6 exciting books about the Badlands: myths, and legends, lynchings, murders and killer blizzards that shaped the people of the North Dakota Badlands.
6 “must-read” exciting books about the Badlands
What if you could stand on a Badlands hill and see the old stories? Tales of the bad men who hung out here, cattle drives that ended here, easterners who punched cows here.
These six books about the Badlands are about the late 1800s and early 1900s. They’re about Theodore Roosevelt’s time period, the late 1800s to about 1920. Three different styles and sources.
1. Top of the List — Ranch Life
This is definitely at the top of the list of exciting books about the Badlands is Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt. It should be required reading in North Dakota high schools and colleges.
Chapter 3 presents a busy and photographic view of the Little Missouri River valley as it flows from Medora to the north. You can literally sit in the place where Theodore Roosevelt wrote things such as this:
“Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods. …A few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the river…Above us, where the river comes round the bend, the valley is very narrow and the high buttes bounding it rise, sheer and barren into scalped hill peaks and naked knife-blade ridges.”
And that is how it looks today.
TR — the First Badlands Blogger
I love a visit the Elkhorn Ranch and can see exactly what he wrote about 130 years ago. It’s actually kinda spooky in a mystical sort of way.
Sometimes we take the book with us to the Elkhorn Ranch Site north of Medora.
The first Badlands Blogger was an eloquent writer.
Hunts and Hurts
Roosevelt describes the hunts in the land where you can hike. He uses words like a paintbrush to illustrate the challenges of raising cattle in the cuts, draws, ravines, and hills still there.
And he isn’t afraid to admit it hurt.
“My hurts were far from serious, and did not interfere with my riding and working as usual through the round-up, but I was heartily glad when it ended, and ever since have religiously done my best to get none but gentle horses in my own string.
However, everyone gets falls from or with his horse now and then in the cow country; and even my men, good riders though they are, are sometimes injured. One of them once broke his ankle; another a rib; another was on one occasion stunned, remaining unconscious for some hours, and yet another had certain of his horses buck under him so hard and long as finally to hurt his lungs and make him cough blood.
Fatal accidents occur annually in almost every district, especially if there is much work to be done.”
Rolf Sletten’s Two Books
Shoot out and ranch wars — the kind of stuff western movies’ are made of. And Rolf Sletten’s story-telling abilities tell the tales.
He put muscle on the skeleton.
He puts personality on the academics and order to the shuffled deck of fact and fiction.
His books Medora, and Roosevelt’s Ranches tell the story as you’ve never heard.
It was not peaceful when Theodore Roosevelt moved into the North Dakota Badlands. That’s why Roosevelt’s Ranches is a novel of sorts, full of plots, subplots, protagonists, and antagonists.
Sletten does not amplify the grittiness of the Dakota Territory, nor the romance of the old west. He doesn’t need to. The story of the two ranches cannot be told without grit and romance – and Sletten does it well.
2. Roosevelt’s Ranches, The Maltese Cross, and Elkhorn
Year by year, Sletten tells the stories of what it took to shape the region, build a cattle business, and prepare a man just out of his teens for what was to come.
With photos and stories of the men, women, children, and wildlife of the region, Sletten takes readers to 1901 when Roosevelt’s lessons from the Ranches powers his successful candidacy to become President of the United States.
That’s a huge transition year. It was formally and physically the end of the Elkhorn Ranch and the Maltese Cross Ranch.
3. Medora Boom Bust and Restoration
The chapter from “1883, Westward Ho!” draws a dramatic scene full of color and personality – you can almost smell the sweat, booze, and grunge of the “bullpen” where Roosevelt spent his first night in Little Missouri, Dakota Territory.
The story follows this eastern greenhorn as he is persuaded to start ranching. First came the Maltese Cross Ranch, undoubtedly Roosevelt’s “cattle ranch.” He invested thousands of dollars in the herd, its ranch hands, and the buildings on a narrow strip of flatland south of Medora.
4. The Truth Told
Lest you think these are made up, historian Doug Ellison of the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora has amassed collected books about the Badlands. Then he goes a step further. Doug’s book, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Tales Told As Truth of his Time in the West” goes the extra mile unveiling and unraveling myths and stories about Roosevelt’s time in the West.
5. Champion Buffalo Hunter
Our next book about the Badlands reveals life after the Civil War and before “modern” civilization. It gives the most accurate account of the destruction of buffalo herds and the move to conserve the remaining buffalo herds. The colorful Vic Smith was a man of action and a man of philosophy. His story is from the same time period as Roosevelt’s days in the west. It’s written from the journal of an occasional colleague of Roosevelt’s.
He writes about Medora
Yellowstone Vic Smith hunted with Roosevelt, the Marquis de Mores, and the Countess Medora — (the same Medora for whom the town is named, Medora Vallombrosa the wife the French Aristocrat, Marquis de Mores). The book Champion Buffalo Hunter introduces you to the people of the region, including Roosevelt, the de Mores, and Chief Joseph, George Grinnell and Liver-eating Johnson. (And frankly, the tragic but heroic story of George Grinnell is one I want to dig into more.)
Smith’s original journal was penned a century ago and pieced together as authentically as possible — so it is not what you might call “politically correct.” It is, however, authentic. Doug Ellison, an overflowing historian, recommended this book to me, and I’m glad he did. No Hollywood westerns can match the tales in this book.
His time with Roosevelt
“While talking with Vic, Roosevelt happened to look up and observe about thirty buffalo on a bench about a mile away. He proposed they should go see what should be done with them. …In those days, Roosevelt was as strong in his belief that game should be protected as he was afterward. Before they reached the herd, he informed Vic that he would kill but one. …When within about two hundred yards of the buffalo, Roosevelt, whose nerves were strung up to the highest pitch, let out a yell.
Slapping his horse, which was an exceptionally good one, he took great pleasure in riding alongside the game and quirting them or occasionally slapping them with his sombrero. …When the game commenced to tire … Teddy picked out a bull. He shot at the bull’s neck, intending to break the vertebrae and cause no needless pain to the animal. The bullet went through the animal’s neck, only knocking it down. …Roosevelt dismounted, drawing his sheath knife he drove in into the chest of the huge animal. …The driving of the knife brought the bull his feet and in an instant. …With a roar and a dash, away went the buffalo as Roosevelt sprang aside and gave his majesty the right of way.”
The rest of the story is on page 154 of the book, right before Vic’s story of Sitting Bull.
This exciting book about the Badlands is an eye-opener. It’s as close to his journal as the author could follow, piecing together the stories written and told. That makes it a collection of historical essays much like Roosevelt’s Ranch Life book. It is full of life and insight to the last days of the buffalo in what is now Wyoming, Montana, South, and North Dakota.
6. Ranching and Lynching — Granville Stuart Forty Years on the Frontier
Vigilantes Lynching by “Stuarts Stranglers.”
This is a guy I’d love to see on the silver screen. He wouldn’t tell you about it, but I’ve found stories of his efficiency with a noose — and he didn’t let the law get in his way.
In fact, some of the crooks he strung up were lawmen. Local sheriffs who were criminals.
The book Forty Years on the Frontier doesn’t take much imagination to develop the story into a gritty tale of the west.
When I got further into the Stuart Stranglers, I found out Granville Stuart was both a good guy and a tough ego-centric vigilante. (A companion piece The Bloody Bozeman provides a bit more truth to the story that Granville told of himself.)
Stuart helped “protect” little towns that sprung up with the gold mines of southwestern Montana.
That was when he was called on to string up cattle rustlers and horse thieves.
Roosevelt wanted nothing to do with him even though both men were part of the Miles City Stockmen’s Association. Roosevelt reportedly said he was certain some of the men Stuart lynched were guilty. Some.
7. How did all these cowboys get to the Badlands?
One of the rare selections of books was written by the man in the saddle on the cattle drives.
Ike Blasingame’s story, Dakota Cowboy, takes you inside cattle drives. It was big business for a cowboy who didn’t mind weeks on the trail. His book Dakota Cowboy is one of the exciting books about the Badlands. It reaches out to more than just the story of the trail, but also some of the cultural and political issues impacting the ranch life and American Indians on their reservations.
He writes of the kind of thing you might see in a movie — a horse no man could ride.
Widowmaker was one that “pawed, kicked, bit, and bucked for pure obstinate pleasure and intent to do harm.”
By the end of the book, the era of cattle drives was drawing to a close as farmers moved in and turned the grazing ground into farm fields.
Books about the Badlands at stores like these
My favorite places to find books about the Badlands and to open the pages of history are at interpretive centers. Here are a few where I’ve made great buys:
- Fort Union Trading Post (southwest of Williston)
- Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center (southwest of Williston)
- Books on Broadway (Williston)
- Long X Visitor Center (Watford City)
- The Chateau de Mores Interpretive Center (Medora)
- Western Edge Bookstore (Medora)
The deeper mysteries of the Badlands have become our fuel. Now when we explore the region, we call to mind the fantastic stories of the area we’ve read in books about the Badlands.
So, driving us to know more, and understand more, we learned how this region supplied the nation with scrawny longhorn cattle as beef after the Civil War. It’s why longhorns are in the National Park.
We have discovered why elegant rail cars sit abandoned. It’s amazing to learn why two lift bridges sit idle over major rivers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where can I find books about the Badlands?
Listed above are six places to find books about the Badlands. Of course, your local library may have many of these books — and more. Any state historical site usually includes books that are also available at the North Dakota Heritage Center.
What are the Badlands? What are the Grasslands?
The eastern edge of Montana and western edge of North Dakota mark a large area of ranch country with miles of grazing — except in the heart of the ranch country — the Badlands. They are geologic and topographic terms for different types of land. Click here: John Bluemle is the best source for technical differences.
Are the Badlands open?
Yes. It’s easy to confuse the North Dakota Badlands with the South Dakota National Park. Sometimes, people equate the North Dakota Badlands with the tourist town of Medora. “Yeah I’ve seen the Badlands, I went to Medora.” The good news is this: the North Dakota Badlands is open even when it’s not tourist season.
Are there bugs and snakes in the Badlands?
Yes. I was surprised to find out people shy away from the Badlands because they don’t like bugs. It’s called “nature.” Bugs and snakes are part of nature. That’s not a bad thing. A balanced environment allows nature to take care of itself. When you hike out into the Badlands you’re hiking in their territory. But its actually a very wise question. People want to be prepared, and that’s good.