 1833/ seven of us; Ezra Kind, G. W. Wood, T. Brown, R. Kent/ Win King, and Indian Crow/ All de[a]d but me, Ezra Kind/ killed by ind[ians] beyond the/ hill, get our gold in June.” The other side read, “Got all the gold we could carry/ our ponys [sic] all got by the indians/ I have lost my gun and nothing/ to eat and indians hunting me.” These six men that the rock describes were from Missouri and entered the Black Hills in 1833. They were killed by members of the Sioux tribe. The last survivor, while hiding from the Native Americans and left his story on this rock before he died.

This museum has worked to preserve the memories of the great men and women who worked hard to make a home on the range. In relation to our class this site described the hardships that people faced while living on High Plains. This was done through description of the Great Western Cattle Trail, the Sheepherder monuments, and the relationship between Native Americans and settlers. Overall we had a very educating trip to the High Plains Western Heritage Center and were able to apply our knowledge to our college class, Home on the Range.