Mount Rushmore pays patriotic tribute to four United States presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln—with 60-foot-tall faces carved into a mountainside in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Over the years, the monument has drawn protests over its location on indigenous land, debates about whether another commander-in-chief deserves a spot on the mountain, and a Hollywood controversy over an Alfred Hitchcock movie partially filmed on the site.
To understand how Mount Rushmore has become a cultural symbol and flash point, here’s a look at how the memorial came to be.
Before it became known as Mount Rushmore, the Lakota called this granite formation Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain. It was a place for prayer and devotion for the Native people of the Great Plains, explains Donovin Sprague, head of the history department at Sheridan College in Wyoming and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The mountain’s location in the Black Hills was also significant.
“It’s the center of the universe of our people,” Sprague says. For Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities, the region was not only spiritually important, it was also where tribes gathered food and plants they used in building and medicine.
In the late 1800s, Euro-American settlers began pushing into the Black Hills, igniting a war with the indigenous population. The U.S. government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, giving the Lakota exclusive use of the Black Hills. Within a decade, however, gold was discovered in the region and, in 1877, the U.S. broke the treaty and took over the land.
“What happened with the Black Hills is so clearly theft in relation to the U.S.’s own laws,” says Christine Gish Hill, a professor of anthropology at Iowa State University who has investigated the meaning of Mount Rushmore for Native Americans.
After that, settlers and prospectors poured into the region. In 1884, New York attorney Charles Rushmore visited to strike a deal on a tin mine, and, on a lark, Six Grandfathers was renamed after him.
But the land dispute was not resolved. In the 1920s, the Lakota tribes sued the U.S. government for theft—a legal battle that would drag on for decades.
Creating a tourist attraction
By the 1920s, South Dakota, now a U.S. state, had became a road-trip destination for Americans in their new horseless carriages. They motored in to see the newly designated Black Hills National Forest and Wind Cave National Park. Governor Peter Norbeck had also built the Needles Highway, a scenic route wending through the iconic granite formations of the Black Hills.
But Doane Robinson, a historian at the South Dakota State Historical Society, believed the state needed more to entice tourists. In 1924, learning about an attempt to carve the likenesses of Confederate leaders into the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia, Robinson launched a campaign to create South Dakota’s own mountain men.
Robinson envisioned an ode to the old West, with carvings of historic figures such as Lewis and Clark and Lakota leader Red Cloud. He reached out to Stone Mountain sculptor Gutzon Borglum—who would transform the granite mountain into what it is today.
A controversial sculptor
Borglum had gained fame for sculptures honoring U.S. history—as well as his bombastic personality. In Georgia, he became involved with the Ku Klux Klan, which helped fund the Stone Mountain project. But Borglum soon began to clash with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.
In February 1925, the association fired Borglum, citing mismanagement of funds and “his offensive egotism and his delusions of grandeur.” His sacking made national news when Borglum destroyed the Stone Mountain models and fled the state.
By August 1925, Borglum had agreed to work on Mount Rushmore—but not the way Robinson had pitched it. Borglum saw the carving as a testament to American exceptionalism, and advocated that it depict presidents instrumental in the country’s expansion.
George Washington, the country’s first president, would represent its birth. Thomas Jefferson, who nearly doubled the country’s size with his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, stood for its westward expansion. Theodore Roosevelt, who had overseen the construction of the Panama Canal, was a symbol of economic growth. And Abraham Lincoln was selected for having fought to preserve the nation in the Civil War.
Unfinished work, a secret room, and pop culture depictions
Over the next 16 years, Borglum wrangled with the federal government about funding and control of Mount Rushmore—which he never technically completed.
Borglum hoped to carve the presidents down to their waists and chisel a description of the memorial next to them. But when it became clear there wasn’t enough space for the latter, he decided to build a room behind the faces to hold U.S historical artifacts.
In 1938, Borglum began blasting a 70-foot tunnel into the mountain for his Hall of Records. Worried about funding as war loomed in Europe, however, the U.S. government ultimately instructed Borglum to hold off on the hall until the four faces had been completed.