True? Who knows?

The mystery of the rock faces is gleaned from bits of scattered morsels, scraps and samples of details.  Seasoned with imagination and conjecture, it becomes a tasty story to chew on over a campfire.

Back in the days of the trappers

As far as I can tell, the story began in the early 1800’s when solo trappers and explorers passed through the Badlands and followed the Little Missouri River. The tributaries to the river often yielded beaver pelts. The very industrious fellow (it was primarily a male-dominated occupation) could add a few bison hides to his bounty.  He’d assemble his collection, float down the Little Missouri, and make his way to Fort Union Trading Post on the Missouri River.

bison golden hour

Even in late fall, bison would graze along the floor of the Little Missouri River.

I haven‘t been able to find the fellow’s name.  That’s one of the elements that disappears with telling and retelling a story. It’s part of the mystery.

All that is known is he kept to himself. It was also said of him that he was generally a peaceable fellow with the native people who came and went through the area. So, sometimes he would meet with elders of a local village and would trade goods with them.

Every spring, he would assemble his collection of prime furs and hides, and follow the Little Missouri River, north. If the water was low, he and his mules would make the trek over several days, passing the camps of many indigenous villages. Most were friendly because he has shown himself to be a friend.

Tensions grow

That’s why he was not prepared for the encounter that would leave his mark in the bluffs and hills above the Little Missouri River.  Tensions had grown between various tribes, and also with the growing number of whites passing through the area.  Since he was a white fellow, he represented to some tribes all white people, and that was an unpopular representation. Later that turned out to be a bad thing for him.

You see, after several years of isolation, the man grew lonely.  He wanted to settle down and he found a region in the Badlands that appealed to him.  Until then, he had been a welcome soul in the area, but the occasional encounters with the friendly tribal people was not satisfying.

One early summer at the Fort Union Trading Post, he met the widow of a French trapper. She was strong, hardy and she liked him too. So, he invited her to spend the summer and fall with him at the place he’d picked out in the Badlands.  If she didn’t like it, he’d see that she had safe passage back to Fort Union.

Summer in the Badlands is exquisite.  Green frames the red, yellow and brown of the rocky landscape.  She fell in love with the region and agreed to stay.    She told him that if she could live many lifetimes, she would want them all to be in the region he called home.


By about 1835, they started a family.  Since they knew no other land to call home, they made the best of life in the rocks, grasslands and fickle water ways of the territory that we now call North Dakota. They lived at peace with the land and the tribes that floated through the region.

When things got tense between the native peoples and the encroaching white settlers, the family was sad to see their friendships decline.  Still, they were certain they would stay in the area for as long as possible.

One day, a shaman from one of the tribes met with the old trapper and his growing family. (The story does not describe which tribe for there were many: Lakota Sioux, Hunkpapa Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Crow, Cree, Pawnee, Blackfoot, Shoshone and even Cheyenne had called the region their homeland.)

The shaman claimed the family was intruding and insisted the family leave their home.  This came as a great shock to the trapper, his wife and his sons. They refused.  This was their home and had been for many years.  The shaman said he would return to see if they changed their mind.

Was she prophetic?

a mystery rock face in the hillside

She was firm. She had given up her earlier life to settle here and did not want to move again.  Her husband agreed.

Days later, the shaman returned repeating his demand.  The trapper repeated his refusal.  Then came the bold claim that forever altered the landscape of his home turf.  The trapper said, “We will never leave this home.  Forever we will face the sun set in the west, feel the breezes from the south, and watch over the waters as they flow north.”

Disgusted, the shaman rose to leave, but as he did, he raised his arms and held his staff above his head and chanted words the trapper could not understand. He hoped the native people were going to respect his desire to stay forever.

What he did not know was that the shaman had granted both their desires.  The white family would leave, but also remain forever. 

Within months that year, first the wife died, then the son, and finally the trapper himself died. They spent their last days gazing westward over the river and toward the setting sun.

No one knows where they were buried, but they got their wish.  They would forever look over the river, the Badlands and watch the setting sun.

Nature left the likenesses

it's a mystery. Is this the boy who has become a rock face?

You see, over the next several years, wind and water etched the soft rocks above the Little Missouri River. Slowly it became apparent how the family got their wish to always be there to watch the setting sun.

Today, faces are sculpted into the rocks. You can see them above the river, in one of the windiest spots on the region. They are the promise of the shaman that the family would always be there to watch the sun set over the Badlands.

Visitors at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park who follow a popular trail see the faces. They are most visible when the sun is low, and the shadows are deep.  Hikes often approach the area unaware of what is ahead.  When they round a bend in the trail, they can see evidence of the family that once lived here.

The family will never leave their overlook above the Little Missouri River. It is the mystery of the rock faces.

If the story isn’t true, it should be.

Up and down the North Dakota Badlands are similar hauntings and mysteries. Farther north, near Mondak several stories surround a lynching that happened there.

A region just east of the Badlands includes mysteries and spooky spirits.

Not everything is so mysterious. We shine the light on many parts of the North Dakota Badlands for you to explore. They are included in our Things to Do calendar.

Our Facebook page is a clearinghouse of Western North Dakota information.

And as always, we’re happy to speak to your group on any one of our topics we share with others.  Be a rock star to your group, book a speaking engagement today!ad speaker bureau





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