Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Badlands National Park

History: How the Badlands Were Formed
©2006 National Park Services Visitors are awed by the Wall, which divides the northern and southern grasslands.

Badlands National Park features the unique topography characterized by sharply eroded buttes, gullies and ridges that has come to be known as badlands. The Badlands are cut from deep alluvial and volcanic ash deposits that have been sculptured and carved into fantastic forms by the continuous action of wind and water falling in infrequent but torrential downpours.

It all began about 80 million years ago when the Pierre shale, the bottom layer of the Badlands geology, was laid down by a great inland sea. About 35 million years ago, rivers and streams running downhill from the Black Hills spread sand, mud, and gravel on the area. Volcanic activity, probably originating in the Rocky Mountains to the west, poured vast quantities of wind-borne ash on the plains of South Dakota.

For a few more million years, the land built up faster than it was eroded away. Then the balance changed, and wind and water went to work to create the geological wonderland we see today.

One of the park's most monumental geological formations is the Wall. In the Badlands, water is the force that sculpts the earth, but this powerful element is assisted by winds that "sandblast" the stone with airborne grit and dust. An annual cycle of freeze and thaw also contributes to the ongoing creation of the Wall, which is occurring at a phenomenal rate, geologically speaking. Photographs taken just 50 years ago show different formations than those seen today; this is the result of unusually rapid erosion. Measurements by geologists confirm that the Wall's surface is wearing away at an almost unbelievably fast pace; in some places, an inch or more is removed from the surface each year.

History of the Badlands: Inhabitants and Exploration

Early pioneers avoided the Badlands, but people have lived among these strange formations for millennia. Within Badlands National Park, more than 80 archeological sites have been discovered, indicating that the first humans arrived in the area as long as 11,000 years ago. These people were probably nomadic hunters and gatherers who may have been among the early arrivals from Asia across the Bering land bridge.

In more recent times, the Dakota Indians, more commonly known as the Sioux, were masters of the northern plains. During the last years of their wars with the United States, they used the remote Badlands as their stronghold against the U.S. Army.

In the late 1880s, the Sioux adopted a mystical religious movement that incorporated what became know as the Ghost Dance. Other Indian tribes, such as the once-feared Comanche, who were making a last stand against encroaching white settlers on the southern plains, also embraced these beliefs. The Ghost Dance ceremony, which could take days to perform, promised that the white farmers and ranchers would disappear and that the buffalo would return.

The ritual was outlawed by the U.S. government, but for many years the Sioux danced without interference in the Badlands. The last Ghost Dance took place in 1890 on Stronghold Table just a few days before more than 150 followers of Big Foot, chief of the Miniconjou Sioux, were massacred by U.S. troops at Wounded Knee, 25 miles to the south. Today, Stronghold Table is at the end of a long rutted road that winds through lonely grassland. It is a haunting place that seems to be alive with the memories of this last dance before the final defeat and capitulation.

Despite the unfavorable reputation of the Badlands in the nineteenth century, at least one early visitor was fascinated by this stark and angry landscape eroded out of the surface of the prairie. In 1848, Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet wrote: "Viewed at a distance, these lands exhibit the appearance of extensive villages and ancient castles."

History of the Badlands: Disappearing Wildlife

With the Sioux defeated and the pioneers long gone, the Badlands are a picturesque backdrop for herds of bison. The animals were reintroduced into the area in 1963 after having been nearly exterminated by white hunters in the nineteenth century. Also wandering on the endless grasslands are lovely and graceful pronghorn antelope. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were brought to Badlands in 1964, and coyotes roam throughout the park as well. Other animals that once lived here -- the grizzly bear, gray wolf, and American elk -- are gone.

Gone for an even longer time are such creatures as the titanothere, an early ancestor of the horse that was about 10 feet tall and fed on prairie grasses millions of years ago. Some of the world's richest fossil beds are located in the Badlands. The remains of hundreds of prehistoric animals have been found, including an ancestor of the camel; a sheeplike creature with three horns, called the protoceras; and the fierce saber-toothed tiger.

©2006 National Park Services The harsh terrain of the Badlands recalls the long history of a plain that was eroded by the powerful forces of wind and water.

The Badlands region is unique, rich in history and geology. Someone once said of the Badlands: "It's a good place that's gotten a bad name." Chances are, anyone who has visited Badlands National Park will agree.

©Publications International, Ltd.