Today, the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt gaze over South Dakota’s Black Hills, their images sculpted on the granite slopes of Mount Rushmore. An engineering marvel, this unlikely landmark now draws millions of visitors every year.
But the place casts a dark shadow. Built by a Klu Klux Klan sympathizer on land seized from the Sioux during a gold rush, Mount Rushmore is steeped in controversy. Here are 10 little-known facts about its creation and history.
1. The Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation call this mountain Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe, or “Six Grandfathers.”
When New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore first laid eyes on the landform in 1884, the presidential sculpting effort was decades away. Reportedly, the visiting lawyer asked his guides if the mountain had a name. Unaware of its importance to the Sioux, they said no—and then one of them added, “We will name it now, and name it Rushmore Peak.” Over time, this evolved into “Mount Rushmore.”
2. Mount Rushmore’s head sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, previously worked on a huge Confederate monument.
Georgia’s Stone Mountain bears a 158-by-76-foot carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and their horses. Borglum came up with the basic concept after the Daughters of the Confederacy asked him to sculpt Lee’s head into the rockface. But on February 25, 1925, 10 years into the project, Borglum was fired after disputes with the organization. Stone Mountain was finished without his involvement; then-Vice President Spiro Agnew attended its dedication ceremony in 1970.
3. The idea for Mount Rushmore began with South Dakota's Historian.
Intrigued by Stone Mountain, Jonah LeRoy “Doane” Robinson, South Dakota’s official State Historian, contacted Borglum in 1924. The Black Hills were already a tourist destination, but Robinson wanted an audacious new draw. Turning some local geologic features into a lineup of statues depicting western legends like Buffalo Bill Cody, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark sounded like a good business move to Robinson. But Borglum had other ideas. In addition to changing the monument's proposed location—he opted for Mount Rushmore instead of the nearby granite spires Robinson had chosen—he also changed the people depicted. Feeling the place should be a “national monument commemorating America’s founders and builders,” the sculptor went with a presidential theme.
4. Gutzon Borglun liked Mount Rushmore because of its physical attributes.
South Dakota is full of mountains, so why was the monument built on this one? For starters, Borglum realized it was sturdy enough to withstand the rigorous sculpting process. He also liked the fact that Mount Rushmore’s southeastern flank (where the faces now stand) gets good sun exposure. The mountain's fine-grained Harvey Peak granite also influenced Borglun's choice: Though the material was more difficult to carve, it would erode slower than the granite found on other nearby peaks.
5. Construction on Mount Rushmore began in 1927.
It officially ended on October 31, 1941. Borglum unexpectedly died that March, leaving his son, Lincoln, to oversee the last few months of production.
6. Eleanor Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony on Mount Rushmore.
Washington’s head was the first part of the monument to be dedicated, followed by Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s, and finally Roosevelt’s. Meanwhile, a different Roosevelt wanted Susan B. Anthony to join their ranks. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Borglum in 1936, asking him to include the prominent suffragist’s likeness. A bill reiterating this plea was introduced to Congress the following year, but it didn’t get far due to funding restrictions.
7. The construction crew used a technique called “honeycombing” to carve Mount Rushmore.
Dynamite cleared away 90 percent of the unwanted rock, but some tasks were ill-suited for explosives. Once they came within 3 to 6 inches of the desired depth, Borglum’s workers would drill shallow holes in tightly packed rows. Known as “honeycombing,” this trick allowed them to pull off chunks of granite with their bare hands.
8. Mount Rushmore once had its own baseball team.
While at Rushmore, Borglum and his son organized a baseball team made up entirely of their day-laborers. In 1939, the “Rushmore Drillers” had a great summer, qualifying for the semifinals in South Dakota’s Amateur Baseball Tournament.
9. Mount Rushmore is just two counties away from the U.S.’s geographic center.
Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, shifting the geographic center of the U.S. from Smith County, Kansas, to Butte County, South Dakota. The exact spot is located on private land, but roughly 20 miles to the south—in the nearby city of Belle Fourche, South Dakota—there’s a compass-shaped monument honoring America’s midpoint. By car, that attraction’s only 79.4 miles from Mount Rushmore, the most iconic spot in Pennington County.
10. The last surviving Mount Rushmore carver died in 2019.
A prominent member of those Rushmore Drillers, Donald “Nick” Clifford was a right-fielder and the youngest carver ever to work on the monument. He was hired in 1938 at the tender age of 17. Clifford outlived all of his Mount Rushmore co-workers and died in 2019 at 98 years old.
11. Native Americans activists occupied Mount Rushmore in 1970.
The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie set aside South Dakota’s Black Hills, Mount Rushmore included, for the exclusive use of indigenous people. Yet the United States hastily redrew the agreed-upon boundaries when General George A. Custer found gold in the region six years later.
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled the U.S. government had acted illegally. As per the ruling, a compensation trust now worth over $1 billion was set aside for the Sioux. That money has never been collected.
Ten years before that Supreme Court decision, a group of 23 Native American activists climbed Mount Rushmore on August 29, 1970. Demanding that the land be restored to the Sioux, the group defied federal regulations and set up camp atop the mountain. Protestors remained at the site until that November, when bad weather finally drove them out. According to Lehman Brightman, the former President of the United Native Americans organization and one of the event’s architects, it was “the first Sioux Indian uprising” since Custer’s lifetime.