This Is The Disturbing History Behind The Creation Of Mount Rushmore

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) website quotes the aim of Mount Rushmore creator Gutzon Borglum. In his words, “The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation and unification of the United States.” But the sculptor’s close association with some repellent political views has made his work virulently controversial. And Borglum’s great-granddaughter Kimberly Ford has an astonishingly radical proposal for the massive stonework.

The grandly named John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum was born in 1867 to Danish immigrants in St. Charles, Idaho. His father Jens was a woodcutter, a Mormon and a practicing polygamist. He deserted Gutzon’s mother Christina but stayed with his other wife – her sister. Meanwhile, the Borglum family lived in Utah and then Fremont, Nebraska.

But the family – which included Gutzon’s younger brother Solon – moved again in 1884. This time they upped sticks to Los Angeles, and a now-16-year-old Borglum spent his time studying art. One of his tutors – Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam, who was 18 years older than him – became an important mentor and then his wife in 1889. The couple later moved to the French capital of Paris, where they met the eminent sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Borglum also spent five years in England from 1896. Here, his painting and sculpture achieved some recognition and some of his pieces were exhibited for Queen Victoria at her Windsor Castle residence. In 1901 he returned to the U.S. and set up a studio in New York City. From here, he now began work to build up a reputation in his homeland.

The city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of his works – a sculpture in bronze entitled “The Mares of Diomedes.” These terrifying horses from ancient Greek legend caught and ate humans. This was apparently the museum’s first purchase of a sculpture by an American and Borglum’s reputation as a talented artist was flourishing.

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Borglum had split with Putnam in 1901 – leaving her behind in Paris while he traveled to the States alone. On the ship home he met Mary Montgomery, who had been studying in Berlin. Borglum later married Montgomery in 1909 one his marriage to Putnam had been dissolved. This union produced two children – Mary Ellis and Lincoln – and the couple settled on a farm in Connecticut which they called Borgland.

Meanwhile, Borglum’s artistic career continued to thrive. He sculpted a likeness of Abraham Lincoln, and President Theodore Roosevelt exhibited the bust in the White House. This piece was certainly an omen of his future work – echoing the monumental statues of presidents he would later carve into the solid granite of Mount Rushmore. What’s more, it was his Lincoln piece that brought national fame to the artist.

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Of course, Borglum is best known for his monumental work carved into Mount Rushmore. Apparently, the original idea for a gigantic portrayal of iconic Americans came from South Dakota’s state historian Jonah LeRoy “Doane” Robinson. The nickname came from childhood when his younger sister couldn’t properly pronounce Jonah.

Robinson started out as a Minnesota farmer, but he forsook the land for a career as a lawyer before securing his position as a historian with South Dakota. Robinson was anxious to grow the tourist trade in the state’s Black Hills – where Mount Rushmore soars 5,725 feet above the landscape. For reference, the peak was named after the lawyer Charles E. Rushmore in 1885.

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The PBS website quotes Robinson as declaring, “Tourists soon get fed up on scenery unless it has something of special interest connected with it to make it impressive.” The historian’s initial idea was to have a huge carving of the leading characters who’d played central roles in the American West. In fact, he proposed that both pioneer settlers and Native Americans should be portrayed.

It turns out that Borglum was not Robinson’s first choice as the man to execute this mooted work. He first approached another noted sculptor of the day – Lorado Taft – in 1923. But the latter was in ill health, and so the next year Robinson contacted Borglum. The sculptor quickly suggested that the proposed monument should consist of sculptures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to give the project a national cachet.

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Robinson set the wheels in motion by placing a bill before the South Dakota legislature seeking permission and funds for the project. Lawmakers gave him the green light, but funding was not forthcoming. Indeed, there was strong opposition to the undertaking even before a single mark had been carved into Rushmore’s face.

Many Native Americans were horrified by the idea of this huge incursion on to land they regarded as belonging to the Lakota Sioux people. In fact, to this day they regard the Black Hills as sacred territory. And these lands already had a highly contentious history. The U.S. had guaranteed that the Black Hills would remain in Sioux hands permanently in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.

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However, the aforementioned agreement was ultimately not worth the paper it was written on. In the 1870s the Black Hills were flooded by prospectors hungry for gold. According to ABC News, a proviso in the Laramie agreement stipulated that the land could not be given up by the Sioux unless 75 percent of their adult males agreed. But a small band of starving tribespeople – less than ten percent of the Lakotas – ceded the territory in exchange for food in 1873.

The Lakota Sioux later achieved a victory of sorts in 1980 after years of legal wrangling and campaigning. The Supreme Court declared that the U.S. government had breached the fifth amendment when they appropriated the Black Hills land. The court’s written majority judgment was trenchant. It proclaimed, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

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But at the time it seems that neither Borglum nor Robinson was deterred by the controversy surrounding the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. Indeed, after his proposal to sculpt Washington and Lincoln Borglum added two more presidents to the composition: Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. And according to PBS, the sculptor called one environmental campaigner opposed to the project “an agent of evil.”

We’ve seen that Robinson’s initial concept had involved different subjects and even another artist. But what many don’t know is that his original idea was for the carving to be at a different site in the Black Hills – a series of dramatic crags called the Needles. But Borglum rejected it after visiting the site and instead settled on Mount Rushmore.

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And it seems that Borglum was far from an easy man to work with. Apparently, he sent a telegram to Robinson when it was decided that there should be a dedication ceremony before work started. According to PBS, it read, “Shall bring some costumes for ceremonies. Can you get a few real Indians for spectators?” Evidently, this imperious command revealed an appalling lack of respect for Native Americans, and Borglum was a no-show on the day that he was expected.

Eventually, the ceremony took place and Robinson made a stirring declaration. The broadcaster claims that he proclaimed, “Americans! Stand uncovered in humility and reverence, before the majesty of this mighty mountain!” Now all Borglum and Robinson had to do was carve four gigantic faces into the unyielding granite of Mount Rushmore.

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Robinson and Borglum evidently needed a lot to cash before they could make a start. Calvin Coolidge signed a bill constituting the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Commission and directed funds for the project in the dying days of his presidency in 1929. But word had already began two years earlier, with some 400 souls toiling on the hugely ambitious undertaking in often dangerous conditions.

The workers carving out the rock started their day with an arduous climb up 700 steps to clock in at the top of the mountain. They were then lowered back down the 500-foot sculpture site on 3/8-inch wire lines attached to what were called bosun chairs. Apparently, operators lowered the men from the winch house set at the top of the cliff.

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Some days these men on the face of the mountain would have to brave freezing temperatures, while on others they’d be exposed to the oppressive summer heat. Incredibly, as much as 90 percent of the work was achieved by dynamiting the mountain, according to the National Park Service.

This dynamiting was a precision job – too much explosive and things could end very badly indeed. When a charge was about to be detonated the men in the bosun chairs would be hauled back up the rock face. Surprisingly, not a single worker was killed during the entire 14-year construction period.

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Dynamiting continued until the amount of rock to be removed for the fine sculpting to take place was down to a thickness of between 3 and 6 inches. Next, holes would be drilled in the remaining rock – creating what was called a honeycomb. This could finally be removed relatively easily and it’s said that the workers even sold pieces of the honeycomb rock to curious tourists. Meanwhile, the features of the four presidents began to gradually emerge.

The great day when the project was declared to be finished came on October 31, 1941. During the final couple of years of work, Borglum himself had rarely been present at the site – devoting his time instead to raising funds in order to complete the project. Meanwhile, Borglum’s son Lincoln took his place in supervising the progress and final completion of the statues.

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However, Gutzon himself didn’t live to see the completion of the Mount Rushmore statues that he’d devoted a large chunk of his life to creating. He died in Chicago in March 1941 at the age of 73 after an operation. But this spectacular monument soon became one of the most popular tourist sites in the U.S. Today, as many as two million people travel to the Black hills to marvel at the four massive presidents’ likenesses, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The fact that this site is so popular with many in contemporary America makes the views and proposals of Borglum’s great-granddaughter Kimberly Ford all the more extraordinary. But to understand Ford’s views we can look to two factors. One is the disgraceful way the Lakota Sioux were treated over the ownership of the land where Mount Rushmore stands. The second is the political associations Borglum had during his life.

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We’ve already discussed the way the Native American people were treated. But we haven’t yet dealt with the unsavory views that Borglum apparently embraced. And to understand this better we need to go back to a project Borglum was heavily involved with before the Mount Rushmore statues were conceived and created.

Author and historian Timothy D. Dwyer wrote an uncompromising assessment of Borglum in an op-ed piece he penned for the Los Angeles Times in July 2020. He said, “By the early 1900s Borglum was a celebrated sculptor – especially of Lincoln statues. He was also an avowed racist.” And Dwyer went on to outline the evidence for this pungent judgment.

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According to Dwyer, Borglum was a full member of the Ku Klux Klan and had joined the hate group in 1915. His association started at the same time as he secured a commission to sculpt a memorial celebrating the Confederacy. This also involved carving out a cliff face – on this occasion at Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Klan die-hards had relaunched the then-declining white supremacist organization with a ceremony atop Stone Mountain in 1915. Meanwhile, the commission for a sculpture was organized by the Daughters of the Confederacy and the sculptor had won it. But Borglum apparently thought that the Klan membership could unlock finances for the project. Dwyer points out that other memorials created by the Daughters of the Confederacy have been targeted by protestors in modern times.

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The monument Borglum planned to carve out of Stone Mountain was to be in the form of a relief – portraying three leading Confederacy figures. They were two of the Confederate Army’s leading generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee plus the Confederacy’s president Jefferson Davis. It’s worth remembering that Davis was actually imprisoned and charged with treason after the Civil War ended, although he never faced trial.

In fact, Borglum’s work on the relief came to an abrupt halt and the work that today exists on the face of the 1,683-feet-high Stone Mountain is by a different artist. Borglum was actually fired by the Stone Mountain backers in February 1925. They were reportedly infuriated after finding out that he’d been in talks with the Mount Rushmore project organizers.

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Borglum was apparently incensed by this ignominious dismissal and destroyed his own models for the Stone Mountain project with an axe. The Stone Mountain sponsors then made their feelings clear by sandblasting Borglum’s incomplete work from the mountain. And then they appointed a new sculptor who accomplished much of the work at the site today. It was finally completed in 1972 by a third artist: Walker Kirtland Hancock.

Borglum’s direct replacement was Henry Augustus Lukeman and comments Borglum made about his fellow artist revealed yet another decidedly unappealing trait in his character. The Smithsonian Magazine quoted his shocking words in 2016. Borglum said, “Every able man in America refused [the commission], and thank God, every Christian. They got a Jew.” So, we can add anti-Semitism to Borglum’s charge sheet.

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And even some of Borglum’s own descendants have a jaundiced view of the sculptor. As we’ve previously mentioned, his great-granddaughter Kimberly Ford has made public her views on her ancestor and his work at Mount Rushmore. She wrote a piece for USA Today in July 2020 making her opinions crystal clear.

Ford wrote, “Through the decades there has been more talk, public opinion and documentaries revealing Borglum’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan and hard evidence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Two of the four presidents my great-grandfather carved owned slaves.” She is referring to Jefferson and Lincoln, both of whom were slave owners despite opposing the institution.

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Ford went on to write, “In an 1886 address Theodore Roosevelt – who already had a long history of animosity toward indigenous peoples – said, ‘I don’t go so far as to say that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are.’” In fact, only George Washington escaped Ford’s critique out of the four presidents on Rushmore.

Borglum’s great-granddaughter recognized that many believe the Mount Rushmore monument to be an important part of American heritage. But she points out that the stern presidential faces look out over land sacred to the Lakota Sioux. As we’ve seen, that territory was wrested from them in extremely dubious circumstances. And Ford’s ultimate conclusion will no doubt shock some.

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Ford pointed out that many Americans are reflecting on the abuses perpetrated against African-Americans and indigenous peoples and how these can be put right. She finished, “I believe it is time. Time to remove a monument that celebrates the perpetrators of a genocide, a monument that sits on the sacred land of the very people who continue to be so deeply wronged today.” Many Native Americans have echoed Ford’s call for the removal of the statues, and it’s a controversy that will surely continue.

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