The Region

Clarence Mortenson

The Spirit of the Ninth District Personified

Kathy Cobb | Associate Editor

Published December 1, 1994  | December 1994 issue

The history of the Dakotas and much of the Ninth Federal Reserve District abounds with stories of Indian lore, early fur traders and hardy Scandinavian immigrants. It's also about the land—plentiful water, grasses, plants and animal life. Minneapolis Federal Reserve bank director Clarence Mortenson has ties to all these.

Mortenson, a native South Dakotan, rancher and land appraiser, embodies the Ninth District's history, culture and spirit through his heritage and connection to the land. A registered member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Mortenson was born to an American Indian mother, whose family tree includes French fur traders, and a Danish American rancher father.

Mortenson has strong memories of his Indian grandmother, a woman of immense dignity who lived through the Indian Wars of the late 1800s. He still displays the totem, or life-guiding symbol, she made when he was a young boy. Following a hunting foray in which the young Mortenson caught a porcupine, he says his grandmother, with whom he could only converse through an interpreter, was quite proud of him and took his prize to be an omen that he would be a great hunter.

It's that Indian heritage, Mortenson believes, from which his strong feelings about the balance of nature and harmony with the environment spring. "The Indian's belief was that the earth was your mother," Mortenson says. "When you think about it, every part of me is dust and it will be dust again some day."

The Mortenson Ranch: a prairie laboratory

And it's that respect for the land and its history that started Mortenson on a 40-plus year quest to restore his ranch land to its natural state.

While the 19,000-acre Mortenson Ranch, now operated by Clarence's sons, straddles three counties northwest of Pierre (Stanley, Haakon and Ziebach), it's the 8,000 acres in Stanley County that have been the focus of attention by conservation and environmental specialists.

Mortenson says his interest in what the land was like originally started long ago when he heard the following story:

"There was an old neighbor man who told me when I was probably 11 years old, 'Young man, when I came to this country in 1891,' (and we were sitting in a most god awful desolate place) 'this creek was lined with trees and the grass was belly deep on my team and I could cross the creek anywhere with my team and buggy at a trot.' We were sitting there on a bank of the creek that was 15 feet deep. There wasn't a tree in five miles. There was no grass to speak of. I had never heard it described that way. Some people thought the old man was kind of tetched, and I kind of wondered that myself because he described a scene that I had never seen or heard anyone else describe."

That story stuck with Mortenson when he was in college studying geological engineering. "I learned about mass wasting, about erosion, about hydrology and the effects of water. As I studied that, it came to my mind that this is what had happened," he says. "They're describing conditions that I could put back. Then I started thinking maybe the old man was telling me the truth. Maybe it was this way."

What seemed impossible to Mortenson was that the country could be destroyed so fast, "but we now know that it can," he says. "People homesteaded every quarter; they had to have fire wood and fence posts and they chopped down all the trees," Mortenson says. "Then they put so many cattle and horses in there that if a little tree germinated from a seed, something ate it up. The area, once filled with wooded areas and fruit- bearing shrubs and trees, had been stripped by years of settling and overgrazing.

"So then I came back in 1950 full of ideas, and I thought the key to this whole thing is the conservation of water because we are in an arid region; we get 16 1/2 inches of rainfall a year. I went in partnership with my stepfather, and I started building dams right away and planting trees." Once water collected and erosion slowed, trees and shrubs began taking hold.

With the dam construction also came grazing management techniques that Mortenson says he patterned after buffalo grazing habits. The cattle do not graze in ravine areas in spring, when the trees and shrubs are establishing themselves; they graze in those areas only in fall and winter. The cattle also graze intensively in one area and then are moved to another.

Now currants, goose berries, June berries, choke cherries, snow berries, grapes and wild plums are back. Mortenson says nature just took over.

Carter Johnson, head of the Horticulture, Forestry, Landscape and Parks Department at South Dakota State University, has been studying the remarkable comeback of woody plants on the ranch. He brings students to the ranch to witness the transformation first-hand. "They came out and they couldn't believe what they saw. And I can't believe what's happening either," Mortenson says.

"Mortenson has a real vision, a land ethic," Johnson says. "He's concerned about the future, looking to the next century."

The rebirth of woods and shrubs has resulted in less erosion and less sediment flowing down the Cheyenne River into Lake Oahe (a part of the Missouri River). Johnson says Mortenson's approach could easily be a model for other ranchers. The water control structures could be designed for use elsewhere and his grazing system could be adopted.

"We're looking at holistic management, which is the old Indian view that everything in the system has to be healthy or none of it's going to be," Mortenson says.

That's also the focus of a regional project to restore the riparian areas, or land that is adjacent to bodies of water, on the Mortenson Ranch and on neighboring ranches that border Foster Creek, which runs into the Cheyenne River and ultimately into Lake Oahe. Paul Ingle, natural resource specialist with the North Central Resource Conservation and Development agency and project coordinator, says the project's goal is to halt the flow of sediment into the Missouri River system through holistic resource management.

"Mortenson has been on the cutting edge in terms of land management," Ingle says. "With so many specialists, he's one of few looking at the whole."

Ingle says the restoration project has another benefit, that is, the comeback of native forbs, or wildflower-like plants, that cattle ranchers have long overlooked in favor of grasses for grazing. Because of the Mortensons' interest in biodiversity, Ingle and others are learning more about these plants that once were plentiful and used for food and medicine by the American Indians.

"It all comes down to the conservation ethic that separates Clarence from some other producers," Ingle says. He recounted a story that Mortenson and his sons shared with him. When wheat prices skyrocketed a number of years ago, ranchers rushed to convert the prairie to wheat fields. Mortenson's sons wanted to do that as well, envisioning the well-being that their neighbors were experiencing. But the senior Mortenson would have none of it. To him it was most important to maintain that prairie, to keep what nature had planted.

The ultimate satisfaction, Mortenson says is "to see my sons adopting that [ethic] and believing that as strongly as I do and to see that dramatic recovery of things that I would have suspected would never have occurred in my lifetime happening."

Although Mortenson no longer is involved in daily ranching operations, he continues to be active in conservation efforts, largely through speaking engagements. He and the ranch were featured in a 1993 South Dakota Public Television special, and that program tape has been requested in other states by people interested in similar restoration work.

Mortenson has been recognized nationally for his efforts as well. A Chevron-Times Mirror Magazines Conservation Award was presented to him last spring, and he was honored by the National Arbor Day Foundation. He also was one of five winners of the South Dakota Governor's Environmental Excellence Awards in 1994 for his dedication to the restoration of his ranch.

"I've been called a lot of things in the course of my life, and I guess the one I'm proudest of probably is to be called an environmentalist or an ecologist," Mortenson says.

And years from now when an old man talks about how he remembers the treeless, eroded land, a young person looking at the prairie teeming with plant and animal life and small streams will be disbelieving that the area ever looked that way at all.

The Mortenson family tree branches from Lakota to French explorers to Danish cowboys

Clarence Mortenson's other passion is the study of the region's history, largely pursued through research of his heritage.

He has traced part of his family genealogy back 300 years; one strain of his mother's family goes back nine generations to the Lacledes, founders of St. Louis. One of his great-great-grandfathers, the son of a prominent St. Louis family, committed an indiscretion that led to his banishment in 1827 to South Dakota, where he was assigned to look after the family's fur trade interests. He eventually married an Indian woman who was Mortenson's great-great grandmother.

Two of his great-great grandfathers were "mountain men," according to Mortenson, that is, men who ventured west as independent fur trappers before the large fur companies were formed. They also married Indian women.

His great-grandfather's brothers traveled with the Scottish explorer Sir William Stewart to Wyoming in the late 1830s and '40s. Their adventures were recorded by a New Orleans Picayune reporter and a well-known water color artist of the time, Alfred Jacob Miller, both of whom clearly identified Mortenson's family members. Published records like these and collected documents, especially those gathered by the Missouri Historical Society, have enabled Mortenson to reconstruct one side of his family history, as well as to document the history of the region.

On the Danish immigrant side, Mortenson's grandfather came into the port of Detroit from Denmark in 1883 to work in South Dakota's Black Hills gold mines. (Mortenson tried to delve further into his Danish heritage, but the Danish church that housed the family records was destroyed during World War II.)

In 1907 Mortenson's father, Hans, went to work for the Diamond A cattle ranch and eventually became its general manager, until the leases began expiring on the Indian Reservation land about 1934. The Diamond A was the largest ranch in South Dakota in its time and, at 1.5 million acres, covered nearly the entire south half of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Over the years there have been questions about the legality of those lease arrangements that allowed so much reservation land to be in private hands. That's one issue that South Dakota Public Television will likely address in its documentary on the ranch, due to be broadcast in 1995.

Because Mortenson's father left Clarence hundreds of photographs and other records that thoroughly document life on the Diamond A, he was asked to consult on the Public TV project. It's that memorabilia and his own research that has made Mortenson a popular speaker on the region's ranching history.

Mortenson regrets that his late mother was reluctant to talk much about her life. She was taken away from her parents as a young child and sent to an Indian boarding school, like many Indian children of the time to "make little white folks out of them," Mortenson says. Regrettably, her childhood memories were too painful for her to share, he adds. "It has cost me a thousand steps for what one conversation with her would have done."