Pruning the Parks: North Dakota’s Sullys Hill National Park (1904-1931)

(Brevet) Brigadier General Alfred Sully didn’t show up at the rendezvous, so they named a hill after him and the rest is history.

One hundred and six years ago today, on April 27, 1904, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the disposition of certain lands of the former Devil’s Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota. A little over a month later, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive proclamation designating Sullys Hill Park on part of the former reservation. The little park was named for a hill that had been named for a general who didn’t show up when he was supposed to. The park turned out to be pretty much of a no-show too. After attracting little attention and few visitors, it was delisted in 1931, re-purposed as a big game preserve, and is now part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Alfred Sully (1821-1879), the son of well-known portrait painter Thomas Scully, became an Army officer after graduating from West Point in 1841. He served with distinction during a decades-long career, rising to the rank of (brevet) Brigadier General by 1862. In 1863, while the Civil War was raging in the east, Sully was reassigned to Indian War duties in the northern Great Plains, where he had served during 1854-1861. There he was put in charge of the North Western Indian Expeditions (1863-1866) and earned a measure of fame as an Indian fighter while commanding cavalry units in various battles fought in the Dakota and Nebraska Territories against the Arapaho, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes.

General Sully is remembered for many achievements, and for at least one inglorious non-achievement. At one point in his Indian Wars service, Sully was supposed to rendezvous with a cavalry unit on the south shore of Devil’s Lake in north-central North Dakota. The troopers camped on the highest hill in the vicinity and kept a close watch for him. When Sully didn’t show up, they named the hill for him.

The landform known as Sullys Hill became part of the Devils Lake Indian Reservation, which was superseded by the still-existing Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. On April 27, 1904, Congress passed legislation (33 Stat. 319) providing for homestead, townsite, and other appropriate uses of land in the former Devil’s Lake Indian Reservation. Article V, section 4 contains this statement: "...The President is also authorized to reserve a tract embracing Sullys Hill, in the northeastern portion of the abandoned military reservation, about nine hundred and sixty acres, as a public park." [italics added for emphasis] On June 2, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive proclamation creating Sullys Hill Park (known later as Sullys Hill National Park) on a 780-acre tract of hilly, wooded reservation land extending about two miles along the south shore of Devil’s Lake.

Exactly why Teddy Roosevelt chose to make a national park out of this 1.25 square-mile piece of the northern Great Plains (which he never visited) may never be fully explained. TR’s fond recollections of his ranching experiences and frontier adventures in western North Dakota (a story that is told well at Theodore Roosevelt National Park) doubtlessly inclined him toward favorable treatment of North Dakota, a place that few easterners knew or cared about. Some critics have claimed – rather plausibly, it seems -- that Roosevelt’s Sullys Hill Park proclamation was politically motivated. True or not, this particular park concept was ill-conceived and poorly executed.

To say that Sullys Hill National Park was remote and neglected is quite an understatement. In 1909, the Department of the Interior Report on Wind Cave, Crater Lake, Sullys Hill, and Platt National Parks, Casa Grande Ruin and Minnesota National Forest Reserve stated that the park, which was situated at least two miles from the nearest riverboat landing, had no decent road access, no buildings or improvements, no budget, and no staff. An official from the nearby Fort Totten Indian School was keeping an eye on the property, but that was about it. Annual visitation was estimated at about 50 campers and perhaps 200 day-trippers.

Although Sullys Hill Park continued to receive little attention with the passage of the years, officials did decide to restock the property with game animals that had been extirpated by unregulated hunting. During 1917-1918, 15 elk were translocated from Yellowstone National Park and six bison were translocated from Portland, Oregon. White-tailed deer were also reintroduced. The park’s woodland and wetlands ecosystems transitioned toward a more natural state.

If Sullys Hill National Park was pretty much of a bust as a visitor attraction, it was at least justifying its existence as a wildlife preserve. Then the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, the federal budget came under terrific pressure, and it became clear that there would be no money to develop and staff remote, marginal National Park Service properties like Sullys Hill. On March 3, 1931, Congress delisted Sullys Hill National Park and transferred the land to the Department of Agriculture to be re-purposed as a big game preserve.

Congress made it very clear that the Sullys Hill tract would retain some important national park attributes – specifically, public recreational access, but without sport hunting. As spelled out in the enabling legislation for the new preserve (16 U.S.C. § 674a : US Code - Section 674A: Sullys Hill National Park; transfer of control; change of name to Sullys Hill National Game Preserve; boundaries; use by public; hunting):

The Secretary of the Interior shall administer [the former] Sullys Hill National Park, together with all improvements thereon, in the State of North Dakota, as a big game preserve, refuge, and breeding grounds for wild animals and birds, which shall be known as the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and shall embrace within its boundaries the lands described in the proclamation of June 2, 1904, establishing Sullys Hill Park, together with all unsurveyed or public lands uncovered by the recession of the waters of Devils Lake in front of said reservation,....Provided, [t]hat the said game preserve is to be made available to the public for recreational purposes insofar as consistent with the use of this area as a game preserve: Provided further, That hunting shall not be permitted on said game preserve. [italics added for emphasis]

Today, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, which has been administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the agency was created in 1940, is a unit of the nearly 590-unit National Wildlife Refuge System. It encompasses 1,675 acres of hilly woodlands (oak, ash, basswood, and aspen), wetlands, and mixed-grass prairie lying south of Devil’s Lake and entirely within the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. On its premises are several dozen plains bison and Rocky Mountain elk, around 30 white-tailed deer, over 250 species of birds (including turkeys and migratory waterfowl), a black-tailed prairie dog colony (introduced in 1975), and other wildlife.

The absence of sport hunting is not the only thing that distinguishes Sullys Hill National Game Preserve from most other units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Thanks to game restockings dating all the way back to the World War I era, Sullys Hill is one of the very few national wildlife refuges (apparently only four) inhabited by bison and elk.

In sharp contrast to its Sullys Hill Park predecessor, Sullys Hill Game National Game Preserve draws a very respectable number of recreationists. About 60,000 people a year enjoy activities such as birding and other wildlife watching, nature photography, hiking, cross-country skiing, and scenic drives (the four-mile, self-guided auto tour is very popular with motorists). The preserve also has a Regional Conservation Learning Center and regularly offers programs and events for visitors, area school children, and others.

Postscript
: It is highly unusual for a National Park-designated property to be abolished without being incorporated into another national park or redesignated as a National Park System unit. In fact, the only other instance is Mackinac National Park (established 1875), which was abolished in 1895 and transferred to the state of Michigan for administration as Mackinac Island State Park.

Comments

Are you or is any of the readers familiar with the law regarding protected areas in 1904? How could a presidential proclamation create a National Park back then? The Antiquities Act authorized the president to unilaterally create a National Monument, but it was introduced in 1906. Each and every National Park that existed before that year and where I looked into the history of the designation was created by congress with a formal law.

Presidential proclamations created forest reserves before that date, for example 1901 in the later Glacier National Park (designated 1910) or even as early as 1891 around what later became Devils Tower National Monument (designated in 1906).

You raise an interesting point, MRC. The Antiquities Act that Congress passed in 1906 provided the President with a tool he could use to safeguard the public interest by quickly preserving nationally significant cultural and physical resources. The initial proclamation, creating Devils Tower National Monument, occurred in 1906. Prior to the existence of this blanket authority, Congress could only provide the President with authorization to deal with individual named properties. That's what happened in the case of Sullys Hill Park. TR cited the legislation that Congress passed on 27 April 1904 (33 Stat. 319) as the authorization for establishing Sullys Hill Park. Article V, section 4 contains this statement: "...The President is also authorized to reserve a tract embracing Sullys Hill, in the northeastern portion of the abandoned military reservation, about nine hundred and sixty acres, as a public park." [italics added for emphasis] (I've edited the article to include this information.)

MRC, I don't know about you, but I take this to mean that Congress clearly intended that the President could create a national park if he so desired.

Roosevelt proclaimed the park on 2 June 1904. Interestingly, the National Park Service does not list 2 June 1904 as the "birthday" of Sullys Hill Park. The NPS cites 27 April 1904, as though Congress had established the park, not Teddy Roosevelt. Go figure.

Thanks, Bob, for the clarification. The original version of this article sounded like the presidential proclamation was unilateral and I was unsure if the president could do so at that time. With your added information it is clear that Roosevelt used an option congress had given him in a formal law. And regarding the date, just remember the original Yosemite Grant: Was the park established by Lincoln signing the federal act in 1864 or by the accepting act of the Californians that happened only 1866?

MRC, I'm glad you prompted me to add that vital information to my Sullys Hill Park article. It's a good thing we've got knowledgeable readers like you out there to keep us Traveler writers on the straight and narrow. As for tormenting me with that Yosemite date question, well, I can do without that.

As to abolished parks, what about Fossil Cycad (fossils removed by researchers and collectors)--is that still part of a federal site? There's a list somewhere on the NPS website about "parks that used to be" that indicates decommissioned units, including Fossil Cycad. Or is the reference above referring only to "parks" and not to other unit designations?

Thank you for recognizing the anniversary of Sullys Hill National Game Preserve. As the new manager of this unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, I have been doing my research into the 'storied' history and you appear to be spot on. I am compiling a more-detailed history of the site so we can more effectively share this information with the public. I would like to review the presidential letters of Theodore Roosevelt to learn more about how the site was designated and who advocated for the park locally.

The human history of the area has been long and varied. From shelter from the cold winter or hunting for game for early peoples to the use of its woodlands and clay to construct adjacent Fort Totten, Sullys Hill has certainly played an important role in the settlement of the Devils Lake region.

The diversity of habitat at Sullys Hill NGP is unrivaled in this part of the state with wetlands, prairie and rare North Dakota woodlands present within a minute walk of one another. The hills, created by glacial thrust during the Wisconsin glaciations, reach over 650 feet over the floor of the resulting Devils Lake Basin. From the top of the hills today, one can easily see 20 miles in all directions. A surprising amount of plant diversity is found within the site including showy lady’s slipper, ball cactus. coralroot, yellow prairie violet, sarsaparilla, and a host of others

Please share what resources you used in your research. I am always looking to add to my resource list. You may contact me at the email or phone number listed below.

Thank you!

Tom Ibsen
Refuge Manager
Sullys Hill National Game Preserve
701-766-4272 ext. 428

It's great to hear from you, Tom, and thanks for the kind words. I'm afraid that I may not be be able to help you a lot with historical records, but I'll give you a call and we can compare notes. I'll be glad to help any way I can. BTW, I'd dearly love to visit Sullys Hill NGP, not least because I need to add North Dakota to my life list. It's the only state I've never set foot in, and that is a darn shame.