Carved into the southeastern face of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest are four gigantic sculptures depicting the faces of U.S. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. 

The 60-foot high faces were shaped from the granite rock face between 1927 and 1941, and represent one of the world’s largest pieces of sculpture, as well as one of America’s most popular tourist attractions. To many Native Americans, however, Mount Rushmore represents a desecration of lands considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux, the original residents of the Black Hills region who were displaced by white settlers and gold miners in the late 19th century. 

The Loss of a Sacred Land

In the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868 by Sioux tribes and General William T. Sherman, the U.S. government promised the Sioux “undisturbed use and occupation” of territory including the Black Hills, in what is now South Dakota. But the discovery of gold in the region soon led U.S. prospectors to flock there en masse, and the U.S. government began forcing the Sioux to relinquish their claims on the Black Hills.

Warriors like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led a concerted Sioux resistance (including the latter’s famous defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876), which federal troops eventually crushed in a brutal massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Ever since then, Sioux activists have protested the U.S. confiscation of their ancestral lands and demanded their return. The Black Hills (or Paha Sapa in Lakota) are particularly important to them, as the region is central to many Sioux religious traditions. 

The Birth of Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore, located just north of what is now Custer State Park in the Black Hills National Forest, was named for the New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore, who traveled to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims in the region. When Rushmore asked a local man the name of a nearby mountain, he reportedly replied that it never had a name before, but from now on would be known as Rushmore Peak (later Rushmore Mountain or Mount Rushmore).

Did you know? A bill introduced in Congress in 1937 proposed that a carving of Susan B. Anthony's head be included among the luminaries at Mount Rushmore but fell through due to a rider on the existing appropriations bill mandating that federal funds be spent only on those carvings already begun.

Seeking to attract tourism to the Black Hills in the early 1920s, South Dakota’s state historian Doane Robinson came up with the idea to sculpt “the Needles” (several giant natural granite pillars) into the shape of historic heroes of the West. He suggested Red Cloud, the Sioux chief who signed the Fort Laramie treaty, as a potential subject.

In August 1924, after the original sculptor he contacted was unavailable, Robinson contacted Gutzon Borglum, an American sculptor of Danish descent who was then working on carving an image of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee into the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Robinson had a history of disputes with those who commissioned the Lee project, and they fired Borglum, who left the sculpture unfinished. During his work at Stone Mountain, Borglum associated with members of the newly revived Ku Klux Klan, although it’s unclear whether he actually joined the white supremacist group.

Borglum convinced Robinson that the sculpture in South Dakota should depict George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as that would give it national, and not just local, significance. He would later add Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt to the list, in recognition of their contributions to the birth of democracy and the growth of the United States. 

Sculpting the Presidents at Mount Rushmore

During a second visit to the Black Hills in August 1925, Borglum identified Mount Rushmore as the desired site of the sculpture. Local Native Americans and environmentalists voiced their opposition to the project, deeming it a desecration of Sioux heritage as well as the natural landscape. But Robinson worked tirelessly to raise funding for the sculpture, aided by Rapid City Mayor John Boland and Senator Peter Norbeck, among others. After President Calvin Coolidge traveled to the Black Hills for his summer vacation, the sculptor convinced the president to deliver an official dedication speech at Mount Rushmore on August 10, 1927; carving began that October.

In 1929, during the last days of his presidency, Coolidge signed legislation appropriating $250,000 in federal funds for the Rushmore project and creating the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission to oversee its completion. Boland was made the president of the commission’s executive committee, though Robinson (to his immense disappointment) was excluded. 

To carve the four presidential heads into the face of Mount Rushmore, Borglum utilized new methods involving dynamite and pneumatic hammers to blast through a large amount of rock quickly, in addition to the more traditional tools of drills and chisels. Some 400 workers removed around 450,000 tons of rock from Mount Rushmore, which still remains in a heap near the base of the mountain. Though it was arduous and dangerous work, no lives were lost during the completion of the carved heads.

Mount Rushmore Depictions

On July 4, 1930, a dedication ceremony was held for the head of Washington. After workers found the stone in the original site to be too weak, they moved Jefferson’s head from the right of Washington’s to the left; the head was dedicated in August 1936, in a ceremony attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In September 1937, Lincoln’s head was dedicated, while the fourth and final head—that of FDR’s fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt—was dedicated in July 1939. Gutzon Borglum died in March 1941, and it was left to his son Lincoln to complete the final details of Mount Rushmore in time for its dedication ceremony on October 31 of that year.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, sometimes called the “Shrine of Democracy,” has become one of the most iconic images of America and an international tourist attraction. In 1959, it gained even more attention as the site of a climactic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “North by Northwest.” (In fact, South Dakota did not allow filming on Mount Rushmore itself, and Hitchcock had a large-scale model of the mountain built in a Hollywood studio.)

In 1991, Mount Rushmore celebrated its 50th anniversary after undergoing a $40 million restoration project. The National Park Service, which maintains Mount Rushmore, records upwards of 2 million visitors every year. Meanwhile, many Sioux activists have called for the monument to be taken down, even as they continue to protest what they view as illegal U.S. possession of their ancestral lands.

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Native Americans and Mount Rushmore, PBS.

Matthew Shaer, “The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2016.

Lisa Kaczke and Jonathan Ellis, “Oglala Sioux President says Mount Rushmore should be 'removed': What's behind the site's controversial history.” Sioux Falls Argus Leader, June 25, 2020