Cathy's Blog

The Mystery of the Standing Rock

Cletis and Edna Revland at the summit of Standing Rock Hill, ca. 1997

“This is an unusual wildflower,” my mother said to my dad. He took a good look and concurred. “Nothing like I’ve seen before.” We were visiting Fort Ransom that day, one of many pilgrimages over the years, often culminating in filling gallon jugs of pure, delicious spring water from the pump at the the base of the hill, to which my parents attributed their spectacular health.

“Isn’t it strange that the weeds around the rock have been pulled so neatly?” Dad said. “Who comes all the way up here to do that?”

Like the wildflower, the Standing Rock is unusual, unlike other rocks in the area. It sits above an artificial mound at the summit of the highest hill in Ransom County, North Dakota, overlooking the Sheyenne valley. On a clear day the rock can be seen from the long-abandoned Soo Line Railroad trestle thirty miles away. Within that circumference the land is so flat that, in the optimum visibility of a frigid blue-sky day in winter,  you can see the curvature of the earth at the horizon.

There are standing rocks on the promontories of many hills throughout the Great Plains, with similar shapes. Who deliberately rolled these heavy boulders to the top of the tallest hill around, and why? What is their meaning? Some are of the opinion that they are ancient forms of GPS, locating the the nearest source of water. Perhaps.

Having inherited the curiosity of my parents about my birthplace in the valley of the Sheyenne that runs through Ransom County, I have spent many years researching its history. I found out that in 1871, a decade after the government forced all the local tribes to barren land west of the Missouri, an officer at the nearby Fort Ransom military post asked the company’s mail carrier, a Yanktonai, about the meaning of the Standing Rock. His reply was, “No white man will ever know.”

My uncle, Herman Berger, was another family member who was curious about the history of this beautiful valley and the meaning of its mysterious rock.  On a research trip to the Bismarck State Historical Society I was reading a file labeled “Recollections of Early Ransom County Settlers”and my heart stopped when I saw a paper, neatly typed, signed by my uncle. It was a transcript of an interview with Fort Ransom’s earliest settler, Gilbert Hanson, who in 1879 had claimed prime river bottom land south of the hill. “There were Indians passing up and down the Sheyenne when he first located there,” my uncle wrote, “some traveling by land, others by boat, and these parties frequently camped near the hill and made visits to the Standing Rock.”

How far did these uprooted people have to travel to make these pilgrimages, and why? And is someone still carefully weeding around a rock atop a high hill that is now pretty much in the middle of nowhere? The long-ago answer of the Yanktonai mailman remains the same: “No white man will ever know.”

March 31, 2019