West of Oklahoma City — way out past Hinton and nearly to Hydro — the casual observer driving along Interstate 40 might catch out of the corner of his eye some mounds to the south upon the prairie. They’re easy to miss, since such physical features are unexpected amid the flatness, and one’s eyes are not easily drawn to the landscape in that region. It was, of course, the contrast these buttes created that made them remarkable to travelers of the prairie in the days when overland navigation depended heavily on landmarks.The first recorded observation of the mounds came in 1849 from Lieutenant James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Simpson was part of Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s military escort for a party of gold seekers traveling to California. Simpson notes in his journal on May 23, 1849:
“Proceeding on about a mile (from camp), some hills of singular shape make their appearance, for the first time, bearing north 70 degrees west; several have very much the appearance of immense Indian lodges.”
The most famous of these mounds, which became an often-noted landmark for westbound travelers, is Rock Mary. Simpson describes his discovery of Rock Mary as follows: “Nearing the first of these (mounds) . . . , and it appearing more oddly shaped than any of the others, I started off alone to ascend it — reaching it just in time to scare up a wild turkey; and tying my horse to a black-jack tree at its base, I scrambled up to its summit. The novel character of the hill; its contorted appearance; its sudden emergence from the plain around it; my having reached its pinnacle; it being an object of interest to beholders in the distance; — all this had its complex influence upon me, and I felt correspondingly elated.”
In the excitement of discovering and ascending the mound, Simpson unfurled an American flag at the summit and named the rock in honor of a young woman traveling with the company, Mary Conway. Captain Marcy did not remark on Rock Mary specifically in his journal but describes the first sighting of the buttes as follows:
“Continuing on this ‘Divide’ for thirteen miles we passed several high mounds of a very soft red sandstone, rising up almost perpendicularly out of the open table land, and can be seen for a long distance before reaching them. At the base of the southern mound, following an old Indian trail, it led us down into a deep ravine, where there is a fine spring of cool water, with wood and grass.”
These hills came to be called the Natural Mounds, described by botanist and artist H.B. Mollhausen, who traveled with the Whipple Expedition surveying a possible railroad route to the Pacific in 1853, as “a group of bold steep hills in the thenceforward treeless plain.” He described them further as “a chain of conical hills, lying separate, but scattered in a direction from north-west to south-east; they are all about equal in height, namely, about eighty feet, and covered with a horizontal stratum of red sandstone.”
Today, the mounds are no less visible, and are easily located as one travels west from Hinton, Oklahoma. Rock Mary is located a few miles west of Hinton on private property southeast of the intersection of Caddo County Roads N2560 and E1070. See Google map here.
Although the site is not open to the public, Rock Mary can be viewed from the county road. I had the opportunity to visit it with Art Peters, curator of the Hinton Historical Museum, as part of my research for “The Great Golden Road,” my story about the California Road in the September/October 2016 issue of Oklahoma Today (oklahomatoday.com). See below a photo of Peters in front of Rock Mary, viewing the butte from the west, and a photo of me at the summit of Rock Mary, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A few months later, my son Mark Fields and I went with Peters on a tour of several other mounds in the same area. We visited Lone Mound, Crown Mound, and Chimney Mound. Crown Mound is the tallest of the “Natural Mounds” and part of the cluster called “Steen’s Buttes,” northwest of Rock Mary. These were so named in the fall of 1858 by Lieutenant Edward F. Beale during a survey for construction of a wagon road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. They are named for Enoch Steen, who commanded the military escort accompanying Beale’s expedition. This is the grouping of hills most easily viewed from Interstate 40.
Chimney Mound was memorialized by Mollhausen in the illustration below. Its appearance is much the same today.
On another excursion, traveling alone to explore and photograph the mounds, I was able to locate Ghost Mound, pictured below. My resource for this excursion was Art Peters’ book, “Legends of the Mounds,” the cover of which is also pictured below. The book contains history, legends, and a map of the mounds, and is available at the Hinton Historical Museum, 801 S. Broadway in Hinton, or by contacting the museum at (405) 542-3181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the following for additional information: