Dan OBriens ranch, northwest of Bear Butte, rests on "The Bench." This elevated area of the Plains offers a spectacular view of the Black Hills to the south and grasslands and flat-topped buttes or mesas to the north.
The Bench has been host to generations of Cheyenne, Lakota and other native peoples who traveled to the sacred Bear Butte, just a few miles southeast of OBriens ranch. This geological wonder still holds a special place in their spiritual lives. Today, Bear Butte State Park offers a ceremonial campground and trail for those who visit the site for spiritual reasons.
Bear Butte - Mato Paha in Lakota - was formed some 65 million years ago when magma (molten rock) from the earths interior pushed up under the crust, but never reached the surface.
The magma cooled and hardened and, over the millenia, the covering rock and topsoil washed away, exposing the cone-shaped rocky formation known as a laccolith. Contrary to the "butte" name, the formation, which rises 1,253 feet above the surrounding plain, is mountain-shaped, not a flat-topped butte. Bear Butte is part of a line of volcanic formations that extends westward to Wyomings famed Devils Tower, about 60 miles away.
In 1857, Lakota tribes gathered at Mato Paha, vowing to defend the land from the invasion of settlers. George Custer and his troops camped near the Butte in the 1870s when his expedition confirmed the rumors of gold in the Black Hills.
Early in this century, homesteaders flocked to the Great Plains. Homesteaders tried to make a go of it on the land that makes up OBriens ranch, too. But the climate of this dry grassland proved too hard to tame. One family that lived on the OBrien ranch held on until the "Dust Bowl" years, an extended drought across the Great Plains that lasted from 1930 to 1936. In 1910, there were 3,339 farms in Meade County in South Dakota. By 1940, the number was down by almost 60 percent - 1,365. Today, about 800 farms and ranches remain.