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Badlands National Park

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South Dakota Badlands

South Dakota Badlands, Kathy Weiser.

This image available for photographic prints & editorial

 downloads HERE!


"I was totally unprepared for that

 revelation called the Dakota Badlands. What I saw  gave me an

indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere."  

     --- Frank Lloyd Wright


Over 11,000 years of human history have been recorded in southwestern South Dakota's Badlands National Park. Consisting of more than 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires, blended with the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States, South Dakota's Badlands are filled with legends, Indian Wars, gold mining, and ghost towns.


For centuries the Badlands have been met with a mix of dread and fascination, beginning with nomadic tribes who migrated into the area more than 10,000 years ago. Using the area as their hunting grounds, the first known inhabitants were the paleo Indians, the mammoth hunters who were present at the end of the ice age. These were followed by the Arikara (or Ree) Indians in about 1500. The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, Crow and Sioux (or Lakota) migrated to the area around the 1700s. Following the buffalo that roamed the grasslands of the great plains, they survived the occasional harsh weather and difficult terrain by relying on the bison for their almost every need. About a century and a half ago, the Great Sioux Nation had displaced the other tribes from the northern prairie, commanding more than 80 million acres, the center of which is present-day South Dakota The Lakota Sioux called the place "mako sica," and early French trappers called it "les mauvaises terres a traverser," both meaning "bad lands." Those very same French trappers would be the first of many Europeans who would, in time, supplant the Sioux, as the they were soon followed by soldiers, miners, cattlemen, farmers and homesteaders.


At the close of the 18th century, the dominant Sioux were at the height of their power, with numerous interrelated bands, comprised of three major tribes the Yankton, Santee and Teton. Exceptional horsemen, the Sioux were also skilled hunters and superior warriors. When, in the 1700s, French-Canadian explorers began to come to the area, they were first met with friendliness as the native tribes traded with the Europeans. When Lewis and Clark made their trek in 1803, they too, met with little resistance when they passed through South Dakota.


However, as more and more pioneers began to encroach upon these lands, skirmishes began to occur between the Indians and the new white settlers. Into this midst came homesteaders, building farms and small towns, as well as some of Wild West's most rough-and-ready characters, such as Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick.




Ogalala Sioux at an oasis in the Badlands of South DakotaThe Lakota never welcomed the white man to their hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but, they seldom entered the Black Hills. Trouble escalated when bands of Lakota began to raid nearby settlements, then retreating to the Black Hills.


When the U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, this brought a flood of emigrants into the Badlands, where they could purchase 160 acres for a token payment of about $18. As the push for western expansion continued, the Sioux retaliated more and more against the many settlers encroaching upon their lands, ultimately culminating with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.


Establishing the Great Sioux Reservation, the treaty forever ceded all lands from the Missouri River west to the Bighorn Mountains of western Wyoming to the tribes. Additional provisions also called for agencies who would distribute food, clothing and money to the Sioux. The treaty prohibited settlers or miners from entering the Hills without authorization. In return, the Lakota agreed to cease hostilities against pioneers and people building the railroads. However, like most treaties made with the American Indians, it too, would soon be broken.


Badlands of South Dakota

Badlands of South Dakota by Carol Highsmith, 2009.

This image available for photographic prints & editorial downloads HERE!


By 1870 stories began to circulate in Eastern South Dakota about gold and other wealth to be had in the Black Hills. Though the citizens of Yankton, South Dakota pressed for an expedition, the Army and the Department of the Interior refused, trying to discourage any entry into the Hills. However, settlers continued to enter the Lakota reservation and renewed Indian raids on nearby settlements caused General Philip Sheridan to propose an expedition to investigate the possibility of establishing a fort in the Black Hills in 1874. Led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, it would be the first official white expedition into the Black Hills ostensibly to survey the uncharted region. Though the purpose was to find a suitable location for the fort, for unexplained reasons, a geologist and miners were included in the party. While the soldiers searched for a location for the fort, the miners occupied their time searching for gold and on June 30, 1874, the precious metal was discovered.


As the presence of gold leaked out, a flood of prospectors swarmed into the region, while federal troops futilely attempted to cordon off the Black Hills to protect tribal property boundaries. Negotiators in Washington, fearing war, encouraged the Sioux to sell the land, but repeated offers and talks failed.


Afterwards, in 1875, the federal government ordered all tribal members to return to their reservations. Though harsh winter weather delayed delivery of the message to many natives, the government designated those who did not comply with the order as "hostile." In the spring, U.S. Army troops were assembled to round up all hostiles and return them to their reservations by force, if necessary.



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