What to do? What to do? Are you spending more time at home? Less time socializing? Ready for a good book? Something from the old west?
Great! We’ve selected these 7 good books that are entertaining and eye-opening. These will prepare you for you summer visit to the beautiful North Dakota Badlands.
Imagine shelves of old west stories, each one about western North Dakota, the Badlands, and Medora. Some are fiction, some academic, some illuminating. And that’s the way it should be. This region of the U.S. holds more outstanding stories, tales and nation-building history than most people know.
While winter delivers its final dosage of weather, and social-distancing keeps more people at home, these will open a door for you to conceive of new adventures this summer.
(We’ve provided links here to Amazon.com, but we receive no reimbursement for the link. They are there just to give you a more complete book review. You are better off buying locally.)
Cowboys and Roosevelt in the Old West
Here are five good books about the late 1800s and early 1900s — which is Theodore Roosevelt’s time period; three different styles and sources.
This is definitely the Top of the List. Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt should be required reading in North Dakota high schools and colleges. First of all, the writing style is picturesque and eloquent. It can easily be classified as “high literature.” Second, the stories are fabulous tales of the old west.
Roosevelt contracted with Frederick Remington to illustrate the book. So, the illustrations are an added value to the book.
For example, Chapter 3 presents a busy and photogenic view of the Little Missouri River valley as it flows from Medora, north. It’s a place where you can visit — Elkhorn Ranch where you can sit a spell and read what Roosevelt saw when he sat there.
“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.”
You will see, not much has changed. You might say Theodore Roosevelt was the first “Badlands Blogger.” 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.
1.b Good books by and about Theodore Roosevelt would fill an impressive library. Just look at the collection in the lobby of the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora. A couple of our favorites include one by local author Doug Ellison of the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora. He 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.
2.b 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. His time in the Badlands is when 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.
Before we get too far away from Theodore Roosevelt, we need to tell you about a book that would be good for stories to read to children. Every other page is a full-size historic photograph that will appeal to children. (When you visit the region, try to line up the historic photographs and drawings with today’s scenes.)
Rolf Sletten’s story-telling abilities put muscle on the skeleton. He puts personality on the academics and straightens the shuffled deck of fact and fiction. His books Medora, and Roosevelt’s Ranches tell the story as you’ve never heard it.
Sletten is a long time fixture in Medora. He is an attorney by training, a romantic by heart. His gentle, and highly intelligent approach to life and history coupled with his attorney-mindset of research make his books unlike others.
The Town of Little Missouri
If you are familiar with the history of the old west, the Dakota Territory, and Medora, then you have heard about Little Missouri. It was the founding town on the opposite bank from Medora of the river by the same name, the Little Missouri River. Sletten unveils much of the history, the charm and the lawlessness of that town, focusing on Roosevelt’s arrival in a very auspicious way.
As Sletten tells the story, Roosevelt was willing to step out of a rich kid’s lifestyle in to the muddy, cold and wild life of an unsettled territory. He then used his riches to bring the region a step closer to lawful, prosperous America.
Year by year
The chapter “1883, Westward Ho!” draws a dramatic scene full of color and personality – you can almost smell the sweat, booze and grunge of the “bull pen” where Roosevelt spent his first night in Little Missouri., Dakota Territory.
“He arrived in Little Missouri at about 2:00 A.M. on the 8th of September 1883. It was bitterly cold and as black as the inside of a cow. Carrying his rifle, a double barreled no. 10 shotgun and a big duffel bag containing his clothing, his ammunition, and all his other gear, he blundered around in the darkness until at last he discovered a building that represented itself as a refuge for the weary traveler. TR had found the Pyramid Park Hotel. He hammered on the door until at last it was opened by Captain Moore . Cursing and complaining,he finally agreed to let Roosevelt enter.”
The story follows this eastern green horn 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 flatland south of Medora.
Then, it reaches out to the labors of building the home ranch, the Elkhorn ranch. The tales of life and death at the Elkhorn are astounding.
Do not buy this book from Amazon!
I don’t know why it is so high priced on Amazon. You could buy 3 or 4 copies at the Western Edge for the price Amazon is asking.
Best bet: borrow it from your library.
Our fourth recommendation is about life after the Civil War and before “modern” civilization. This is the old west as it really was, not as Hollywood presents it.
When you read the book, you will be inclined to dismiss it as fiction and fantasy. It is not. Notice the large amount of references used to substantiate the stories here. You’ll think to yourself, “Why isn’t this a movie?” There are no Hollywood westerns that can match the tales in this book.
Champion Buffalo Hunter is one of the most accurate accounts of the destruction of buffalo herds and the resulting move to conserve nature and remaining buffalo herds. Yellowstone Vic Smith was a very smart, intelligent man. His diverse experiences and his personal “network” of contacts made him a perfect companion for all kinds of people.
He 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, Chief Joseph. George Grinnell and Liver-eating Johnson.
Well-researched Old West
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.
“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.
Our fifth recommendation introduces you to an old west family that helped grow the ranching industry in the Dakota and Montana Territory. The story is written in 1st Person, as though Stephen Norton Van Blaricom were telling his 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. First, his family started in southern Minnesota. Then they ended up near Glendive, Montana. So, the family was one of the first white families to settle in the Montana Territory.
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 heard, 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 became the perfect hiding cover for outlaws in the old west. 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.
Vigilantes called The Stranglers
A significant portion of the book introduces 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. They took their job seriously and so did ranchers in the region. Roosevelt reportedly said of the Stuart Stranglers, “I am certain that some of the men they hanged were guilty.”
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.
Jedediah Smith — No Ordinary Mountain Man
Step back 50-100 years. Before Roosevelt, Medora, Vic Smith and Granville Stuart extreme survival skills were needed. The explorers were diplomats, businessmen, survivalists and travelers and they opened the way through the west.
My favorite book of the early days of trappers and voyageurs is Jedediah Smith – No Ordinary Mountain Man.
A rifle, a Bible and a grizzly bear
It provides a broad perspective of what was happening west of the Mississippi River. While it does not center on the Badlands, it paints a vivid verbal picture of the entire western United States before it became a territory.
Smith’s family came to the colonies in 1634 as Puritans. His family heritage continued as he was said to be a trapper who carried both a rifle and a Bible.
“Jedediah Smith possessed a high degree of intelligence and abundant curiosity. His deep-rooted religious convictions found expression in Methodism, though as an adult, he almost never attended a Methodist Church or another for that matter.”
Use the comment box below to tell us of regional books that you recommend.
Of course these books are available at most public libraries. If they are not on the shelf, they can be ordered, or if they are checked out, when they are returned you can be called.
Local independent bookstores are offering curbside pickup, and mail ordering. It would sure be a help to them if you were to order one of these from them. It’s a win-win. Your knowledge of the Badlands increases, and you help a local business stay solvent. Call the store. They can tell you if they have the book, and then arrange payment, pickup, and even “curbside payment.”
These are four of our favorite book stores in this part of the state. How about you? In the comment box below, tell us another book store that can help in this time of shut down.
- Ferguson Books (Bismarck)
- Books on Broadway (Williston)
- Western Edge Bookstore (Medora)
- Huntington Books (Mandan)
When sanity and safety return, these local museums and historical sites also have a huge selection of books.
- Fort Union Trading Post (southwest of Williston)
- Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center (southwest of Williston)
- Long X Visitor Center (Watford City)
- Chateau de Mores Interpretive Center (Medora)
- North Dakota Heritage Center (Bismarck)
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Ready to get outside?
You won’t be in much of a social gathering if you head out to the Badlands this week. You’re safe. So, If you are ready to get out and explore, try these spring time recommendations.
These visual teasers at this link will tempt you to get out and enjoy in person. Browse, buy a keep sake, or just enjoy viewing the galleries.