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Pruning the Parks: Verendrye National Monument (1917-1956)


West view of Verendrye National Monument, unknown date. NPS archival photo.

Verendrye National Monument was delisted from the National Park System on July 30, 1956. The site was deemed to lack the historical significance on which the 1917 proclamation of the national monument was based.

Crow Flies High Butte (elev. 2,047 feet) is a conspicuous landform located on the left bank of the Missouri River in west-central North Dakota. It is situated along North Dakota Highway 23 two miles west of New Town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

During the age of exploration and early settlement, a time when this landform was still called Crowhigh Butte, explorers and pioneers used it as a navigational aid. Since the butte could be seen from a considerable distance, early settlers bound for the Old Crossing of the Missouri River used it for decades as a visual checkpoint. Since anyone who climbed to the top of Crowhigh Butte could see for many miles in all directions, it was also a very good place from which to scope out the terrain and look for whatever might be seen. The crest of the butte stands 565 feet above the surrounding terrain, affording about the same height advantage as the roof of a 56-story skyscraper.

The butte's value as a landmark and vantage point was especially important to early explorers who had little or no dependable information about the area and the travel routes and hazards it might offer. It makes sense that someone who encountered this landform back in the days when this part of North Dakota was uncharted territory would want to make their way to the top of it and have a look around.

Crowhigh Butte may have played a part in the first extensive exploration of the northern United States east of the Rocky Mountains, which was undertaken by celebrated French explorer and fur trader Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye and his four sons.

The records of the Verendrye explorations are sketchy and in places very confusing, but here is the gist of it. Like many another wealth-seeker of his time, Verendrye, who had established trading posts in the Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg vicinities in the 1730s, was obsessed with the idea of claiming more land for France, expanding his fur trade empire, and finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean. In the late 1730s and early 1740s Verendrye conducted several explorations of the lands lying hundreds of miles to the west and south. In 1738, the elder Verendrye became the first white men to visit what is now North Dakota.

One of the Verendrye journeys of discovery is of special interest here. During 1742-43, Verendrye and two of his sons -- probably Louis-Joseph and François -- set out from their Fort La Reine trading post on the Assinniboine River in Manitoba (present site of Portage la Prairie) to explore the Little Missouri River Valley and the country that lay beyond. Traveling across the northern Great Plains, they passed westward into Montana, roughly paralleling the route that Lewis and Clark took in 1806. Stymied by the Rocky Mountains, they swung southward in the Fort Benton vicinity and followed along the Rockies until they got to about the center of Wyoming. Their journey didn't carry them far enough west to see the Yellowstone country, but they were possibly the first white men to see the Rocky Mountains.

There is no incontrovertible proof that the Verendryes camped at Crowhigh Butte during this trip, but the records of the exploration seem to indicate that they crossed the Missouri in 1742 at the place that came to be known as Old Crossing. If they did indeed cross the river at Old Crossing, where there was a Mandan Indian village, it's inconceivable that they would have passed up the opportunity to get a panoramic view of the Little Missouri Valley, the great sweep of land through which they intended to travel.

Various local boosters and historians -- most particularly North Dakota's state historical society -- embraced this assumption as historical fact and successfully argued that Crowhigh Butte should be federally protected. On June 29, 1917, Verendrye National Monument (ca. 253 acres) was established by presidential proclamation (Proc. No. 1380, 40 Stat. 1677) and added to the National Park System. A plaque installed on Crowhigh Butte read:

The Verendrye National Monument. Established June 29, 1917. To commemorate discovery of this area in 1742 by the Sons of Verendrye, celebrated French explorer. Crowhigh Mountain was used as an observation station to spy out unknown land farther west. In 1738 the elder Verendrye and one son made a trip to within a day's journey of the Missouri River, and were the first white men to enter what is now North Dakota. This was in the course of a journey from Verendrye's trading post in Manitoba, Canada, in an effort, which was unsuccessful, to reach the western sea by an overland route.

Scant attention was paid to the monument, which was placed in the care of a local postmaster soon after its creation and subsequently had other custodians, but no facilities.

Here is an excerpt from the June 30, 1918 Report of the NPS Director to the Secretary of the Interior:

During the year Mr. W. F.' Thompson, the postmaster at Sanish, was appointed custodian of the Verendrye National Monument. Mr. Thompson, who is one of the pioneer settlers of the region, has always evinced keen interest in the reservation, and as custodian will be able to prevent trespassing and violations of the regulations of the National Park Service. It was from Crowhigh Mountain, the prominent butte in this monument, that Verendrye, the French explorer of the Northwest and the first white man to enter what is now -North Dakota, made his observations before going farther west, and its historical associations draw many visitors to the reservation during the summer months.

Later, historians who studied the expedition records concluded that the Verendryes probably did not camp at Crowhigh Butte. Congress eventually agreed that evidence supporting the Crowhigh Butte claim was unreliable. On July 30, 1956, Verendrye National Monument was delisted from the National Park System and transferred to the state of North Dakota. The site, now dubbed the Crow Flies High Overlook, is a regional tourist attraction that affords great views of Four Bears Bridge and Lake Sakakawea, the reservoir impounded by the Garrison Dam.

: Ironically, researchers subsequently uncovered new evidence that Crow Flies High Butte may actually be the site where the Verendryes climbed to view the Little Missouri Valley in 1742. Unlikely though it may seem, it is conceivable that the site could be federally protected again someday.

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