History of Badlands National Monument
NPS Arrowhead logo

sketch of Badlands
Figure 1. LES MAUVAISES TERRES, NEBRASKA. This is the earliest published view of the White River Badlands. The sketch was made in 1849 by Dr. John Evans when he was in the field with the Owen Geological Survey. The region at that time was a part of Nebraska Territory.

Little is known of the prehistory of the region which comprises Badlands National Monument. The time of man's entry into the Badlands-Black Hills region is unknown. The oldest Indian site found in western South Dakota is in the Angostura Basin south of Hot Springs. Studies indicate it to be a little more than 7,000 years old. Evidence shows that these early people were big-game hunters who preyed upon mammoth, large bison, and other animals that lived in the lush post-glacial grass lands. [1]

Firepits containing Indian artifacts have been found in the Pinnacles area of the national monument. Radiocarbon studies leave little doubt that hunters were already using this site by 900 A.D. [2 More archeological research will probably show that man hunted and made his home in the Badlands long before that date. [3

Since about 1000 A.D. the Black Hills area has been occupied by a number of nomadic Indian tribes. Some of these subsisted primarily by hunting, while others lived on local food plants. These tribes probably belonged to the Caddoan, Athabascan, Kiowa, and Shoshonean linguistic groups.

During the 18th century, parties of Arikara from the Missouri River went on buffalo hunts as far west as the Black Hills. There they met with the Comanche, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Cheyenne at trading fairs where they acquired horses. The Arikara, in turn, traded horses with the Teton Sioux who had been slowly migrating south and westward since about 1670 from the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Around 1775 the Oglala and Brule, tribes of the Teton Sioux, moved west of the Missouri River to occupy respectively the Bad River country (around the present town of Philip, S.D.) and the region along the White River south of the Badlands. Because of their move from a timbered area to a plains region, the Sioux underwent great adjustment. As the result of acquiring guns from the whites and horses from other tribes, the Sioux became primarily a nomadic people, dependent on buffalo for sustenance. [5]

For more than a century prior to 1763, the upper Missouri Valley, including what is today Badlands National Monument, was under French control. Under terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 French possessions west of the Mississippi River were ceded to Spain. Spain returned the area, known as Louisiana, to France in 1800 in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. [6] In 1803 the entire region, which included all of the present states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, plus parts of eight other states, was purchased by the United States from France for $15,000,000.

The early French-Canadian trappers called the region, which includes the present day national monument, Le Mauvaises terres a traverser, which translated means "bad lands to travel across." Other traders applied the term "bad lands" to this locality as well as to any section of the prairie country "where roads are difficult...." The Dakota Indians called the region Mako Sica (mako, land; sica, bad). [7]

Father Pierre-Jean de Smet called the White River Mankizita-Watpa. This Indian word commonly means "white earth river," or more literally, "smoking land river." The priest attributed the name to the river water which he wrote was "impregnated with a whitish slime." [8]

Early American trappers and traders called the attention of the world to the unusual geological features and extensive fossil deposits of the Badlands along the White River. The earliest known description of the region, believed to be the White River Badlands, is that of James Clyman, a member of Jedediah Smith's 11-man party, who passed through the area in 1823. Clyman described it as

. . . a tract of county whare no vegetation of any kind existed beeing worn into knobs and gullies and extremely uneven a loose grayish coloured soil verry soluble in water running thick as it could move of a pale whitish coular and remarkably adhesive there [came] on a misty rain while we were in this pile of ashes [bad-lands west of the South Fork of the Cheyenne River] and it loded down our horses feet (feet) in great lumps it looked a little remarkable that not a foot of level land could be found the narrow revines going in all manner of directions and the cobble mound[s] of a regular taper from top to bottom all of them of the percise same angle and the tops sharp the whole of this region is moveing to the Misourie River as fast as rain and thawing of Snow can carry it . . . [9].

When Maximilian, Prince of Wied, returned to Fort Pierre in 1834 after making his historic journey up the Missouri with Charles Bodmer, William Laidlaw, the trader of the fort, gave him a description of the Badlands. The German prince wrote:

. . . I much regretted that I could not remain long enough to visit the interesting tract of the Mauvaises Terres, which is some days' journey from hence. Mr. Laidlow [sic], who had been there in the winter, gave me a description of it. It is two days' journey, he said, south-west of Fort Pierre, and forms, in the level prairie, an accumulation of hills of most remarkable forms, looking like fortresses, churches, villages and ruins, and doubtless consisting of the same sand-stone as the conformations near the Stone Walls. He further stated that the bighorn abounds in that tract. [10]

Father de Smet visited the Badlands region in 1848. He described it as

. . . the most extraordinary of any I have met in my journeys through the wilderness . . . . Viewed at a distance, these lands exhibit the appearance of extensive villages and ancient castles, but under forms so extraordinary, and so capricious a style of architecture, that we might consider them as appertaining to some new world, or ages far remote. [11]

The Jesuit noted further, "The industry of the settler will never succeed in cultivating and planting this fluctuating and sterile soil ... " However, he believed that the fossil deposits in the region would be of interest to the geologist and the naturalist. [12]

oreodont skeleton
Figure 2. OREODONT SKELETON. Oreodonts are the most common fossil mammals found in the Badlands. Several species of these now-extinct animals have been scientifically described. [13]

In the 1840's the reports of fossil remains in the White River Badlands aroused the curiosity of scientific circles in the East. In the fall of 1843(?) Alexander Culbertson, well-known fur trader of the American Fur Company, made a trip from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie. Either on this particular trip or succeeding ones, he made a collection of fossils and bones in the Badlands. [14] This collection provided the basis for the first scientific description of a Badlands fossil. The description was written by Dr. Hiram A. Prout of St. Louis, published in 1846, and printed again in 1847 with greater detail. The paper described a lower-jaw fragment of a large rhinoceros-like animal which later was given the common name titanothere by Dr. Joseph Leidy in 1852. Another fossil from this same collection, a fragment of an ancestral camel, was also described in 1847 by Dr. Leidy, who in a few years became the authority on Badlands fossils and an outstanding paleontologist. [15] In the fall of 1847 the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia became the first known institution to receive a collection of fossils from this region. [16]

In 1848 another deposit to this institution, made by Culbertson's father, Joseph, included "a new fossil genus of Mammalia, found near the 'Black Hills' . . ." [17] These deposits aroused such interest that in 1849 United States Geologist David Dale Owen sent his assistant, Dr. John Evans, to the Badlands. [18]

Dr. Evans, accompanied by a fellow geologist, "five Canadian travelers who were to be our muleteers and cooks, and finally an Indian guide and an interpreter," [19] set out westward from Fort Pierre after traveling by steamboat from St. Louis. Following five days of overland travel they reached the Badlands. One of the party was a Frenchman, E. de Girardin, a soldier of fortune employed as an artist on the expedition. His story of the trip was published in 1864 in a French travel magazine, Le Tour du Monde. After climbing a hill about a hundred meters (about 330 feet) high, he beheld "the strangest and most incomprehensible view." [20] (See Figure 4].)

At the horizon, at the end of an immense plain and tinted rose by the reflection of the setting sun a city in ruins, appears to us, an immense city surrounded by walls and bulwarks, filled by a palace crowned with gigantic domes and monuments of the most fantastic and bizarre architecture. At intervals on a soil white as snow rise embattled chateaus of brick red, pyramids with their sharp-pointed summits topped with shapeless masses which seem to rock in the wind, a pillar of a hundred meters rises in the midst of this chaos of ruins like a gigantic lighthouse. [21]

De Girardin was also impressed by the large deposits of fossil remains in the area. "The soil is formed here and there of a thick bed of petrified bones," he wrote, "sometimes in a state perfectly preserved, sometimes broken and reduced to dust." The party discovered "petrified turtles," some of which were "admirably preserved and weighing up to 150 pounds . . . " The expedition also found "a head of a rhinoceros equally petrified, and the jawbone of a dog or wolf of a special kind, furnished with all its teeth." At places the scientists located "heaps of teeth and scraps of broken jawbones; . . . bones and vertebrae of the oreodon, the mastdon [sic] and the elephant." However, after exploring for three days in the region without having discovered "the elephants, the buffaloes, and the petrified men of which they had spoken to us so much," the party began its journey back to Fort Pierre. [22]

Dr. Evans himself was not only impressed by the scenic qualities of the Badlands but by the scientific importance of the region as well. He wrote:

After leaving the locality on Sage Creek, affording the above-mentioned fossils, crossing that stream, and proceeding in the direction of White River, about twelve or fifteen miles, the formation of the Mauvaises Terres proper bursts into view, disclosing as here depicted, one of the most extraordinary and picturesque sights that can be found in the whole Missouri country.

From the high prairies, that rise in the background, by a series of terraces or benches, towards the spurs of the Rocky Mountains, the traveller looks down into an extensive valley, that may be said to constitute a world of its own, and which appears to have been formed, partly by an extensive vertical fault, partly by the long-continued influence of the scooping action of denudation.

The width of this valley may be about thirty miles, and its whole length about ninety, as it stretches away westwardly, towards the base of the gloomy and dark range of mountains known as the Black Hills. Its most depressed portion, three hundred feet below the general level of the surrounding country, is clothed with scanty grasses, and covered by a soil similar to that of the higher ground.

To the surrounding country, however, the Mauvaises Terres present the most striking contrast. From the uniform, monotonous, open prairie, the traveller suddenly descends, one or two hundred feet, into a valley that looks as if it had sunk away from the surrounding world; leaving standing, all over it, thousands of abrupt, irregular, prismatic, and columnar masses, frequently capped with irregular pyramids, and stretching up to a height of from one to two hundred feet, or more.

So thickly are these natural towers studded over the surface of this extraordinary region, that the traveller threads his way through deep, confined, labyrinthine passages, not unlike the narrow, irregular streets and lanes of some quaint old town of the European Continent. Viewed in the distance, indeed, these rocky piles, in their endless succession, assume the appearance of massive, artificial structures, decked out with all the accessories of buttress and turret, arched doorway and clustered shaft, pinnacle, and finial, and tapering spire.

One might almost imagine oneself approaching some magnificent city of the dead, where the labour and the genius of forgot ten nations had left behind them a multitude of monuments of art and skill. [23]

Dr. Evans was equally awed by the rich paleontological deposits of the Badlands region. After describing the extreme heat of the region, he continued:

At every step, objects of the highest interest present themselves. Embedded in the debris, lie strewn, in the greatest profusion, organic relics of extinct animals. All speak of a vast freshwater deposit of the early Tertiary Period, and disclose the former existence of most remarkable races, that roamed about in bygone ages high up in the Valley of the Missouri, towards the sources of its western tributaries; where now pastures the big-horned Ovis montana, the shaggy buffalo or American bison, and the elegant and slenderly-constructed antelope.

Every specimen as yet brought from the Bad Lands, proves to be of species that became exterminated before the mammoth and mastodon lived, and differ in their specific character, not alone from all living animals, but also from all fossils obtained even from cotemporaneous [sic] geological formations elsewhere. [24]

Dr. Evans drew a map (See Figure 3) of Mauvaises Terres (Bad Lands) and Dr. Joseph Leidy prepared a catalog as well as sketches of the most significant fossils the Owen Geological Survey Party found on its journey to the region. [25]


In 1850 Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian Institution arranged for Thaddeus Culbertson, a younger brother of Alexander Culbertson, to visit the Badlands under the auspices of the Institution. Born in 1823 at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, young Culbertson, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, set out with his brother, Alexander, from Chambersburg in mid-February. The brothers left St. Louis by steamboat on March 19 and arrived at Fort Pierre May 4. With his brother supplying the equipment, Thaddeus and two others set out from the fur-trading establishment three days later. On May 11 they encamped at Sage Creek in the White River Badlands. [26]

Culbertson, too, was very much impressed by the Badlands as he approached them:

The road now lay over hills which became more steep and frequent as we approached the Bad Lands. These occasionally appeared in the distance and never before did I see anything that so resembled a large city; so complete was this deception that I could point out the public buildings; one appeared to have a large dome which might be the town Hall; another would have a large angular, cone shape top, which would suggest the court house or some magnificent buildings for public purposes: then would appear a long row of palaces, great in number and superb in all their arrangements. Indeed the thought frequently occurred as we rode along that at a distance this portion of the grounds looked like a city of palaces—everything arranged upon the grandest scale and adapted for the habitation, not of pigmies such as now inhabit the earth, but of giants such as would be fit to rule over the immense animals whose remains are still found there. [27]

Culbertson was also moved by the complete desolation of the Badlands:

Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water—without an animal and scarce an insect astir—without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands. [28]

The young scientist was disappointed, however, with the fossils. Instead of finding well-preserved skeletons of different animals, he located only the imperfect remains of several turtles, a number of excellent teeth and jawbones, and several good skulls of animals. [29]>

After rejoining his brother at Fort Pierre, young Culbertson proceeded up the river to Fort Union. On his trip he collected not only fossils but skulls, skins, and skeletons of buffalo, grizzly bear, white wolf, prairie wolf, and other animals. He also collected plants along the Missouri. Surprisingly, the fossil remains Culbertson collected were declared by Baird as "an exceedingly interesting series of Mammalian and Reptilian species including many that had never been described." [30]

In poor health, young Culbertson died in late August 1850, soon after his return to Chambersburg. [31]

In 1853 two geologists, Dr. F.V. Hayden and F.B. Meek, visited the Badlands region. Both were to receive national recognition later as distinguished scientists. They spent several days at Sage Creek, noted by travellers for the purgative qualities of its water. Both men and their horses experienced a weakening effect after drinking from the stream. [32]

Brevet Brigadier-General William S. Harney's expedition, in its punitive campaign against the Brule Sioux in 1855, crossed overland through a portion of the Badlands en route from Fort Laramie (old Ft. William) to Fort Pierre (old Fort Tecumseh) on the Missouri. Accompanying the expedition were Lt. G.K. Warren, U.S. topographical engineer, and Dr. Hayden who had visited the Badlands region two years earlier. [33]

trail across prairie
Figure 4. REMAINS OF THE FORT LARAMIE-FORT PIERRE TRAIL. Here, just outside the most northern boundary of the present national monument, it is believed E. de Girardin made his poetic observations of the Badlands on the horizon, as recorded on page 14. Wagon-wheel ruts along the old trail — in the foreground — can still be traced for miles in unplowed terrain.

Warren was authorized to map the trail over which the expedition passed. This route, which crosses the western edge of Badlands National Monument, had been used since at least the early 1830's primarily by trappers and traders to transport furs and supplies between the two forts. Fort Pierre was abandoned as a military post in early 1857 soon after the route was mapped, and the trail fell into disuse as a major overland thoroughfare. [34] Remains of this historic route can still be seen.

Dr. Hayden and his party camped on Bear Creek, west of the present national monument, where Alexander Culbertson, Dr. Evans, and others had obtained their valuable collections in the 1840's. Dr. Hayden wrote, "We spent five days at this locality, and with the mammalian remains already collected in other places, our carts were loaded to their utmost." [35] Unlike his predecessors who had visited the region, Hayden was favorably impressed by the White River region. "Contrasted with most of the country on the upper Missouri, The White river valley is a paradise, and the Indians consider it one of the choice spots of earth." [36]

Hayden revisited the White River Badlands in 1857 and in the 1860's. His records may be found in government reports and in several scientific publications. [37]

Captain John B.S. Todd, a cousin of the wife of Abraham Lincoln and later governor of Dakota Territory, also accompanied the Harney Expedition of 1855 and was impressed by the scenic grandeur of the Badlands. [38] On October 12, the day the expedition broke camp at Ash Grove Spring (now known as Harney Spring) southeast of Sheep Mountain Table, he recorded in his journal:

After leaving camp, we continued to ascend the gentle slope upon which it had been pitched, for nearly a mile, and on reaching the crest, the most superbly grand and beautiful sight burst upon our view, that my eye ever rested upon. Down for a thousand feet and more, the road abruptly wound into the valley below; while far away, on all sides, spread this magnificent panorama of mountain precipice and vale — solitary, grand, chaotic, as it came from the hands of Him "who doeth all things well." What a scene for the painter, what a wonderous field for the Naturalist! [39]

Todd also described "the remains of turtle, petrified, of all sizes, shattered and perfect, some not larger than the crown of a hat, others of huge proportions . . . " [40]

Beginning in 1870 other organizations began making important collections. Among these were the United States Geological Survey, Yale University, Princeton University, American Museum of Natural History, University of Nebraska, Carnegie Museum, University of South Dakota, and the South Dakota State School of Mines and Technology. [41]

In 1874 the Badlands were visited by the distinguished paleontologist Dr. O.C. Marsh of Yale University and his party. At that time the Indians in the region were in a very ugly temper as a result of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills by the Custer Expedition. Guaranteed much of present northwestern Nebraska and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, they regarded white visitors to the western Dakota region as intruders. Accompanied by an army escort, Dr. Marsh and his party slipped into the reservation through the Red Cloud Agency (located along the banks of the White River near the present town of Crawford, Nebraska) at night without arousing the Indian sentinels and reached the fossil region. Hurriedly gathering and packing its specimens, the party returned to the agency less than 24 hours before a war party scoured the region for "the Big Bone Chief." At the agency, Chief Red Cloud informed Dr. Marsh of the manner in which the Indian Bureau was fleecing the Indians in their rations. Dr. Marsh carried this information to Washington, which resulted in a Congressional investigation of the agency. [42]

Mr. John Bell Hatcher did much of the collecting for Dr. Marsh, under the auspices of the United States Geological Survey, and is considered to be one of the most successful and original of all collectors who have worked in the Badlands. [43] He is responsible for beginning the practice of collecting and preserving complete skeletons of fossilized animals. [44]

fossil exhibit
Figure 5. MUSEUM OF GEOLOGY, SOUTH DAKOTA, SCHOOL OF MINES AND TECHNOLOGY. The finest exhibits are on display in this museum. It is open to the public without charge throughout the year.

While considerable collecting of fossils in the Badlands has been done by various organizations since 1870, it was conducted in a some what random manner at first. Since 1899 the South Dakota State School of Mines and Technology has sent students into the Badlands for brief field studies. [45] However, it was not until 1924 that a systematic means of collecting fossils in the Badlands was begun by a Princeton University professor, Glenn L. Jepsen, who was studying at the South Dakota State School of Mines and Technology. He organized the first School of Mines Badlands Expedition, which met with immediate success and laid the foundation for the present extensive paleontological collections of that school (See Figure 5). [46]

Jim Hart
Figure 6. Jim Hart of Scenic, South Dakota, displays a trophy of an Audubon Bighorn Sheep shot on Sheep Mountain in 1903 by Charley Jones. These animals were last recorded on Sheep Mountain Table about 1910 and are now extinct. [48]

For many years large herds of bison roamed the Badlands during the summer months. About 1861, the year that the Dakota Territory was established, a drought began and continued for three years. The buffalo which used the region as their summer range left during that period. After the passing of the drought years, the herds, which had been driven far to the west by hunters, returned only in small bands. For a time great herds of mountain sheep, elk, antelope, whitetail and mule deer continued to roam the area in large numbers. The elk wintered in the southern Black Hills and went down into the Badlands in early spring. In 1877 residents of the Rapid City area and market hunters from the gold camps in the northern Black Hills killed large numbers, which ended the elk migration to the Badlands. Antelope as well as whitetail and mule deer were killed by market hunters and settlers. The mountain sheep was the last of the big game animals to disappear. [47]

Predatory animals such as coyotes, wolves, and black and grizzly bears were likewise common. Bears were exterminated early. It was during the second decade of this century that coyotes and wolves disappeared from the Badlands, largely as a result of the work of the Biological Survey in its predatory-animal extermination program. [49]

gray wolf
Figure 7. GRAY WOLF. Adult animals weigh between 70 and 120 pounds and are the largest of the wild dogs. They were last seen in the present Badlands National Monument around 1913. [50]

The region which comprises western Dakota was a part of the Great Sioux Reservation recognized as such by the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. In the late nineteenth century the tide of white settlement had been steadily pushing westward. By an agreement on September 26, 1876, later formalized by U.S. Statute, the Black Hills region was opened to white settlement. An Act of Congress approved on March 2, 1889 (the same year South Dakota became a state), and proclaimed by President Harrison on February 10, 1890, restored to public domain the area between the White and Cheyenne Rivers. This included the present area of Badlands National Monument. [51]

On December 24, 1890, after escaping from military surveillance at Camp Cheyenne on the Cheyenne River, Chief Big Foot and his band of Miniconjous Sioux fled through what is now Big Foot Pass in Badlands National Monument to the White River where they camped. When the Indians reached Pine Creek on December 28, they were intercepted by the army. In attempting to disarm them the next day, the military precipitated the infamous "Wounded Knee Massacre" of December 29, 1890, when more than 150 Indians and 39 whites were killed. This was the last major clash between Indians and the United States Army. [52]

The famous western artist Frederic Remington was attached to a scouting party which went into the Badlands in search of Big Foot and his band. The first camp Remington made with the soldiers was on Christ mas night with the thermometer well below zero. In an article written for Harper's Weekly, January 21, 1891, he described his trip into the region:

It was twelve miles through the defiles of the Bad Lands to the blue ridge of the high mesa where the hostiles had lived. The trail was strewn with dead cattle, some of them having never been touched with a knife. Here and there a dead pony, ridden to a stand-still and left nerveless on the trail. No words of mine can describe these Bad Lands. They are somewhat as Dore pictured hell. One set of buttes, with cones and minarets, gives place in the next mile to natural freaks of a different variety, never dreamed of by mortal man. It is the action of water on clay; there are ashes or what looks like them. The painter's whole palette is in one bluff. [53]


History of Badlands National Monument
©1968, Badlands Natural History Association
badlands/sec1.htm — 04-Feb-2005

Copyright © 1968 by the Badlands Natural History Association and may not be reproduced in any manner without the written consent of the Badlands Natural History Association.