Thunder Butte

October 28, 2005

Spook Lights on the Prairie

In the 1982 book, “South Dakota's Ziebach County, History of the Prairie,” Jackie Birkeland says that “"Spook Lights" were once such a common sight [in the area] that almost everyone saw them and had tales to tell of their encounters with them.” Living in a sparsely populated area without electric lights, seeing odd lights at night surely would have attracted attention. The Crowleys at Thunder Butte saw them, too—most memorably the winter night they saw a couple of lights that looked like headlamps coming down a snow-covered road to the ranch, before turning off and heading silently off into the cold prairie night across deep snow that would have been impossible to drive in.

Spook lights figure prominently in America’s ghost lore. Michael Norman and Beth Scott, writing in “Historic Haunted America” say that spook lights are “mysteriously illuminated orbs that have been reported in dozens of sites around the United States.” Spook lights were often thought by early homesteaders to be ghosts—sometimes the spirits of Indians who used to occupy the land, and sometimes the tormented souls of unlucky travelers to came to a bad end at the hands of the local natives or bandits.

Geologists reportedly attribute the lights to earthquake or volcanic activity, and sometimes underground deposits of oil or gas. The area around Thunder Butte is not seismically active, and hasn’t experienced volcanic activity in millions of years. It does, however, have deposits of coal near the surface. Often coal seams are associated with underground sources of methane. Could this be the source of the spook lights? Both spirits and methane seem unlikely sources of the lights, but one never knows for sure.

According to Jackie Birkeland, “We saw them many times in the breaks east of Cherry Creek on the path to the L/Y Ranch and more frequently on Little Cottonwood Creek north of the Sam Eagle Chasing residence. Our friends were very much afraid of them and would ride miles to avoid a light that happened to appear.”

Reportedly, the lights could be the color of a light bulb, or an auto headlamp, or changing colors of red, green, and yellow. Their behavior wasn’t predictable. Says Jackie, “They would appear from very near the ground to a height of ten feet or so and did not seem to follow any predictable” path. “One might be riding along horseback after dark and suddenly within two or three hundred feet or further, one of these lights would appear and dance over the terrain, bobbing up and down.”

One night, a local Indian was out on a horse and encountered a light that would not let him pass. Each time he turned the horse, the light got in his way. Finally, he just closed his eyes and rode as fast as he could.

A blizzard covered the area with deep snow in November 1931. Jim Frame was only ten, then, and was helping his dad run a team of horses back and forth the twenty miles from their place to Dupree to get grain for the livestock. On one of the trips, “He was still several miles from home when a "spook light" appeared about 100 yards to his right,” according to the tale told by Jackie Birkeland. “Its appearance brought terror to the heart of this young lad for it seemed to be alive and playing sinister games with him. Sometimes it would come quite close, then skip over the frozen snow-bound prairie, and be almost out of sight. Then back it would come, float down into a draw and once again appear to follow him at close range. This ghostly companion kept Jim company for about a mile.” Unfortunately for Jim, his team of horses couldn’t be hurried any faster along the trail. He must have driven those horses in terror all the rest of the way home.
Mike Crowley Friday, October 28, 2005


Hi Mike and John, it's Julie John and Mary Ellen's neighbor. Anyway, I used to live it the high desert in a little town of Jacumba, Ca. Of course, this was in 1973, and I remember seeing lights when we were riding a motorcycle late at night. They didn't follow us, but they definitely put on a show, enough for us to pull over and watch.

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