4.2 resources to uncover the mystery — books about the Badlands
The Badlands are ripe with old west stories, myths, and legends — from lynchings to killer blizzards. So, if you’re ready to get the most out of the experience, here are books about the Badlands.
There are 1,500 square miles of Badlands and Grasslands with 10 times that in amazing stories. Towns from Bowman to Crosby, Medora to Watford City, Killdeer to Beach shine in the spotlight of romance and history — once I found out what was there.
Shopping in person
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)
Books About the Badlands, Cowboys and Roosevelt, too
These five books about the late 1800s and early 1900s are from Theodore Roosevelt’s time period. For me, they’re a bit more relatable. I guess it is more like modern western U.S. history. Three different styles and sources — with two additional companions to one of the books. That’s how I came up with three-point-two, or 3.2.
1. Top of the List — Ranch Life
This is definitely the Top of my List. 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 photogenic view of the Little Missouri River valley as it flows from Medora, north. He writes:
“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.”
It hasn’t changed much
TR — the First Badlands Blogger
I love it when I visit the Elkhorn Ranch and can see exactly what he wrote about 120 years ago. It’s actually kinda spooky in a mystical sort of way. Sometimes we take the book with us when we go to the Elkhorn Ranch Site north of Medora. There we can read the eloquence of the first Badlands Blogger, Theodore Roosevelt. He describes the hunts in the land where we are now hiking. He uses words like a paintbrush to illustrate the challenges of raising cattle in the cuts, draws, ravines and hills where we are when we visit the ranch site.
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, every one 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.
The Frederick Remington illustrations are an added value to the book.
They show the value of artists who contributed to history before cameras, and they show some of Remington’s best works.
Two Companion Books making .1 and .2
.1 Theodore Roosevelt and the Tales Told as Truth
Doug Ellison of the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora is a detailed historian of Roosevelt and ranching in the Badlands. He has amassed a fine collection of books about the Badlands. 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.
.2 Theodore The Great
A second companion book is Theodore the Great. Like Ellison’s book, Daniel Ruddy’s book clears up some of the mythical histories of Roosevelt that have been politically perverted over time. Some stories of Roosevelt are told for political reasons and do not match up with his life in the west. It’s where he learned the value of hard work, law and order, and how to get along with people. Ruddy’s book clears up those political myths that paint Roosevelt as what today we would call “a progressive.” He was not.
2. Champion Buffalo Hunter
Our fourth recommendation reveals life after the Civil War and before “modern” civilization. It gives the most accurate account of the destruction of buffalo herds and the resulting move to conserve nature and remaining buffalo herds. The colorful Vic Smith was a man of action and a man of philosphy. His story is from that same time period as Roosevelt’s days in the west. It’s written from the journal of an occasional colleague of Roosevelt’s.
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 will introduced me to the people of the region, including Roosevelt, the de Mores, 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.
“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.
The book 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.
3. The Cattlemen’s Empire
This is another fellow who could be a movie. It’s based on his journal, and it’s been carefully written to preserve his story. The story introduced me to a family that helped grow ranching in the Dakota Territory and Montana Territory. It is written in 1st Person, as though Stephen Norton Van Blaricom was telling the story. An Uncommon Journey is the story of the Van Blaricom family. Starting in southern Minnesota and ending up near Glendive, Montana, the family was one of the first white families to settle in the Montana Territory.
Robbers hide in the Badlands
It’s a story of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, early shopkeepers, and even bad guys. One of the mystical romantic history moments is told about some very rich thieves. Van Blaricom writes about the time he met up with thieves who stole $10,000 payroll headed to Fort Buford. South of Sidney, north of Glendive, he was startled by what he saw and hear, not knowing the payroll had been robbed.
I heard the sound of gunfire coming from across the Yellowstone. I stopped my horse so I could better hear. It wasn’t just a shot or two, it was a regular fusillade and it continued for a full minute or two. …From my elevated position, I could see a small cluster of seven riders making tracks toward the Yellowstone. …When they got to my side, one of the group was lagging a little behind. There was something wrong with one of his legs, I have forgotten what. Just before he got to the bank of the river, I saw two of his companions turn around and shoot him dead.
From the book, you can understand how the Badlands provided not only ranching opportunity but also hiding opportunity for outlaws. Van Blaricom writes:
This part of the country had long since earned its reputation as one geographically favorable to unlawful acts. In addition to being forty miles from the law in either direction, its long draws and steep hills provided an ideal location for the lawless to carry out their plots.
One of the best parts of this book is the author’s notes at the end of each chapter. The chapters are Van Blaricom’s narrative, and the author’s notes at the end fill in the blanks and provide a historical perspective.
A significant portion of the book An Uncommon Journey will introduce you to the concept of prairie justice, the Stranglers, especially Stuart’s Stranglers. The he Miles City Stockmen’s Association sanctioned the vigilantes to “take care of” cattle rustlers and horse thieves as far east as what is today Sentinel Butte and Medora North Dakota.
4. Granville Stuart Forty Years on the Frontier
I’ve read this one twice. This is a guy I’d love to see on the silver screen…or better, I’d love to write about his exploits. He won’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 had a huge role in the helping protect the 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 and the Marquis knew Stuart. They were part of the Miles City Stockmen’s Association, but they would have nothing to do with Stuart. Roosevelt said of Stuart that he was certain some of the men Stuart lynched were guilty. Some.
We had no idea! Though we spend countless hours, days and weeks exploring the landscape of the Badlands and the communities isolated from the rest of the world, 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. We’re amazed at the landscape and the romantic nostalgia of the North Dakota Badlands — and that amazement increased the more we found out when we read books about the Badlands. So, driving us to know more, and understand more, we have learned how this region supplied the nation with beef after the Civil War. 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 six places to find the 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 are 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 in to the Badlands you’re hiking in their territory. But its actually a very wise question. People want to be prepared, and that’s good.
Thanks, Mike. I have a couple of these titles. Great recommendations to add to my collection.
You’re welcome, Kevin. Do you have any recommendations for me?