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History and Prehistory

Early French-Canadian trappers, probably in search of beavers, are credited with being the first white men to view the badlands. They aptly described the region as "Les mauvaises terres à traverser" because it was, indeed, "bad lands to travel across." The Indians, too, had a name for it—"Mako Sica" (mako, meaning land; sica, bad).

A great thickness of rocks is now exposed in the wall of the badlands SOUTH DAKOTA STATE HIGHWAY COMMISSION PHOTOGRAPH

Although it was never heavily utilized as a habitation area by prehistoric Indians, Badlands National Monument contains ancient remains which indicate that Indians roamed over this country, from time to time, for several thousand years. A lance-shaped point, of a type used during the Archaic Period (about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 500), was found northeast of Dillon Pass a number of years ago.

On the west rim of Sage Creek Basin there is an abundant supply of good water. Since this was presumably the only source of water within many miles, it attracted groups of hunting or traveling Indians. Stone chips and camp refuse at this site indicate that Indians camped here periodically while they refreshed themselves and made arrow-points, knives, scrapers, and articles necessary to the hunt.

Later Indians, probably late prehistoric Mandan and Arickara, brought pottery into the area on their seasonal bison hunts. Probably a few small groups lived in sheltered valleys and along the White River in the badlands.

The "White River Badlands." Note the new cycle of badlands forming at the base of the badlands wall

A little over a century ago (in 1846 and again in 1847), there appeared the first published accounts of a fossil animal from the badlands. Dr. Hiram A. Prout, of St. Louis, was the writer. In 1849, Dr. John Evans, under the direction of Dr. David Dale Owen, geologist of the General Land Office, explored and made fossil collections in the badlands. Owen's report, containing fossil descriptions by Dr. Joseph Leidy, may be considered the beginning of the science of vertebrate paleontology in the United States. Other expeditions soon followed, and many universities, museums, and scientific bodies came to the area to gather a share of its scientific treasures. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City is perhaps the institution most actively engaged today in research in the area. Recent field explorations and studies have resulted in numerous important discoveries, and the reports on them have enriched the scientific literature of the region.

The badlands were off the principal early travel routes and played only a minor role in western history. Only a few events of general interest are known. Two of these are worthy of mention.

Jedediah Smith, famous western explorer, is believed to have followed the White River Valley through this region en route to the Black Hills from the Missouri River in 1823. In 1890 the Sioux Indian Chief, Big Foot, was moving his followers to what is now the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was pursued by soldiers of the United States Army. The latter expected to corral the Indians on the northerly edge of the badlands, since the military were convinced that there was no way in which the Indians could traverse the rugged country. Chief Big Foot, however, had other ideas. He moved his entire band through a pass and thus escaped the soldiers for a short time, to meet them later in the famous Battle of Wounded Knee. Big Foot Pass is named for this enterprising warrior. There are two known campsites of Big Foot and his band within the monument.

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Last Modified: Sat, Nov 4 2006 10:00:00 pm PST

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