Thunder Butte

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Thunder Butte
Thunder butte SD.jpg
Highest point
Elevation 833 metres (2,733 ft)
Coordinates 45°19′11″N101°52′51″W / 45.3198°N 101.8807°W / 45.3198; -101.8807 Coordinates: 45°19′11″N101°52′51″W / 45.3198°N 101.8807°W / 45.3198; -101.8807
USA South Dakota location map.svg
Red triangle with thick white border.svg
Thunder Butte
Ziebach County, South Dakota
Orogeny Differential erosion
Age of rock Paleocene (66 - 57 mya)

Thunder Butte (Lakota: Wakíŋyaŋ Pahá) is a prominent butte landmark located in the northwest corner of Ziebach County, South Dakota, in the United States. [1] Thunder Butte is a landform that can be seen for many miles in every direction, and serves now (as it has in the past) as an important orientation point for area residents, or a navigational aide for travelers crossing the surrounding plains. The prominent butte gives its name to a small community at its base, and to a small creek that runs into the Moreau River.

Lakota language Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes

Lakota, also referred to as Lakhota, Teton or Teton Sioux, is a Siouan language spoken by the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes. Though generally taught and considered by speakers as a separate language, Lakota is mutually intelligible with the other two languages, and is considered by most linguists as one of the three major varieties of the Sioux language.

Butte Isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top

In geomorphology, a butte is an isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top; buttes are smaller landforms than mesas, plateaus, and tablelands. The word "butte" comes from a French word meaning "small hill"; its use is prevalent in the Western United States, including the southwest where "mesa" is used for the larger landform. Because of their distinctive shapes, buttes are frequently landmarks in plains and mountainous areas. In differentiating mesas and buttes, geographers use the rule of thumb that a mesa has a top that is wider than its height, while a butte has a top that is narrower than its height.

South Dakota State of the United States of America

South Dakota is a U.S. state in the Midwestern region of the United States. It is named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux Native American tribes, who compose a large portion of the population and historically dominated the territory. South Dakota is the seventeenth largest by area, but the fifth smallest by population and the 5th least densely populated of the 50 United States. As the southern part of the former Dakota Territory, South Dakota became a state on November 2, 1889, simultaneously with North Dakota. Pierre is the state capital and Sioux Falls, with a population of about 187,200, is South Dakota's largest city.



Thunder Butte was formed by differential erosion. Its summit is 2,733 feet (833.02 meters) above sea level, [2] and rises some three to five hundred feet (90 - 150 metres) above the surrounding grasslands. Thunder Butte is the highest point in Ziebach County. Thunder Butte lies on the drainage divide between the Grand River, to the north, and the Moreau River to the south; both rivers drain eastward to the Missouri.

Drainage divide Elevated terrain that separates neighbouring drainage basins

A drainage divide, water divide, divide, ridgeline, watershed, water parting or height of land is elevated terrain that separates neighbouring drainage basins. On rugged land, the divide lies along topographical ridges, and may be in the form of a single range of hills or mountains, known as a dividing range. On flat terrain, especially where the ground is marshy, the divide may be harder to discern.

Grand River (South Dakota) tributary of the Missouri River in South and North Dakota

The Grand River is a tributary of the Missouri River in South Dakota in the United States. The length of the combined branch is 110 mi (177 km). With its longest fork, its length is approximately 200 mi (320 km).

Moreau River (South Dakota) South Dakota tributary of the Missouri River

The Moreau River is a tributary of the Missouri River, approximately 200 miles (320 km) long, in South Dakota in the United States. Moreau River has the name of a pioneer trader.

The butte is located about 75 miles (120 km) west of the Missouri River, and about 105 miles (170 km) northeast of the Black Hills, (both distances as the crow flies). The geographical coordinates of Thunder Butte (Wakinyan Paha) are Latitude N 45.319978 (49 19 12 N) and Longitude W -101.880704 (-101 52 51 W). The butte lies in the Southeast quarter of Section 26 of Township 16 North, Range 18 East. [3]

Missouri River major river in the central United States, tributary of the Mississippi

The Missouri River is the longest river in North America. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana, the Missouri flows east and south for 2,341 miles (3,767 km) before entering the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, Missouri. The river drains a sparsely populated, semi-arid watershed of more than 500,000 square miles (1,300,000 km2), which includes parts of ten U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Although nominally considered a tributary of the Mississippi, the Missouri River above the confluence is much longer and carries a comparable volume of water. When combined with the lower Mississippi River, it forms the world's fourth longest river system.

Black Hills mountain range in South Dakota and Wyoming

The Black Hills are a small and isolated mountain range rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota and extending into Wyoming, United States. Black Elk Peak, which rises to 7,244 feet (2,208 m), is the range's highest summit. The Black Hills encompass the Black Hills National Forest. The name "Black Hills" is a translation of the Lakota Pahá Sápa. The hills were so-called because of their dark appearance from a distance, as they were covered in trees.

<i>As the crow flies</i> idiom

As the crow flies, similar to in a beeline, is an idiom for the most direct path between two points. This meaning is attested from the early 19th century, and appeared in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist:

We cut over the fields at the back with him between us – straight as the crow flies – through hedge and ditch.

Native Americans and Thunder Butte

Thunder Butte is “Wakinyan Paha” in the language of the Lakota people, to whom the butte has historic, religious and cultural significance. [4] In traditional Lakota lore, thunder originated on the butte. [5] The Lakota Sioux tribe has resided in this area since about 1776, after driving out the Cheyenne, (who had driven out the Kiowa, who had in their turn driven off previous Native American possessors.) A high concentration of Lakota Sioux people still reside around the Thunder Butte landmark -- Ziebach County, where Thunder Butte is located, has a 72.29% Native American population. The prominent landmark is clearly visible from two surrounding reservations of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux people; the butte is within the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation which has Lakota people from four bands/tribes of the Lakota nation, [6] and the butte is only a short distance from the southern boundary of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation which has people of the Lakota and Dakota nations [7]

Lakota people Indigenous people of the Great Plains

The Lakota are a Native American tribe. Also known as the Teton Sioux, they are one of the three Sioux tribes of Plains. Their current lands are in North and South Dakota. They speak Lakȟótiyapi—the Lakota language, the westernmost of three closely related languages that belong to the Siouan language family.

Cheyenne Group of indigenous people of the Great Plains

The Cheyenne are one of the indigenous people of the Great Plains and their language is of the Algonquian language family. The Cheyenne comprise two Native American tribes, the Só'taeo'o or Só'taétaneo'o and the Tsétsêhéstâhese. These tribes merged in the early 19th century. Today, the Cheyenne people are split into two federally recognized Nations: the Southern Cheyenne, who are enrolled in the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and the Northern Cheyenne, who are enrolled in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana.

Kiowa nation of American Indians of the Great Plains

Kiowa people are a Native American tribe and an indigenous people of the Great Plains. They migrated southward from western Montana into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally into the Southern Plains by the early 19th century. In 1867, the Kiowa were moved to a reservation in southwestern Oklahoma.


Thunder Butte has an erosion resistant cap of harder Paleocene age sedimentary rock known as the Ludlow Formation. Lower elevations of surroundings grasslands/plains are underlain by the softer and more easily eroded Hell Creek sedimentary rock. [8] The cap of Ludlow Formation rock is an erosional remnant, and other buttes in this area of western South Dakota are also capped by similar Ludlow Formation erosional remnants. [9] Geological maps are available online, which show Thunder Butte, and its cap of the Ludlow Formation; see the 15 minute (1:62,500 scale) Glad Valley geologic map, which can be viewed and downloaded from the SD Geological Surveys website. [10] The regional geological aspect can also be viewed on the Geologic map of South Dakota, but Thunder Butte's cap of Ludlow Formation rock is too small a feature to be shown on the regional map with its larger 1:500,000 scale. [11]

The Paleocene or Palaeocene, is a geological epoch that lasted from about 66 to 56 million years ago. It is the first epoch of the Paleogene Period in the modern Cenozoic Era. As with many geologic periods, the strata that define the epoch's beginning and end are well identified, but the exact ages remain uncertain.

In literature

Literary references to Thunder Butte appear in the story of Hugh Glass, a mountain man/trapper with the 1823 party of William Henry Ashley and Andrew Henry, which was traveling overland from Fort Kiowa to Fort Henry at the mouth of the Yellowstone River. In August 1823, on the south fork of the Grand River (located north west of Thunder Butte, in Perkins County, South Dakota), Hugh Glass encountered a grizzly bear and was so badly mauled that he was left for dead by the others in his party. Reviving, he found himself alone and unable to travel except by crawling. Hugh Glass crawled from the Grand River to the Moreau River and then on south to the Cheyenne River, a distance of some 80 to 100 miles (130 - 160 km). This "crawl" consumed six weeks. After reaching the Cheyenne River, Hugh Glass recuperated for a time and then fashioned a crude raft on which he floated down the Cheyenne River and Missouri River to Fort Kiowa. The Grand-to-Moreau-to-Cheyenne River "crawl" took Glass by Thunder Butte on the divide between the Moreau and Grand Rivers, and factual and fictional accounts note that in making his crawl to the Cheyenne River, Hugh Glass navigated by watching Thunder Butte which was first ahead, then alongside, then behind him. [12]

Hugh Glass American fur trapper and frontiersman

Hugh Glass was an American frontiersman, fur trapper, trader, hunter, and explorer. He is best known for his story of survival and retribution after being left for dead by companions when he was mauled by a grizzly bear.

William Henry Ashley was an American miner, land speculator, manufacturer, territorial militia officer, politician, frontiersman, trapper, fur trader, entrepreneur, and hunter. Ashley was best known for being the co-owner with Andrew Henry of the highly successful Rocky Mountain Fur Incorporated, otherwise known as "Ashley's Hundred" for the famous mountain men working for the firm from 1822–1834.

Major Andrew Henry was an American miner, army officer, frontiersman, trapper and entrepreneur. Alongside William H. Ashley, Henry was the co-owner of the highly successful Rocky Mountain Fur Company, otherwise known as "Ashley's Hundred", for the famous mountain men working for their firm from 1822 to 1832. Henry appears in the narrative poem, the Song of Hugh Glass, which is part of the Neihardt's Cycle of the West. He is portrayed by John Huston in the 1971 film Man in the Wilderness and by Domhnall Gleeson in the 2015 film The Revenant, both of which depict Glass's bear attack and journey.

Thunder Butte has been commemorated by white settlers who saw beauty and majesty in the prominent landmark. The following poem was written by G. M. Drummond, who was appointed Zeibach County Superintendent of Schools in 1912 and elected in 1927. [13] A pioneer and longtime resident of the area, Mr. Drummond died in 1973.

"Thunder Butte"

In northern Ziebach County
Stands Thunder Butte alone
The monarch of surrounding hills ...
With a diadem of stone!
He stood there countless ages,
While red men roamed the plains
And Buffalo and antelope
Grazed over vast domains.
There still he stands undaunted,
While seasons come and go,
Unchanged alike by summer sun
Or by the Winter snow.
The Persepolis of Persia
Stood not more dignified,
Nor the Acropolis of Athens
In its historic pride!
Rule on, Majestic Mountain!
May nothing ever mar
Your innate rugged beauty,
That may be seen afar.

G. M. Drummond

From, “South Dakota's Ziebach County, History of the Prairie” published in 1982 by the Ziebach County Historical Society in Dupree, SD. [14]

Other Geographical Features and Locations Named After Thunder Butte

Thunder Butte Creek originates to the west of the butte, and flows by the southwest side of the butte, and then extends southeasterly to join the Moreau River. The small unincorporated community of Thunder Butte is located near this river junction at these geographical coordinates: Lat. 45.21166 N, Long. -101.670016 W.


Many other buttes in this area of western South Dakota are capped by erosional remnants. Besides the Ludlow Formation, buttes in this area are capped by the Tongue River formations, White River Group sediments, and clinker beds formed by the combustion of coal seams which bake the surrounding rock into a hard erosion resistant layer. [15]

After Hugh Glass (see above) had been mauled by a bear in 1823 and appeared to be in a dying state, two of the Ashley party were left to await his death and bury him. As Glass lingered, the two grew increasingly fearful of becoming random casualties of Indian bands roaming the valley of the Grand River. Eventually they panicked, and took off with Hugh Glass' rifle and other possessions, reporting to Ashley that Glass had died and been buried. One of the two may have been Jim Bridger, then making his first foray across the Great Plains to the Rockies. According to legend, Glass later caught up with Bridger, but forgave him because of his youth. [16] Jim Bridger became a celebrated mountain man of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

See also

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  1. Rand McNally Atlas, 2006
  2. Thunder Butte Summit, South Dakota Mountain Peak Information
  3. See the 15 minute (1:62,500 scale) Glad Valley geologic map, which can be viewed and downloaded from the SD Geological Surveys website. (
  5. South Dakota Place Names, South Dakota WPA Writers Project, 1941, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, 689 p.; Discussion with South Dakota State Historical Society, August 13, 2008
  6. Official Website-Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
  7. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
  8. E-mail,South Dakota Geological Survey Program, August 19, 2008
  9. E-mail,South Dakota Geological Survey Program, August 19, 2008
  10. (
  12. See, for example, "Lord Grizzley", Frederick Manfred, 1954, First Signet Printing 1964, pp. 179 to 215.
  15. E-mail,South Dakota Geological Survey Program, August 19, 2008
  16. Hugh Glass Biography on