3.2 resources to uncover the mystery of the Badlands
Once you get out in the Badlands, you’ll look around and say, Wow. What is this place? It is ripe with old west stories, myths, and legends — from lynchings to killer blizzards. So, prepare yourself with a deep dive into the stories that are hidden in these hills — the mysteries of the North Dakota Badlands.
There’s no bragging here, but then that’s the cowboy way to not brag. So, here’s how you find the REAL story — these books with exciting stories prepare you for your trip.
Before you head into the North Dakota Badlands, discover eye-opening real stories. After all, 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 significance when you know more.
Browse in person
Our favorite places to find books to open the pages of history are at interpretive centers. Here are a few where we’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)
Five Books of Cowboys and Roosevelt, too
Here are five books about the late 1800s and early 1900s — which is Theodore Roosevelt’s time period. Three different styles and sources — with two additional companions to one of the books. Hence three-point-two, or 3.2. Here are our first recommendations.
1. Top of the List — Ranch Life
This is definitely the Top of the 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.
You can see exactly what he wrote about 120 years ago. 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
Doug Ellison of the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora is a detailed historian of Roosevelt and ranching in the Badlands. His book, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Tales Told As Truth of his Time in the West” goes the extra mile to unveil and unravel myths and stories about Roosevelt’s time in the West.
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.
It’s from that same time period as Roosevelt’s days in the west, taken 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 introduce you to the people of the region, including Roosevelt, the de Mores, Chief Joseph. George Grinnell and Liver-eating Johnson. The 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 and I’m glad he did. There are no Hollywood westerns that 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
Our fifth recommendation will introduce you to a family that helped grow ranching in the Dakota Territory and Montana Territory. The story is written in 1st Person, as though Stephen Norton Van Blaricom were telling the story. It’s actually based on his journal, and care has been given to preserve his voice throughout 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.
Robbing The Fort Buford Army Payroll
It’s a story of buffalo hunters, railroad workers, early shopkeepers, and even bad guys. Van Blaricom writes about the time he met up with the thieves who stole $10,000 payroll that was 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.
A significant portion of the book An Uncommon Journey will introduce you to the concept of prairie justice, the Stranglers. They were sanctioned by the Miles City Stockmen’s Association to “take care of” cattle rustlers and horse thieves as far east as what is today Sentinel Butte and Medora North Dakota.
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.
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. These three books are focused on Medora, the Little Missouri River, and western area. There are more and we’ll introduce those to you in another story.
It’s the books
We’re amazed at the landscape and the romantic nostalgia of the North Dakota Badlands — and that amazement increased the more we found out. 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. We love to meet with local groups to give them an appetizer of what they might find in the Badlands of North Dakota. That’s why we write these articles and share them with you.
Now it’s your turn. What books do you recommend? Share your recommendation with the audience.
We’ve got more installments ready to share with you of books you’ll want to read yet this winter. Here’s how to know when they are posted: You can get a notice in your inbox when a new story is posted. Just subscribe in the upper right.
Got books you want to add to our recommendation? Please tell us!
Stay excited about the North Dakota Badlands!