Thunder Butte

March 18, 2005

Tragedy: Loss of a Son, a Brother

Tragedies are always difficult for families to handle. When tragedy struck at Thunder Butte early in the last century, the remoteness of the place and lack of ready access to doctors and medical care made the loss of a loved one all the more poignant. Thomas (Tommie) James Crowley, the son of Thomas Francis Crowley, died tragically in 1926 at about 17 years of age. Gene (John) Crowley, who was only four at the time, remembers the circumstances vividly, and the retelling is difficult.

Tommie “had been out checking the livestock. He found an orphaned calf. He leaned out of the saddle and picked it up. He was riding a half-wild horse, and it bolted, and he had to fight the horse and the calf to stay on board. When he got home, he said he was sick and everyone thought he had the flu, so he went to bed where he stayed for something like two weeks. He started having insufferable pain.”

“I remember my mother getting him ready to go to the hospital. Someone had gone for a car. I don’t know who the car belonged to, but it was a Model T Ford without any side curtains. This was in the wintertime. The car probably froze up, had flat tires, etc. I’m sure it was an all day trip to Mobridge…” and the nearest hospital. Today, the trip would be about 80 miles over State Highways 20 and 12, which are paved. Back then, not only would the roads not have been paved, but traveling in winter would have made for very slow going.

“When they got him to the hospital [in Mobridge] the doctor ran out of anaesthetic (ether). He had to proceed with the operation without anaesthetic…” and it “…lasted for hours….” “…Tommie died on the operating table. I was left at home. I don’t know who else was home, Cece [Cecelia], I suppose…” who would have been about 10. “My Mother went with him to the hospital.”

“Tommie was… well over six feet, around 200 pounds.” He “…was [an] all around cowboy and ranch hand. He was very talented.” He “…had an old broken down fiddle that he used to play constantly, and he used to make it sing.” He “…played all the popular tunes of the day. Everybody said he was a handsome young man. All who knew him loved him.” He had an “up-front, friendly disposition,” with “…dark brown hair, hazel eyes.” He was “…very serious at times,” and “…always seemed to have great sympathy for others. [I] don’t recall that he ever had a girl friend, but that was quite common back then. People didn’t start dating until they were about his age…in the country.”

It seemed like “…the entire country was shaken up. [It] seems like there were hundreds of people at the funeral…. My grandmother threw herself on the body, crying at the funeral.” Joseph, who was about 15, was “saying he was going to kill himself. It was the most emotional incident that I ever recall. Cece was quite emotional…so it was terribly hard on her.”

That night, “the whole family was gathered in the living room.” Cece “…was sitting on my father’s lap.” Cece saw Tommie appear “…at the window and [he] motioned for her to follow him…. She screamed and flew across the room to the window, then ran outside screaming for Tommie.” Of course, Tommie was not there.
Mike Crowley Friday, March 18, 2005 | (0) comments |

March 09, 2005

Winter at the Butte

Thunder Butte Covered in Snow 
(Click for a Larger View)

This 1935 photo shows Thunder Butte covered in snow. Winters in this part of the country can be brutally cold. In February 1936, the nearby town of Dupree recorded a temperature of -35 Farenheit, although typical winter lows are in the negative teens and twenties. Usually, 5-8 inches of snow might fall in any winter month, although some winters see far more. A blizzard in this part of the country could lead to snow drifts that might bury someone in their home, in which case they would either dig out or perish.

Before paved roads--which are still somewhat distant from the butte--and snow plows, someone living out here would have been cut off from far flung neighbors and friends for days or weeks at a time following a major snow storm. A trek into the nearest town would have been virtually impossible.
Mike Crowley Wednesday, March 09, 2005 | (0) comments |

More Phantom Lights

Sometime during the mid to late 1930's, Gene Crowley was returning late one night from a dance at a ranch house some miles distant. He knew every detail of the land, and his pony knew the way, so riding in the dark was not difficult. As he was riding, Gene saw the lights from a ranch house along a rise. This was not so unusual in and of itself, except that Gene knew of no house on that rise. Curiosity got the best of him and he turned his pony and rode toward the rise to investigate.

As he got closer, the lights disappeared. When he got to the top of the rise, he spotted the same lights of a ranch house along the next rise, and he rode off in that direction. Again, as he neared the rise, the lights disappeared. When he got to the top, he saw that the lights had reappeared again along a rise some distance off. He continued riding ahead trying to figure out what the lights were, but each time he neared the next rise, the lights would disappear--only to reappear along the next rise. Finally, the lights disappeared altogether.

Bedraggled, Gene turned his pony and headed for home at last, never finding out what the phantom lights had meant.
Mike Crowley Wednesday, March 09, 2005 | (0) comments |

March 08, 2005

Ghost Lights on the Prairie

An important part of the Crowley family's folklore about life at Thunder Butte involves tales of the strange and unexpected things that happened there. A story from one winter's night, sometime during the mid to late-1930's, provides a good example.

Gene and one of his brothers were out checking the gate of the property. Some of the family members were away and expected back, but there were about two feet of snow on the ground, making travel across the prairie track virtually impossible. Suddenly, the boys saw two headlights approaching up the snow-covered road. They looked like the headlights seen on a Model T, an old Ford that was common in the country back at that time. They were a bit taken aback because the road was impassable. But, they waited patiently at the gate, expecting that someone-and perhaps their own family members-would need their assistance.

As the lights got closer, the boys became uneasy. They could hear no engine, but the silent headlamps kept approaching. Suddenly, as the headlamps neared the gate, they turned and headed out across the open, snow-covered prairie. Again, because of the depth of the snow, this was an impossibility. The boys stood by the gate and watched as the lights slowly receded into the distance and eventually disappeared down a draw.

The next morning, still thinking that someone must have been out driving in the snow and in need of help, the boys went out searching for the tracks. They found none on the road or where the lights had veered off into open country. No car had traveled that road the night before. To this day, there is no explanation for the ghost lights seen near Thunder Butte that night.
Mike Crowley Tuesday, March 08, 2005 | (0) comments |

Thunder Butte's Name

In a history of Ziebach County, published in 1982, the native American name for Thunder Butte is given as "Wakanganhotan." The meaning is said to be "place of holy thunder." "Wakanganhotan" is probably a corruption of two Lakota words: "wakinyan" and "hotan," which mean, respectively, "thunder bird" or "thunder," and "calls out." The name would be understood to mean a place from which the thunder bird or thunder calls out. To the modern Lakota on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, the butte is called "Wakinyan Paha," which translates as "thunder bird" or "thunder" butte (or hill or mountain).

While the name is closely analogous to what the butte is called today in English, the English version of the name does not give any sense of the religious significance of the butte. For the Lakota, the Thunder Bird is a sacred entity, one of the messengers of the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka. The thunder we hear issuing from the sky is the the call of this holy messenger. Thunder Butte is an important place from which the calls of this messenger can often be heard. Thunder Butte also is a place to which many Lakota go to experience a "vision quest," a ritual in which the seeker asks Wakan Tanka for spiritual insight or help.
Mike Crowley Tuesday, March 08, 2005 | (0) comments |

March 07, 2005

House of Sod

Thomas Crowley and his family arrived at Thunder Butte in 1913 without a great deal of money. Timber was scarce on the prairie and would have been costly to obtain in the nearest towns of Dupree or Faith. With few options other than living in an improvised tent, Thomas did what most other newcomers to the prairie did. He built a sod house for his family.

A "soddie" was typically constructed by cutting two foot long slabs of sod from the ground--a foot wide and four inches thick. The slabs were stacked to create two-foot wide walls. Branches or timbers would have been laid across the top of the walls with slabs of sod placed atop these to create a roof. Although a rudimentary dwelling by our standards today, sod houses provided a great deal of insulation against the heat of summer and the biting cold of winter.

Although no pictures remain (or were ever taken) of the Crowley sod home, the picture below gives a good sense of what the some sod homes nearby looked like, although one can see from the roof timbering and tarpaper that this was the home of a wealthier homesteader:

Mike Crowley Monday, March 07, 2005 | (0) comments |

Clash of Cultures

By all accounts, Thomas' wife, Mary Patricia--also known as Mayme, did not like the life of hardship at Thunder Butte. Living in a sod house, miles from the nearest neighbor, with only the butte, the prairie grass, and the rattlesnakes for company, she must have wondered why she had ever agreed to settle in this country with her husband. Secretly, she harbored a feeling that only a fool would have given up the security of Wisconsin and family to come to a land like this.

Adding to her fear for her family's well being was that the homestead was surrounded by tribal areas. She didn't really understand what the Indians were doing here, why the Indians crossed the property, and congregated about the butte. Of course, the Indians knew little of dry land farming themselves and lived in deep poverty following the forced abandonment of their nomadic, hunting ways. They often came to the door begging for food. And, sometimes they would take things. To them, this was their land and the whites were interlopers anyway. Mayme did not know the religious and cultural significance of Thunder Butte to the Lakota. Even if she had understood as much, she likely would have viewed them as heathens.

Often, Thomas was away from the place, working to bring home food or little things to improve their lives. Sometimes, he and the boys rode into Faith to get provisions. At times such as these, when Indians came to her door, Mayme grabbed a gun. She said as much, years later in California--not long before she died.
Mike Crowley Monday, March 07, 2005 | (0) comments |

Thomas Crowley Homestead

Thomas Crowley was already 36 when he bought 160 acres of land near Thunder Butte in 1913. Bureau of Land Management records show that Thomas filed his homesteader's claim on October 30, 1913. For the times, his was an age at which someone should have been well-established in life, as Thomas Crowley was no longer a young man. And yet, Thomas was still trying to find a place to make a go of it as a farmer, a place to raise his family, and a place to call home. Born and raised not far from Steuben and Seneca, Wisconsin, Thomas was the son of a prosperous farmer--prosperous compared to what he would encounter for himself in the Dakotas. One of 14 children, his father, Patrick, lived to a ripe old age. Because of all of the siblings and his father's own longevity, Thomas would not inherit his father's farm on Crowley Ridge.

Thomas set off with his wife, the former Mary Patricia Shockley, for Wimbledon, North Dakota, a place where she had relatives. Because of the availability of cheap land, Thomas packed up the family--then consisting of two boys, Thomas, age 5, and Joseph, age 3, along with his wife, pregnant with Neal--and moved the family to South Dakota in 1913. Mary Patricia's brother, Joseph Shockley, came with them and also staked a claim to some acreage nearby.

In 1909, and again a year later, the Congress enacted laws that put some of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal lands up for sale to non-Indians. The land was offered at a considerable discount compared to farmland elsewhere.

Dry land farming was difficult compared to farming back in Wisconsin. Compared to the green, well-watered farmlands of Wisconsin, the South Dakota prairie was a virtual desert. Thomas perservered and made the best of a difficult situation, but the land was unproductive. He eventually sold the homestead. Still, the family leased another spread and continued to live near Thunder Butte for years afterward. Neal was born there in 1913, followed by Cecelia (who went by "Cece"), and then Eugene (or "Gene") in 1921. Thomas also would hire out to help other ranchers, as many people in the vicinity did to supplement their incomes. Even though the land was difficult to work, he was reluctant to call it quits and move away from the butte.

When most of the family packed up and moved to California in 1941, Thomas must have left with a heavy heart.
Mike Crowley Monday, March 07, 2005 | (0) comments |