Wild horses in North Dakota Badlands shaped by Sitting Bull, French aristocrat, wealthy Pennsylvanian
The wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park have a mixed pedigree shaped by the likes of Sitting Bull, a flamboyant French aristocrat and a wealthy Pennsylvanian who started a massive ranch in western North Dakota.
MEDORA, N.D. — Castle McLaughlin will never forget the powerful stallion that was fighting so furiously to avoid capture that he was soaked with sweat. He had run for hours under the beating sun to elude a helicopter, and his black coat shone from the effort.
Later, when the stallion had finally been caught and was held in a pen, she realized he was not black, as she thought, but was a blue roan, one of a group of horses that had been captured that day in a roundup at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“That horse just fought the entire day to escape from the helicopter, and he was just drenched with sweat and blood; he was just wet like he had been in a river or something,” McLaughlin said. In the livestock barn pen, ranchers who had helped with the roundup were tormenting the stallion with electric prods.
“They all ganged up on him because he fought so hard,” she said. McLaughlin, who worked for the National Park Service, was an accomplished rider and was originally designated to ride in the roundup.
As it turned out, she was grateful that did not happen. “It was horrible, horrible, just a disaster,” she said of that roundup in 1986. “I saw, I think, seven horses die that day.”
She bought the stallion in an auction — the horses were sold in lots and by the pound, many purchased by canneries — and soon after gave him to a pair of brothers who would become her partners in a decades-long effort to preserve the heritage of the wild horses that for more than a century have found refuge in the park’s Little Missouri Badlands.
After the roundup, she had many questions about the horses that senior officials at Theodore Roosevelt National Park could not answer. But they invited her to submit a research proposal that led to a report documenting the unique history of the wild horses that Theodore Roosevelt himself wrote about while ranching in the Badlands in the 1880s.
She would learn that the horses had a mixed pedigree shaped by American Indians and pioneering ranchers that involved such notable characters as Sitting Bull, the Marquis de Mores and a wealthy Pennsylvania Dutch adventurer who came to the Badlands in 1880 to hunt buffalo and ended up with a sprawling ranch with thousands of horses on the open range.
McLaughlin’s hope was that documenting their history would help protect the horses, considered by the National Park Service to be “livestock.” The horses are the subject of a new management plan under study with a slate of options that range from eliminating the horses entirely to making no changes.
Sadly, she said, it has not turned out that way. The horses remain outsiders, tolerated more than they’re embraced, fighting to survive against the harsh environment of the Badlands and the whims of the humans who control their fate.
At noon on July 19, 1881, a caravan of 44 men and 143 women and children plodded wearily onto the parade ground at Fort Buford in northwest North Dakota. After an exile of almost five years in Canada, an exhausted and hungry Sitting Bull was ready to surrender.
Sitting Bull and the others gave up their weapons and all but 14 of their gaunt ponies — a transfer of horses that would influence the bloodlines of the horses roaming the Badlands years later.
Three Fort Buford traders acquired the surrendered Hunkpapa ponies. A flamboyant French aristocrat and contemporary of Roosevelt’s, the Marquis de Mores, bought 250 of the horses, including all of the mares.
A former cavalry officer, the Marquis de Mores valued the endurance, sturdiness and sure-footedness of the American Indian ponies, which he used to breed saddle horses, according to McLaughlin’s research. The marquis also bought 150 “broncos” for his ill-fated stagecoach line between Medora and Deadwood.
In 1884, the marquis sold 60 of the Lakota mares to a former Pennsylvanian named A.C. Huidekoper, who ran an immense, 140,000-acre, unfenced horse ranch in southwest North Dakota.
“Some of these ponies had bullet holes through their necks, received in the Custer fight,” a reference to the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, Huidekoper wrote in his Badlands ranching memoir.
Huidekoper bred the Sioux mares with larger thoroughbred and Percheron stallions, producing what he called the “American horse,” for sale as saddle stock, race horses and polo ponies.
“I spent fifteen years in breeding up the finest range herd in this country,” he wrote.
The hybrid horses bred by the Marquis de Mores and Huidekoper, both drawing upon the horses surrendered by Sitting Bull and his followers, were early examples of the mixed-ancestry horses that were commonly used by early ranchers throughout western North Dakota, McLaughlin found.
The horses left by the marquis after he abandoned his cattle and meatpacking enterprises following the disastrous winter of 1886-87 were especially important in the ancestry of the horses that became so prevalent around the Badlands, McLaughlin believes.
“We know de Mores left horses on the open range in the Medora area before he left,” she said. “There was really no incentive to look in every nook and cranny.”
By contrast, Huidekoper’s operation, though sprawling, was more controlled, allowing fewer horses to go uncollected, she said.
Strikingly, her research shows the ancestry of the wild horses in the Badlands was diverse. The horses surrendered by Sitting Bull and his followers were just one of many sources of American Indian horses, and the Marquis de Mores and Huidekoper were merely the largest of many pioneering Badlands ranchers who had horses that were allowed to run loose or strayed, turning the rugged and remote terrain into an equine melting pot.
As recently as the 1950s, before the construction of Garrison Dam, hundreds of stray horses ran free across the western reaches of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
The tribes’ villages had been important trading centers where horses were exchanged in a vast American Indian trade network that existed well before the time of Lewis and Clark. The Native American trading system brought to the Northern Plains mustangs that descended from horses that had escaped or been stolen from the Spanish conquistadors in the Southwest.
Lincoln Lang, who ranched near Roosevelt in the Medora area, bought one of Huidekoper’s “American horses” and was a satisfied customer, although he had a few qualms.
“Of a sullen temperament, this animal was a cross between Kentucky racing stock and a mustang mare, showing every indication of speed,” he wrote, adding that mixed ancestry was common among horses on the range.
“The western range horses of the early days usually comprised an intermixture of breeds,” and the “aboriginal strain was present to a greater or lesser extent.”
A cowboy who was the son of a foreman on the HT Ranch founded by Huidekoper said the hardy American horse was capable of routinely covering long distances.
“We used to ride 30 to 50 miles a day, probably an average of 20 miles in a work day,” Harry Roberts said. “I had a horse that trotted 50 miles in five hours.”
Descendants of the de Mores-Huidekoper crosses were still in widespread use in western North Dakota in the 1950s, and McLaughlin was able to interview many ranchers from the area who had experience with the horses.
“People bragged about the Badlands horses — called them ‘broncos,’ they were so tough,” said Ed Newcomb, a rancher from around Grassy Butte.
“There were horses everywhere when I was a kid,” he said. “We trailed 200 to 300 at a time to Killdeer. … In the ‘30s, by God, who knows what they made it on, but they made it — there was no grass, no water.”
A neighboring rancher from the Grassy Butte area had fond memories of an old American Indian pony his family called Pluto.
“He was the ugliest, and also the best, horse I ever threw a leg over,” Raymand Carson told McLaughlin. “He was the fastest walking horse I ever seen, also the most nondescript. He was only about 900 pounds. ... He could run, cut cattle, do anything, he was so smart. He had an ugly head and was always thin — all he ever had was abuse. I’d give any amount of money for a horse like that.”
As machines replaced draft horses in the 1920s and 1930s, farmers abandoned large numbers of horses, and more were released during the economic depression of the 1930s.
Although ranchers appreciated the abilities of the American horse crosses, they were put off by their appearance and came to prefer the quarter horse, recognized as a unique breed around 1940, which became and remains the horse of the West, McLaughlin said.
As a result, the traditional horse crosses that helped establish ranching in western North Dakota faded away over time. It was common for cowboys in the 1930s and later to chase the wild horses, often selling those they caught for slaughter, with the lucky ones ending up as bucking horses on the rodeo circuit.
Because the descendants of the American horse were no longer in demand, horse breeders stopped breeding them, McLaughlin said. “That’s the reason they went to the can,” she said. “They weren’t the kind of horses that anybody wanted as saddle horses.”
By 1947, when Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established, the wild horses that once roved over a wide territory in western North Dakota had been greatly diminished. The last of several feral groups found refuge in the Badlands.
“By 1947,” McLaughlin wrote, “their range had become constricted to the inaccessible Badlands surrounding Medora.”
Confined to the park
Several hundred wild horses were roaming Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the early days, most of them strays from ranches in the area. For years, ranchers had grazed livestock on federal land that fell within the new park’s boundaries.
In 1954, local cowboys and ranchers decided to organize an “old-style” roundup to gather the horses, an effort that remains the largest ever at the park.
The three-day roundup, in late April and early May, received extensive local and national news coverage, including a front-page feature in The New York Times. More than 40 “famous old-time cowboys” participated, including Louis Pelliser , a Medora cowboy who broke horses for $10 a head during World War I, and Hugh Armstrong.
The operation took on a festive air, attracting several hundred spectators despite chilly weather, and featured a dance and an impromptu rodeo. About 125 horses — and several mules — were captured, the vast majority of them branded, of the estimated 200 to 300 horses thought to roam the park’s south unit.
One of the horses captured in the 1954 roundup became a famous rodeo horse. Casey Tibbs, a world champion saddle-bronc rider from Fort Pierre, South Dakota, bought Whiz Bang and took the horse to Japan for bucking demonstrations.
Although the roundup succeeded in gathering most of the stray ranch horses, some crafty wild horses eluded capture.
Crews finished building a boundary fence to enclose the park in 1956, relegating the horses to roam the south unit’s 46,158 acres, which became the enclave for North Dakota’s last remaining wild horses.
Bison, hunted to the brink of extinction in the 1880s, were reintroduced into the fenced park in 1956, and elk would follow in 1985. But the horses had roamed free there all along, at least since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.
The horses now confined to the park would face a formidable threat — for decades to come, the National Park Service’s policy called for eradication of the horses as an unwanted species.
Today, the park service designates the horses as “livestock” and is drafting a plan for managing the herd that considers options ranging from leaving them alone to totally removing them.