When TR arrived in Little Missouri in September of 1883 to hunt for buffalo, he was stunned by the wild, rough terrain, and yet curiously taken with it. There is a desolate, eerie, beauty in the badlands of North Dakota, where weather, time of day, and time of year create ever-changing color and shadow plays on the stratus of the unusual rock formations.
Roosevelt’s train stopped at the Little Missouri Station in the middle of the night in the bitter cold. He disembarked, and according to a letter he wrote to his wife, Alice Lee Roosevelt, “it was some time before, groping about among the four or five shanties which formed the ‘town,’ I found the hotel.” After awakening the innkeeper, he bunked in a long, spare room containing beds occupied by sleeping men, none of whom were too happy to see him there in the wee hours of the morning. His first night may have been a bit uncomfortable for someone used to less rudimentary accommodations, but TR was in high spirits by morning, anxious to set out on the hunt.
He met a Mr. W. R. Wright, whom he described as “a wide-awake Yankee,” who took him for a ride around the countryside where TR gathered his first impression of Dakota Territory. “…wash-outs,” deepening at times into great canyons, and steep cliffs of most curious formation abound everywhere…”
The formations are curious, especially to one who has never seen anything quite like them before. Created through eons by wind and water erosion, badlands are characterized by steep banks and abrupt gullies, with soil that ranges from loose, crumbly clumps to deep, powdery silt, to thick, slippery clay. Badlands are formed in semi-arid to arid climates with infrequent but intense rains. The result is sparse vegetation and erosion. In the badlands of Dakota Territory, there also are visible coal veins in a deep gray/blue, as well as soft, sedimentary rock layers, and the burnt-orange of scoria – coal veins that have caught fire and burned, sometimes for centuries.
French trappers called the badlands “bad lands to cross,” and, indeed, they are difficult to traverse, especially on foot. In his letter to Alice, TR marveled at “how easily our mustangs scrambled over the frightful ground which we crossed, while trying to get up to the grassy plateaus, over which we could gallop.”
As TR observed, there are wide expanses of grassy plateaus sitting placidly above the badlands, offering a sharp contrast to the rugged terrain just below. If it struck him as a queer land, he was undaunted. With his typical enthusiasm, he immediately hired a hunting guide, Joe Ferris, whom he described as a “good looking hunter,” and, after gathering provisions, set out for a three-week hunt for the declining buffalo.