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Untamed Harding County

Apr 19, 2016


Harding County, in the far northwestern corner of South Dakota, is decidedly rural. Buffalo, the county seat with a population of 330, is the largest town. Camp Crook has 100, and smaller communities like Ralph, Reva, Ludlow, Ladner and Harding might have a few ranch families. The county as a whole is home to 1,255 people, making it the second least populated county in South Dakota. Cattle and sheep outnumber people almost 10 to 1, and the most legendary stories are about a killer wolf with three toes and a rambunctious rodeo bronc that has been memorialized in bronze. Still, Harding County’s unique geography and history have drawn curious travelers and explorers for centuries.

It began even before there was a Harding County. The place was created in 1881 and named for Dr. John A. Harding, a dry goods merchant and postmaster from Deadwood who was also serving as Speaker of the House in the Dakota Territorial Legislature. Harding County merged for a few years with Butte County, its neighbor to the south, then became separate again in 1909.

On his gold exploring expedition to the Black Hills in 1874, Gen. George Custer heard stories from a Lakota guide named Goose about unique drawings etched into canyon walls. Goose brought him to the Cave Hills north of present day Buffalo, which boasts several petroglyphs dating back thousands of years.

There are drawings of bison, antelope, a warrior and spear and others even more difficult to discern because of their age and the effects of weathering. A member of the expedition is thought to have carved his initials into a rock wall that also bears the image of a large body shield and weapon. Names and initials of 20th century visitors can be found, too.

Buffalo is the Harding County seat and features a sculpture of legendary bronc Tipperary in the city park.

The Cave Hills are part of the Custer National Forest, pockets of which are spread throughout the county. The section farther to the east contains the Slim Buttes, a blend of badlands, pine forest and mesas that runs 40 miles north to south and stretches 20 miles wide. Local ranchers have named most of the peaks and buttes. There are the Seals, the Three Sisters, Doc Hodges Draw, Adam and Eve Butte and Battleship Rock. Highway 79 crosses Slim Buttes to the south and Highway 20 runs west of Reva.

One of the more spectacular features of the Slim Buttes is the Castles, one of South Dakota’s 13 National Natural Landmarks. The Castles are an L-shaped ridge of bluffs that stretch 30 miles across eastern Harding County. The twin white buttes looming south of Highway 20 contain exposed rock dating as far back as the Upper Cretaceous period (100 million to 66 million years old) through the Miocene (23 million to 5 million years old). The Castles also contain a variety of fossils, but collection is prohibited because they lie within the Custer National Forest.

Their name comes from John Finerty, an Irish newspaperman who traveled with Gen. George Crook’s Expedition of 1876. As they passed through the rugged country, Finerty compared the formation to “a series of mammoth Norman castles.” They look particularly medieval in the morning or evening light, when the white stone shines like polished granite.

The area is also historically important. A memorial and three graves just east of the Castles mark the scene of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a fight between a few hundred Indians and 2,000 cavalrymen in September 1876, just three months after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After that defeat, Captain Anson Mills was ordered to the Black Hills to resupply. His march took him through the Slim Buttes, the site of American Horse’s camp. Troops surrounded the village of 37 lodges and opened fire. American Horse was shot through the abdomen, but refused help from Army surgeons. He died within days. Locals say you can still see scars from the bullets on ancient trees along Deer Draw Pass. Headstones mark the burial site of three cavalry soldiers who died in the conflict. The graves are east of the Castles along Highway 20.

The Island is a mesa in the Cave Hills that has attracted people for centuries.

Another gravesite in the Slim Buttes is a reminder of South Dakota’s vicious winters. During the notorious Children’s Blizzard of January 1888, Otis Bye, a scout and trapper, was away from home. His wife ventured outside to save their horses. Her frozen body was found days later, watched over by the family dog. Decades later, neighbors erected a gravestone at the site. Find it by driving east of Buffalo on Highway 20 about 19 miles to North End Road. Take a left and drive a quarter of a mile until you reach an old trail. Hike down the trail to the gravesite.

With its abundance of ranches, it’s no surprise that rodeo has had a strong presence in Harding County. South Dakota’s most famous bucking bronc was was born on a ranch by Long Pines in 1905. He bolted the first time a rider attempted to get on his back, so ranchers deemed him unfit for ranch work. Later they tried him as a rodeo bronc. Ed Marty was the first to try a ride and was immediately thrown clear. “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary!” he said, thus giving the horse his name.

For 15 years, 82 cowboys tried and failed to ride Tipperary. Then came the Belle Fourche Roundup in 1920, where Yakima Canutt became the first — and only — cowboy ever to successfully stay atop Tipperary. Despite his victory, cowboys still debated the merits of the ride because rainfall made the arena muddy. Tipperary slipped to his knees and never gained strong footing.

Members of Custer's 1874 Black Hills expedition are thought to have scrawled initials into this rock wall in the Cave Hills. It also contains an ancient depiction of a shield.

Tipperary died during a blizzard in 1932, but people in Buffalo and Harding County never forgot their star athlete. In 1955 they erected a monument in Buffalo’s city park, and in 2009 the town dedicated a half-size statue done by cowboy sculptor Tony Chytka of Belle Fourche. There’s also an exhibit dedicated to Tipperary inside the Buffalo Museum.

A wild contemporary of Tipperary’s was Three Toes, a gray wolf that terrorized ranchers and sheepherders for 13 years, killing at least $50,000 worth of stock. Legendary sheepherder and writer Archie Gilfillan described the carnage. “Other wolves might kill one cow or sheep and eat off that and be satisfied. But Three Toes killed for the sheer love of killing. He would kill on a full stomach as well as when hungry. On one occasion he visited three different ranches in one night, killed many sheep and lambs at each one, but ate only the liver of one lamb.”

His reign of terror began in 1912, which was about the time he sustained the injury that gave him his name. One of his toes was pinched off in a trap, and from that day the tracks he left in the dirt and snow were as distinguishing as a human fingerprint.

It was estimated that 150 men tried at one time or another to capture him, but Three Toes always seemed to have speed, intelligence and luck on his side. By 1925, he was killing at a rate of $1,000 worth of stock a month. The Harding County Commission raised the bounty on him to $500. A federal hunter named Clyde Briggs, an experienced hunter of gray wolves, came to Harding County and set an elaborate network of traps that extended 33 miles around Three Toes’ favorite ranch targets. On July 23, Briggs descended into the Little Missouri River valley and discovered Three Toes caught in the snares of two traps. He was muzzled and loaded into Briggs’ car but died before they reached Buffalo.

Three Toes and Tipperary are long gone, but their legends, the cattle and sheep, the rugged buttes and mesas, the stone johnnies and 1,200 hearty souls remain.

Editor’s Note: This is the 22nd installment in an ongoing series featuring South Dakota’s 66 counties. Click here for previous articles.


08:04 am - Wed, April 20 2016
John, an excellent article. In 2014 i visited Harding County and surrounding area. Suggest you check out the restaurant in Camp Crook, On the Edge. Great food and conversation. My visit included a drive on Highway 20 from the Montana to the Minnesota borders.
02:28 pm - Wed, April 20 2016
Mary Foust said:
I remember my Father in Law Dale FOUST telling these stories.Have been in love with the Cave Hills, ever since I laid eyes on them. Have been to some of these places back in the day!
01:21 pm - Thu, April 21 2016
Dwight William Johnson said:
My old stomping grounds as a teenager and young man. My grandparents ranched about six miles north of Harding up against the West Short Pines.It was a great place to grow up in. I loved my time there.
08:04 am - Sun, April 24 2016
larry kurtz said:
Harding County is as untamed as a flock of sheep.
06:58 am - Sun, April 23 2017
Eslyn Dolajak said:
This is a very interesting article. I was raised on a ranch two miles North of Harding on the Jay and Alma Cooper ranch. I have heard a bout Tipperary and Three Toes much of my life. I did not know some of the facts about the Slim Buttes and the Cave Hills. However, I wonder why they did not mention Hugh Glass who was wounded and left for dead by fellow hunters, and with a broken leg, and I believe a broken arm because he was mauled by a bear. He survived by crawling over 200 miles to Fort Pierre SD. My maiden name was Eslyn Cooper and was related to Charlie Wilson who own Tipperary.
08:38 am - Sun, April 23 2017
Reed W Lamphere said:
Great article thank you Coty West for sharing this article 👍 I was born in Harding County and where my heritage comes from and I am very proud of that
01:50 pm - Wed, October 11 2017
kathy chauncey said:
The casey tibbs rodeo center will be honoring tipperary on nov 4th in Ft Pierre
would you have any slide shows or items for a table at this event
also could you post an invitation on your web site thanks
08:31 pm - Sun, October 29 2017
Mary Williams said:
I'm engaged in a research project. If anyone has family stories related to CCC work in the North Cave Hills (1934-1937), and would be willing to share them, please contact me. Thanks!
10:11 pm - Sat, December 16 2017
Barbara Cooper Stedillie said:
I too am a product of Harding County. My grandparents had a ranch south of Buffalo, Ted and Bertha Matson. My aunt and uncle owned the drugstore (my aunt was the pharmacist and local health care provider in a pinch!). I spent a lot of time in this area. I'm also cousin to Eslyn, who has a post above. I remember hearing about Tipperary my whole life, and was so proud that a relative owned this amazing horse. My dad had Tipperary's saddle, or at least it had some sort of connection. When he died, my brother Mike made a mission out of acquiring this saddle (that's a whole other story) and donated it to the Buffalo museum. I'm wondering if the museum is still open. Now that I'm retired, I want to visit the land of many happy childhood memories, even tho it will be bittersweet because I don't know anyone there anymore. Essie, contact me if you can! I'd love to reconnect with you!!
12:46 pm - Sun, September 2 2018
Wayne Rosby said:
My wife and I camping with her brother Charlie Miller who lives in this weekend and visited Mrs. Otis Tye's grave site. It says Tye, not Bye as in the article. Loved reading the article though
12:54 pm - Sun, September 2 2018
Wayne Rosby said:
Left out that Charlie lives in Buffalo and was our tour guide with many other interesting stories. Would like to find out more about Dr. Hodge whose house we visited in Doc Hodges Draw. If any one knows, send an email to me or let SD Magazine know.
11:22 am - Sat, August 17 2019
George McClellan said:
I've lived around a good part of the world but I am western born, steeped in our pioneer history but especially the exploration period that lead to the fur trade era after Lewis and Clark.

I'm especially interested in the path of the Astroian's, lead by Wilson Price Hunt, who passed thru Harding County in 1811 enroute to the Columbia River.

A sign at the Buffalo historic park say's so. It's the only evidence I've seen so far to even remotely confirm the path they took. They passed over the Slim Buttes into Carter County heading S-W until they hit the Powder River then turned south into Wyoming leaving little clues or evidence of their passing until Union Pass in the Wind River range.

I wrote for the Ekalaka, Mt. museum a description, such as I could produce, of that 1811 passage. Their return trip was well noted and many sites have been confirmed including discovery of the "South Pass" in 1812 as well as along the North Platte River into Nebraska.

My book on the subject started as a historical biography of a fellow named Robert McClellan, a soldier trader, trapper & etc. who made the trip as an Astorian, both ways, afoot. It's called Perilous Paths, the story of Robert McClellan....available on Amazon
02:02 am - Fri, March 12 2021
Part of my family was from Buffalo, SD. My Grandfather, Fred Fuller, was one of th founders of Buffalo, and was the Editor of the Buffalo Times newspaper. He and his wife Nellie had a ranch at the base of the Slim Buttes in the early 1900's. He was county Treasurer for a time and had some ownership in a store and bank. My Mother, Dorothy Fuller was raised there until my Grandfather had to sell out to a wealthy young man due to the depression and problems with continuing to run cattle. They move to Rhame and where he ran the newspaper there for one of his sisters who had gone to Chicago for awhile. We have a lot of history there. Members of our family have added photos and items to the little museum on Main Street over the last fifty years. I've always enjoyed looking through my Grandfather's old published papers in the little room where they are in racks. My Mother use to help set the hot lead type for the paper as a young girl.
10:23 am - Sun, January 9 2022
Joseph Dwyer said:
My Grandfather John Henry Farmer and G Mother Theresa had a homestead near Ladner from 1912-1922. My mother Mary -born 1917- lived there till 1922. I drove through in Sept ‘21. They were intrepid!
09:25 am - Wed, January 26 2022
Mark "Buck" Buchanan said:
I am a transplant to Harding county. Originally from Savannah GA. I have done my best to teach the locals how to use the word y'all correctly and I have learned when to say uffda. I have lived in Camp Crook for 18 years. Best place I have ever lived hands down. Some of the most colorful characters one could ever hope to meet.
08:21 am - Sun, March 27 2022
Scott B Besler said:
I've lived my whole life here in the Reva area and wouldn't trade where I live for anything. Great article and a worthwhile read but there are a few errors that should be clarified. As someone already noted it was Otis Tye's wife not Bye who died in the blizzard. The writer stated the "Castles are a L-shaped ridge that stretches 30 miles long". That would be the Slim Buttes in which the Castles are located. The Castles themselves are a handful of formations just west of Reva near the Reva Gap campground in the Slim Buttes. Lastly, George McClellan stated that Wilson Price Hunt passed "through the Slim Buttes into Carter Co. Montana area", He may have meant Long Pines or Short Pines both of which are closer to the Montana line; the Slim Buttes are on the east side of Harding Co. and over 30 miles from Montana.

My dad was a member of the local Historical Society back in the 60's and 70's and on one occasion both him and I had the pleasure of meeting one of Captain Anson Mills' grandsons who came to visit the Slim Buttes Battle location. It was very interesting to visit with a Grandson of one of participants in this battle which was the US Calvary's first recorded battle victory after Custer's defeat at the Little BIg Horn.
08:28 am - Sun, March 27 2022
Scott B Besler said:
That would be "US Cavalry" not US Calvary. My bad.
03:17 pm - Sun, March 27 2022
Scott B Besler said:
In reply to Wayne Rsoby's question about the Doc Hodge place. Doc Hodge was an herbal doctor to whom many swore loyalty for curing illness and aches during those early years in Harding County. The Hodges had a ranch there along with Doc Hodges hospital/infirmary. The ranch stayed in the family for a number of years and is now part of the Lermeny ranch. My grandmother gave Doc Hodge credit for his treatment of my mother when she was a young girl and contracted Scarlet Fever. She said his herbal treatment lowered her high fever and may have saved her life. I too am obviously happy about that or I might not be here.

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