Badlands National Park

Badlands national Park is located in the southwest region of South Dakota. It holds 242,756 acres of land, with 64,144 acres comprising a protected wilderness area. The park was designated as a national monument in 1929 and established in 1939, but attained national park status in 1978. The Stronghold Unit area of the park is managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Lakota tribe and holds many sights including those used for Ghost Dances in the 1890’s, a bomb and gunnery range formerly used by the United States Air Force, and the park’s highest mountain, known as Red Shirt Table, which reaches 3,340 feet in height. The park also features the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which was created for the monument in 1957, and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered animals in the world, was re-introduced into the park in to the Badlands Wilderness. The park contains eroded buttes, spires, and pinnacles as well as the largest protected grassland habitat in the United States.

The land encompassed by Badlands National Park was once used as hunting ground for Native Americans. Many tribes inhabited the area including paleo-Indians, the Arikara people, and the modern Three Affiliated Tribes. Oral and archeological records suggest that older tribes resided in isolated valleys where food and water sources were abundant. The streambeds in these areas are now producing signs of their inhabitants including charcoal from fires, tools, and arrowheads.

At the end of the 19th century, homesteaders began moving into South Dakota and the government began taking the land from the Native Americans and placing them on reservations. The homesteaders did not negatively affect the land within the national park until the 20th century. The initial average size of a homestead was about 160 acres, but this increased to 640 acres once farmers realized that the environment did not suit small farms. Cattle grazing and farming stripped the land of its natural vegetation, eventually helping to cause the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

In the early 1890’s many tribes began to follow Wovoka, an Indian prophet. Wovoka’s visions showed that the white men would vanish if his followers wore ghost shirts, which were resistant to bullets, and conduct ghost dances. One of the last known ghost dances occurred in the South Unit of Badlands National Park, specifically on the Stronghold Table. In the winter of 1890, the dancers returned to Pine Ridge Agency, the reservation where they had been placed.  During that time, a group of Minneconjou Sioux moved through a pass in the Badlands Wall, pursued by the United States Army. This group, led by Chief Big Foot, was trying to seek refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Although the group made it into the reservation, troops found them and forced them to camp in the reservation overnight. The next day, the troops attempted to disarm Chief Big Foot and his group, but a gunfight occurred which resulted in the deaths of 30 U.S. Soldiers and 300 Native Americans. This fight was known as the Wounded Knee Massacre and would be the last large fight between U.S. troops and Plains Indians until a 1973 standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Although this part of history did not occur in the park, it is thought to be an important piece related to its heritage.

The United States Army Airforce (USAAF) acquired 341,726 acres of land from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, of which 337 acres occurs in Badlands National Park. This land was used between 1942 and 1945 as a bombing and gunnery range during the Second World War, and was used afterwards as an artillery range by South Dakota National Guard. Much of the practice was conducted in what is now the Stronghold District of the park. Land in this area was bought from private owners and the Oglala Sioux tribe. The area contained many targets including old cars and plowed bulls-eyes and the land is now scattered with unexploded artillery and shells.

Land was also acquired by force when 125 farming families were relocated to other areas, including a Wounded Knee Massacre survivor named Dewey Beard. Families that moved to nearby areas experienced incidents with stray bombers, where many had to hide under tractors to avoid being hurt. Bombs were being deployed miles outside of the practice range’s boundaries, even hitting a church and a building in the town of Interior, South Dakota. There were no civilian deaths during these tests, but twelve flight crews suffered casualties.

The White River Badlands area of Badland National Park has provided a significant amount of paleontological research in modern times and to traditional Native American people. After finding fossil remains of shells, bones, and turtle shells, the Lakota tribe ascertained that the area where there resided was once under water and that the remains belonged to creatures that were no longer living. In the 1840’s, traders and trappers regularly traveled from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie along a three hundred mile path that now occurs just outside of Badlands National Park. People occasionally collected fossils from this area, including Alexander Culbertson from the American Fur Company. He found a jaw fragment in 1843 that later fell into the possession of Dr. Hiram A. Prout, a physician from St. Louis.

Prout published a paper about the jaw fragment in the American Journal of Science in 1846. In the paper, he stated that the jaw belonged to an extinct creature called a Paleotherium. This caused a multitude of people interested in paleontology to search through the area for fossils, and after two decades, many new species had been discovered. Dr. Joseph Leidy published a paper in 1849 that renamed the Paleotherium into Titanotherium prouti and described a camel species that lived during the Oligocene. In 1854, Leidy had published a series of papers regarding many fossils belonging to extinct animals and by this time 84 species have been discovered, of which 77 had originated from The White River Badlands area. In 1870, a Yale professor named O. C. Marsh explored the area and established a new and more efficient method for excavating and reconstructing fossils.

The White River Badlands area is still an active site for archeology. The South Dakota School of Mines has been sending people into the area since 1899. The area has become one of the world’s best known fossil sites and contains the most abundant deposit of Oligocene mammals known to this day. The White River badlands once held many species including an extinct rhinoceros, the aquatic rhino, a creodont known as the Hyaenodon, and alligators, among many other species.

Image Caption: View of Badlands National Park. Credit: Wereldburger758/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)