I hold the bayonet our PIT crew found in the Slim Buttes in northwestern South Dakota.
I hold the bayonet our PIT crew found in the Slim Buttes in northwestern South Dakota.
Northwestern South Dakota might appear to be on the road to nowhere. That would - and would not - be true since mixed in with the miles of wide-open ranch terrain you'll find Highway 85, the "Can-Am Highway," which stretches across the U.S. into Canada.

Also, you'll find a few, scattered units of the Custer National Forest. With the consolidation of Forest Service units, this one's headquarters are clear over in Billings, Mont. Yes, it's quite a ways from anywhere. Facilities are almost non-existent with little to no usage.

Therefore, I loved the area.

Especially the Slim Buttes unit, located between Buffalo and Bison (that highway sign made for a cute photograph). In July of 2007, my summer road trip had wound its way from Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains back to Slim Buttes to take part in a Passport in Time (PIT) volunteer archaeology project.

For the third year, I would be part of a team under rock art expert Linea Sundstrom's watchful eyes. This time around we would do interviews with ranchers to get oral histories of the area. (I figured I should be able to do an interview, right?), plus doing a pedestrian survey.

Linea had given me the OK to arrive Wednesday morning. After setting up camp late Tuesday in the unknown area, the next morning dawned to a bunch of familiar faces. Linea and her husband, Doris, Larry and Lonnie... plus new people.

Battle

This location featured the Battle of Slim Buttes, which occurred Sept. 9 and 10, 1876. A monument by the road marks the area, since the battlefield itself is on private land.

A sign stated: "Following the disastrous battles of the Rosebud and Little Big Horn (Custer) in Montana in June 1876, the Sioux, save Gall and Sitting Bull with 400 lodges who went to Canada, and Crazy Horse and his band, in the main, started to drift back to the agencies on the White and Missouri Rivers burning the grass as they went.

"Crook, Terry and Miles started to hunt Indians and by Sept. 7th Crook's destitute and weary column detached Capt. Anson Mills with 150 men on the best horses to go to Deadwood for supplies. On the 8th he discovered a village on the east slope of Slim Buttes and at dawn on the 9th attacked the teepees, tightly buttoned up against the rain, by a cavalry charge, scattering the Indians.

"The Oglala Chief American Horse with his family and six warriors fled to a ravine. After a six-hour siege, where most of the white casualties occurred, with four warriors dead and the Chief fatally wounded, they surrendered.

"That afternoon Crazy Horse made a show of force, but the balance of Crook's command came up and there was no battle, but a constant harassment. A great supply of valuable dried meat was captured, the village destroyed and on the 10th, the command moved on to Deadwood, on a diet of horse meat, marking the end of the summer campaign.

"Killed: Winzel, 3rd, and Kennedy, 5th Cavalry, and Jonothan White, civilian scout. Wounded: Lt. Von Leutiwitz, 3rd Cavalry and 12 EM of the, 2nd, 3rd and 5th Cavalry."

No, I don't know what the "EM" means in the last sentence. And we can't be sure what all happened at this battle. But from my time with the PIT crew, I did learn that there are soldier's initials carved in a rock wall in one area of the Slim Buttes, that the soldiers got horses from a big horse ranch in the area, and that in trying to go through the rocky, at times narrow spine of the Slim Buttes, in one location a wagon (or cannon?) had to be let down by hand with ropes wound around trees. The rancher I interviewed, along with Forest Service archeologist Mike Bergstrom, told us you could still see those rope marks today if you knew where to look.

Travel; searching

Basically one field road runs north and south through the Buttes and another, slightly better road goes east and west. You know I'd love to get up in there and backpack, although permission would be needed if it goes through private parcels of land.

We found a location in some badlands-like terrain that had lithic scatter (flakes from arrowheads, essentially), a sign of occupation at some past point in time. Also, I spotted a couple very big bones in eroded walls of soil, but, hey, we weren't on a paleontological excavation trip.

As Wednesday ended, Mike and I drove into a rancher's yard to see if we could do an interview. The nice man welcomed us into his house and regaled us with three hours worth of history. (Which also taught me, I need to have a tape recorder along when I have no base knowledge or background on an area.) He also showed us an incredible record of times long past, but I won't share that here.

On Thursday, we went into the northern part of the Slim Buttes, locating the gravestone of a settler woman. It read, "In memory of Mrs. Otis Tye, wife of a homesteader, who perished here in a blizzard on January 12, 1888, while trying to save their team, her husband being away from their rude home."

We also looked around for evidence of a tree burial of a Native American. Again, I won't go into details.

We bushwhacked down hillsides and ravines to reach a stream bottom, where we followed an old grade. Unlike the Indians and the Cavalry, we didn't have to fear hostile attack. It was a fairly mundane expedition... until...

We headed up another draw, when there were excited shouts. Larry, a bank president from a southeastern South Dakota town, had made a discovery, as he always seems to. (I was pleased to have found a lithic flake this trip, when he was looking hard for one.)

He pointed to a bent piece of metal, very rusty, sticking out of the soil in the dried-up streambed - apparently a bayonet tip for a gun. Yes, it seemed we might be retracing the steps of the U.S. Cavalry through this very draw.

We were thrilled and awestruck, as such a discovery always seems to leave a person. Each of us in turn either photographed Larry with the find (he was looking fittingly dapper and Indian Jones-ish that day), or held it ourselves for a picture (I did both).

It was a humbling experience in a strikingly beautiful, remote area, where I also appreciated the fiercely independent ranchers who love and work the land.

Linea said we'd finished our work that day and could leave a day early. I camped there yet that night (despite the rumors of a fresh mountain lion kill in the area - and making sure I had what I felt was appropriate protection in the tent) and explored a bit more Friday, before making my first-ever trip to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I hope to return to the general Slim Buttes area this summer. It sounds like Linea just might have another project there calling my name...

Lisa Brainard is the news editor for the Republican-Leader and Chatfield News. She writes for the Phillips Bluff Country Publishing group of newspapers, which also includes the Spring Grove Herald, Bluff Country Reader, News-Record, and Spring Valley Tribune. She can be reached at THIS NEW E-MAIL ADDRESS: lbrainard@bluffcountrynews.com. She also photographs many scenic landscapes in her travels near and far, in addition to taking numerous newspaper photos.