The spooky stories

Are they true? You decide.

Okay, I don’t know how to separate truth from fiction, superstition from the truth, or fable from fact.  But I still like to put my ear to the ground to hear what’s rumbling out there.  I may not agree, but I respect the history of stories. Where did they come from? This time of year, spooky stories abound.  This is one.

Rock Faces

So, the spooky stories of the rock faces? True? Who knows? If you visit the area — do you sense anything?

I gleaned the mystery of the rock faces from bits of scattered morsels, scraps, and samples of details.  Seasoned with large doses of my imagination and conjecture, the story of the trapper and his family is something to chew on over a campfire.  Or when you visit Wind Canyon. 

Back in the days of the trappers

As far as I can tell, the story began in the early 1800s when solo trappers and explorers passed through the Badlands and followed the Little Missouri River. The tributaries to the river yielded beaver pelts. It was a rewarding enterprise — if a trapper got the pelts to St. Louis.

One very industrious fellow (it was primarily a male-dominated occupation), spent year after year between the Yellowstone River and the Little Missouri River.

Every year, only one payday fixed in mind. All year, he added bison hides to his bounty of beaver pelts to reach that payday.  His abilities as a trapper and hunter gave him good fortune. Payday would be rich. 

He assembled his collection, then floated to his shipping point. Down the Little Missouri to the Missouri River, then upstream to the Fort Union Trading Post. It was a major trading center, much like a combination shopping mall and farmers market.

There at the trading post, he negotiated a trip to St. Louis with his pile of beaver and bison pelts.

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

The Mystery

Now, I gotta admit, I haven‘t been able to find the fellow’s name. And so that’s one hole in the story.  I’m just assuming he had a name. That element disappears when a story is told and retold. It’s part of the mystery.

All that is known is he was a loner. He kept to himself. That was the way it was with those trappers. They were the most solitary entrepreneurs to hit the continent.

He was generally a peaceable fellow with the native people who came and went through the area. Sometimes he met with the elders of a local village and traded goods with them.

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara were most hospitable but he lived in peace with them all.

Things Changed One Spring

One spring, things  He broke his successful habit of many seasons.

That’s the story here.  What happened when he gave up the solitary life? It is a hard-to-believe story.

Previously, he assembled his collection of prime furs and hides, then followed 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 had 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.  Those are the marks you can see today.


Back then, tensions grew between various tribes. The growing number of whites passing through the area made things more tense.  Even the trapper got caught up in the tension.

Since he was a white fellow, some tribes thought he represented all white people; that was an unpopular reputation. It later turned out to be a bad thing for him when he got a visit.

The Trapper Settled Down — bad decision

You see, as the story goes, after several years of isolation, the man grew lonely. He wanted to settle down.

He settled in an isolated region of the west, along the river, close to trees to build a cabin and gather firewood. Bison herds were his neighbors.

This region he found and loved, we know as the North Dakota Badlands.

He intended to end his lonely days in the area. The occasional encounter with the friendly tribal people began to lose it’s appeal.

He Met a Widow

Was it a mistake? He found out just a few years later.

Early one summer at the Fort Union Trading Post, he met the French widow of a French trapper.

Fort Union as trappers approached from downstream in the Badlands.

She was strong, hardy and she liked him too.

So, he invited her to spend the summer and autumn 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.

She found out what he already knew. Summer in the Badlands is exquisite. 


(I’m telling you, the only people who know that is true is people who have been in the Badlands in the summer.

Have you? It’s gorgeous. Green frames the red, yellow and brown of the rocky landscape.)

green summer landscape of the badlands The trapper’s home turf extended south along the Little Missouri River to near Square Butte and Bullion Butte.

It’s no wonder she fell in love with the region and agreed to stay.   

This wilderness-ready French woman told him that if she could live many lifetimes, she wanted them all to be in the region he called home.


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.

Then things got tense between the native people and the encroaching white settlers, the family grew sad to see their friendships with native people continue to erode.

Still, they were certain they would stay in the area for as long as possible, maybe many lifetimes.

The Shaman

One day, a shaman from one of the tribes met with the old trapper and his growing family. (We do not know which tribe or nation he came from. There were many: Lakota Sioux, Hunkpapa Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Crow, Cree, Pawnee, Blackfoot, Shoshone and even Cheyenne called the region their homeland.)

The shaman claimed the family was intruding and insisted the family leave their home.  This shocked the trapper, his wife and his sons. It broke their heart.

They refused.

They were willing to live in harmony with tribal people. This was their home, they intended to stay.  The shaman said he would return to see if they changed their mind.

If they didn’t change their minds, he warned there would be bad medicine.

Was she prophetic

a mystery rock face in the hillsideShe was firm. After all, she had given up her earlier life to settle here and did not want to move again.  Her husband agreed.

Weeks 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. 

“We will never leave this home.  Forever we will face the sunset in the west, feel the breezes from the south, and watch over the waters as they flow north,” the trapper said.

Disgusted, the shaman shook his head.

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

He did not know the shaman granted the desires of both sides — native and trapper.  The white family would leave. They were cursed to remain forever. 

Months later, small pox plowed through settlements in the area. The wife died. Next the son, Finally the trapper died. They didn’t even make it one year past the shaman’s visit.

Died and Buried –where?

As they wished, they spent their last days gazing westward over the river and toward the setting sun.

Were they buried? Where?

No one knows where they were buried, but they got their wish.  From then on, they looked over the river, the Badlands and watched the setting sun.

Nature left the rock faces

it's a mystery a rock face?You see, the life of the family was over. But their natural surroundings remained.

The shaman saw to it, the family got their wish.

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.

Rock Faces

Today, faces are sculpted into the rocks.

You can see them above the river, in one of the windiest spots in the region. They are the promise of the shaman; 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 rock faces.

But only certain times of the year. Certain time of the day. 

The rock faces are most visible when the sun is low, and the shadows are deep.  Hikers often approach the area unaware of what is ahead. Winter is best. When hikers round a bend in the trail, they can see evidence of the family that once lived here.

200 years?

The family will never leave their overlook above the Little Missouri River. It is the mystery of the rock faces. They have one of the most spectacular views of the North Dakota Badlands.  Neary 200 years.

rock face spooky story

When the sun is low in the southwest, rock faces come out to watch the sunset.

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

Go look. You tell me you don’t see evidence that the trapper, his wife and his son are still in the Badlands.

Feel the chill?  Hear the whistles and groans of the land? 

Only the most astute will know what I mean.

Badlands are a Land of Strange, True and Spooky Stories

Next week, another strange, true and spooky story. Sign up to get a note in your inbox as soon as it is available.  Be the first to know.

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 stories of haunting spirits.


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