On 10 November 1978, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was given national park status when President Carter signed Public Law 95-625 that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This same law placed 29,920 acres of the park under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Total Acreage: 70,446.89
Total Federal: 69,702.12
Total Nonfederal: 744.77
Total Wilderness: 29,920
South Unit / Wilderness: 46,158.57 / 10,510
North Unit / Wilderness: 24,070.32 / 19,410
Elkhorn Ranch: 218.00
Visitation is highest in June, July and August. Visitation is increasing during the shoulder seasons of May and September. Lowest visitation is November to February.
When Theodore Roosevelt stepped off the train in the Dakota Territory for the first time, he was in search of adventure. The date was 08 Sep 1883, and the town that slept at 2:00 am was Little Missouri, a shoddy collection of buildings on the west bank of the river. The 24-year-old Roosevelt was bursting with anticipation about shooting a bison. A feat the took him 10 days to accomplish. Before returning to New York, just two weeks after he arrived, he entered into a partnership to raise cattle on the Maltese Cross Ranch. The next year he returned to the badlands and started a second open-range ranch, the Elkhorn. Theodore Roosevelt returned again over the next few years to live the life of a cowboy, explore, invigorate his body and to have the Little Missouri Badlands renew his spirit. Theodore Roosevelt wrote: "I would not have been President, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota."
Today, the colorful North Dakota badlands provides the scenic backdrop to the park which memorializes the 26th president for his enduring contributions to the conservation of our nation's resources. The area was first established as a Memorial Park in 1947. It gained National Park status in 1978. The Little Missouri River has shaped this 70,448-acre park which is home to a variety of plants and animals.
Within a short time after the death of Theodore Roosevelt on 06 Jan 1919, there were proposals to establish a memorial in his honor for his enduring contributions to the safekeeping and protection of our nation's resources.
In 1934 a cooperative agreement to start a Roosevelt Regional Park Project was signed by the Resettlement Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Park Service and the State of North Dakota. The federal government wanted the project to become a state park.
The CCC operations began immediately and were administered by National Park Service. The North and South Roosevelt Regional Parks each had their own camps. By 1935, these sites were designated the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area (RDA). Development by workers from the CCC, as well as Works Projects Administration (WPA) and Emergency Relief Administration (ERA), included construction of roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and buildings. All projects ended in 1941. When North Dakota's state government announced that it did not want the land as a state park, approval was obtained in 1942 to retain the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area for the purpose of study for possible inclusion into the National Park System. North Dakota Representative William Lemke championed the fight to establish a national park but legislation to establish a park was vetoed because some felt the area did not possess those qualities that merit national park ranking. In November 1946, the RDA was officially transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. Undaunted, Congressman Lemke pressed on and finally after negotiations and compromise, President Truman, on the 25th of April 1947, signed the bill (PL-38) that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. This included lands that roughly make up the South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch site today. The North Unit was added to the memorial park on June 12, 1948. Additional boundary revisions were made in later years.
As a memorial park, it was the only one of its kind in the National Park System. Eventually, in addition to a connection with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On 10 Nov 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed Public Law 95-625 that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This same law placed 29,920 acres of the park under the National Wilderness Preservation System.
About 60 million years ago, streams carried eroded materials eastward from the young Rocky Mountains and deposited them on a vast lowland, today's Great Plains. During the warm, rainy periods that followed, dense vegetation grew, fell into swamp areas, and was later buried by new layers of sediments. Eventually this plant material turned into lignite coal. Some plant life became petrified; today considerable amounts of petrified wood are exposed in the badlands. Bentonite, the blue-gray layer of clay , may be traced to ash from ancient volcanoes far to the west. But even as sediments were being deposited, streams were starting to cut down through the soft strata and to sculpt the infinite variety of buttes, tablelands, and valleys that made up the badlands we know today.
Though at first glance this landscape appears inhospitable and barren, it is home to a great variety of creatures and plants. Rainfall, scanty though it is, nourishes the grasses that cover the lands. And when the wildflowers bloom in bright profusion, they add their vibrant colors to the reds, browns, and greens of the earth and grasses. At home here, too, are over 180 species of birds, many of them songbirds. Both mule deer and white-tail deer inhabit the park. The whitetails prefer the river woodlands, and the mule deer like the more broken country and the uplands. Prairie dogs, historically a staple food source for many predators, live in "towns" in the grass lands. Through careful management some animals that nearly become extinct are once again living here. Bison and elk, for example, were reintroduced in 1956 and 1985 respectively.
The varied and colorful, badland formations of western North Dakota are the result of geologic processes at work for millions of years. Whether you are a casual observer driving or hiking through the badlands, or an amateur or professional geologist, all can appreciate the fascinating geologic story of this rugged land.
The badlands have had an eventful past, one that began about 65 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch in early Tertiary time. At that time, the western half of our continent was in the midst of an orogenic or "mountain-building" cycle. This process of uplifting culminated in the formation of today's Rocky Mountain range. Yet even as the land rose, the agents of weathering and erosion were rapidly tearing them down. Eroded materials were carried off the eastern slopes by ancient rivers and deposited on a broad alluvial plain. These sediments now can be seen as the rocks exposed in park hillsides. They are part of the geologic series of formations known as the Fort Union Group.
The present-day badlands contain bands of lignite coal and petrified trees plus fossils of freshwater clams, snails, crocodile, alligator, turtle and champsosaur that indicate a wetter climate and changing past environments. The eastern edge of the alluvial plain fanned out into a broad sea-level delta. This swampy region contained dense forests of conifers (cone-bearing trees such as sequoia) that, upon dying, fell into shallow waters and were quickly buried by flood deposits or volcanic ash falls that acted to slow the decay process. Over time, pressure from overlying sediments compacted the woody material and chemical changes transformed it into a woody-textured soft coal called lignite (from the Latin ligneus, or wood).
Sometimes buried trees experienced a different fate. Ground water, laden with calcium or filtered through silica-rich volcanic ash deposits, soaked into the trees. Organic compounds in the wood were dissolved and replaced by these minerals. Through this process-petrification much of the woody structure of the trees was preserved; except that they are now composed mainly of mineral instead of organic elements. These fossilized trees closely resemble the originals. In many instances their structures are so well preserved that it has even been possible to identify individual species of trees! Petrified trees can be found throughout the badlands, many easily accessible by car or foot. Please remember only to look and touch but not remove any pieces of petrified wood from the park. Depleting this resource lessens the experience for those who follow.
During this same period, extensive volcanic activity occurred in the West. (There is no evidence of volcanism in North Dakota.) Large quantities of volcanic ash were blown or carried by rivers into the region and accumulated in standing water. With time, the ash decomposed to the bentonite clay that forms the distinctive gray or blue-gray layers in the badlands.
During the epochs that followed, the land continued to undergo change. First, deposition continued throughout much of Oligocene and Miocene time. Then, slow, episodic erosion cycles began to wear away the land, gradually reducing much of the western Dakotas and eastern Montana to a rolling plain. During the Pliocene, eroding rivers meandered through broad, shallow valleys across the nearly level landscape, changing their courses innumerable times. When the Pliocene epoch finally came to a close about two million years ago, one of these rivers existed in about the position of the modern Little Missouri River. It flowed northward to merge first with the ancestral Yellowstone River near Williston, North Dakota and then the Missouri River, continuing northeastward through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Hudson Bay.
During the glacial period, which began about two million years ago, great continental ice sheets began advancing southward from present-day Canada. Their movement blocked the flow of the north-flowing rivers, altering their courses to the east and south so that they now emptied into the Mississippi River drainage basin. When the ice retreated, both the Little Missouri and Missouri remained in their new riverbeds. The Little Missouri River's new course followed a steeper route, and it now began to cut deeply into the land. Slicing easily through the "soft" sedimentary rocks, the river and its tributaries carved the fantastically broken topography that is today's badlands. The present landscape was basically formed during the last 600,000 years.
Running water continues to change the badlands. Yearly precipitation in the badlands averages 15 inches. Rain, though infrequent, usually comes in hard downpours which are very erosive. Water running downslope causes gullying; some of it soaks into clay-rich rocks and soil, making them swell, weaken, and eventually sag or flow downhill. If you hike through the badlands after such.a downpour, you will find that the soil is very loose and crumbly. The river and its tributary streams, swollen by rainwater, cut more actively into cliff sides, scour their own channels, and carry away sand and silt brought in by smaller tributaries.
Lignite coal continues to help shape the badlands. Lightning or spontaneous combustion can ignite coal beds which then may burn for many years. When a coal bed burns underground, it bakes the overlying sediments into a hard, natural red brick known as clinker--locally called "scoria." The red color is due to the mineral hematite, an iron oxide formed by the burning or oxidation of tiny amounts of iron that occur naturally in the rocks. The burning lends both color to the badlands and helps to shape them. The rocks that have been heated are hardened to various degrees: clays and silts are fired as hard as brick, and sands melted and fused into glass. As you might expect, the fire-hardened rocks are more resistant to erosion than the unbaked rocks nearby. Over time, erosion has worn down the less resistant rocks, leaving behind a jumble of conspicuous knobs, ridges and buttes topped with durable red clinker caps.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the heart of this unique and ever-changing land that boasts not only a rich geologic history but also a varied plant and animal community and exciting human history as well.
Can you imagine, crocodile-like creatures slinking through the ancient swamps and ponds of what are the badlands formations today? A concept hard to comprehend when one looks at this wild and broken land, but would have been a common scene way back when. This is just one of the discoveries of a three-year cooperative paleontological survey being conducted in Theodore Roosevelt National Park by the North Dakota Geological Survey.
The fossilized remains of a four-foot reptile known as Champsosaurus laramiensis were excavated from a hillside in the South Unit in October 1995 by Dr. John Hoganson, State Paleontologist, and his assistant, Jonathan Campbell. The ancient crocodile, like-reptile once inhabited the fresh waters in what is now western North Dakota about 55 million years ago. This was a time when the climate was subtropical, similar to that of present day Florida.
The long, narrow snout and large powerful back legs would have enabled the Champsosaurus to feed on fish, snails, mollusks and turtles. It is believed that this aggressive predator, that attained lengths up to about 10 feet, spent much of its time submerged in water waiting for prey and could lunge front the bottom with its powerful legs. A turtle shell with bite marks also found during this survey provides a vignette of life from this era.
In the first two years of the paleontological inventory, more than two hundred fossil sites were identified and mapped from the rock layers known as the Sentinel Butte and Bullion Creek formations. The sites include two other partial Champsosaur skeletons plus numerous freshwater mollusk remains, parts of crocodile and alligator, as well as plant fossils. Plans are being made for the Medora Visitor Center to display the restored Champsosaur skeleton along with other representative species that were found during this study.
The paleontological investigation is enhancing our view of the park's geologic story. By identifying what creatures and plants existed here, one can get an impression of what life was like millions of years ago. With a clearer picture of the past, we gain a better perspective on this continuously changing environment.
As you drive or hike through western North Dakota, the gently rolling hills open up dramatically into the varied and colorful layers of the badlands. Curiosity might lead you to take a closer look at the rocks making up the layers. This closer look takes you back millions of years to an ancient world of swamps and forests.
The story of the badlands begins over 65 million years ago during the Paleocene Epoch. The dinosaurs had just become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The western half of North America was buckling and folding to create the Rocky Mountains. Large amounts of sediments were forming as water, wind, and freezing worked to break down the mountains. These sediments, mostly sand, silt, and mud, were carried off the eastern slopes by ancient rivers and deposited here in layers. Volcanoes in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and across the west were also erupting during this time, spitting out huge amounts of ash. Some of this volcanic ash was blown or carried by rivers into North Dakota and accumulated in standing water. Over time, the sediments turned into the sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone layers now exposed in the park, while the ash layers became bentonite clay.
During the epochs that followed, the land continued to change. Deposition from the mountains in the west continued throughout much of the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene epochs. Then as the Pliocene Epoch began, erosion dominated and the layers began to be stripped away. Rivers meandered through broad, shallow valleys across the western Dakotas and eastern Montana plains. Although the rivers changed their courses many times, when the Pliocene Epoch came to a close about two million years ago, one of these rivers existed in almost the same position as the modern Little Missouri River. This river flowed northward to merge first with the ancestral Yellowstone River near Williston, North Dakota, and then merged with the Missouri River, continuing northeastward through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Hudson Bay.
During the Pleistocene Epoch, the time period of numerous Ice Ages, which began about two million years ago, great continental ice sheets advanced southward from present-day Canada and reached as far as the upper North Unit boundary in the park. The ice blocked the flow of the north-flowing rivers, forcing them to create new courses eastward and southward, causing them to empty into the Mississippi River instead of Hudson Bay. By the time the ice retreated, the northern portions of both the Little Missouri and Missouri rivers were entrenched in their new channels. The Little Missouri�s new course in the north followed a steeper course, causing the whole river to flow faster and begin cutting deeply into the land. Slicing easily through the soft sedimentary rocks, the river and its� tributaries carved the fantastically broken topography that is today�s badlands.
You might wonder how scientists can tell how old the rocks are and what the environment was like when they formed. The sediments in the rocks give some clues, but the best clues are fossils. The North Dakota badlands contain a wealth of fossil information including bands of lignite coal and petrified trees plus fossils of freshwater clams, snails, crocodiles, alligators, turtles, and champsosaurs. Each fossil is like a piece in a giant puzzle that scientists have used to reconstruct the ancient history of the park. These clues indicate that the park was once on the eastern edge of a flat, swampy area covered with rivers that fanned out into a broad, sea-level delta. This swampy region contained dense forests of sequoia, bald cypress, magnolia, and other water-loving trees growing in or near the shallow waters.
Leaves and branches would fall into the still waters of the swamps and build up until they formed a dense layer of vegetation called peat. Over time, pressure from overlying sediments compacted the peat and caused chemical changes to transform it into a soft, woody-textured coal called lignite (from the Latin ligneous, meaning wood).
Some forests were buried by flood deposits or volcanic ash falls. When a plant or animal is buried quickly, it is protected from decaying and has a better chance of becoming a fossil. Groundwater moving through the silica-rich volcanic ash and other sediments can dissolve the silica, or quartz. When this silica-rich water soaked into the trees, organic compounds in the wood were dissolved and replaced by very small crystals of quartz. In some cases, the quartz crystals are so small that much of the internal structure of the trees is preserved, including the growth rings. This process of quartz replacing wood is called petrifaction.
Geologic processes continue to shape the badlands. Yearly precipitation in the badlands averages 15 inches. Rain, though infrequent at times, usually comes in heavy, erosive downpours. Water running down slope forms gullies, while some soaks into clay-rich rocks and soils. The added weight of water sometimes causes portions of hill sides to break loose and flow downhill.
Lightning strikes and prairie fires can ignite coal beds, which then may burn for many years. When a coal bed burns, it bakes the overlying sediments into a hard, natural brick that geologists call porcelanite but is locally called clinker or scoria. The red color of the rock comes from the oxidation of iron released from the coal as it burns. The burning lends both color to the badlands and helps to shape them. These hardened rocks are more resistant to erosion than the unbaked rocks nearby. Over time, erosion has worn down the less resistant rocks, leaving behind a jumble of knobs, ridges, and buttes topped with durable red scoria caps.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves a wealth of geologic information that can be enjoyed by visitors and studied by scientists. Much of that information tells us about events that occurred long ago, while some small-scale processes can be seen occurring over days, weeks, months, or even years. Just a short visit here can give visitors insight into the past, instill wonder, and inspire questions and a desire to learn more.
You are welcome to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park and make your own discoveries about the rocks and fossils found here. Please remember, however, that each rock and fossil may be a clue to the geologic history of the park, and must be left where they are found for other visitors to view and for scientists to study. Collecting of any park resource is not allowed.
Maltese Cross Cabin
At the dawn of the 20th century in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt became this nation's 26th President and ultimately one of its greatest conservationists. It was here in the North Dakota Badlands in 1883 that he first arrive to hun bison. Before he left, he had acquired primary interests in the Maltese Cross or Chimney Butte Ranch. Roosevelt thrived on the vigorous outdoor lifestyle, and at the Maltese Cross, actively participated in the life of a working cowboy.
The Maltese Cross Ranch cabin was originally located about seven miles south of Medora in the wooded bottom-lands of the Little Missouri River. At Roosevelt's request ranch managers Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield built a one and one-half story cabin complete with a shingle roof and cellar. Constructed of durable ponderosa pine logs that had been cut and floated down the Little Missouri River, the cabin was considered somewhat of a "mansion" in its day with wooden floors and three separate rooms (kitchen, living room and Roosevelt's bedroom). The steeply pitched roof, an oddity on the northern plains, created an upstairs sleeping loft for the ranch hands.
A number of items in the cabin today belonged to Theodore Roosevelt. Those that did not are from the same time period and would be typical furnishings of the day.
A prolific writer, Roosevelt spend many lamp-lit hours laboring at the desk in the living room recording his memoirs and reminiscences of badlands life. The hutch in the living room doubled as a library and fold-out writing table to indulge two of Roosevelt's prime passions, reading and writing. The traditional rocking chair in the living room, in all probability Roosevelt's, was his favorite piece of furniture. A wicker-lined canvas clothing trunk belonging to Teddy Roosevelt sits in the bedroom.
Roosevelt actively ranched in the badlands until 1887 but maintained ranching interest in the area until 1898. He later developed a conservation program as president that deeply reflected his experiences here in the West where he had become keenly aware of the need to conserve and protect our natural resources.
During Roosevelt's presidency, the Maltese Cross cabin was exhibited in Portland, Oregon and St. Louis. It was then moved to the state capitol grounds in Bismarck. In 1959 the cabin was relocated to its present site and renovated.
His second ranch, the Elkhorn, is located about 60 miles north of Medora.
Theodore Roosevelt came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt buffalo. By the end of his hunting trip he had entered the cattle business with the purchase of the Chimney Butte Ranch, also known as the Maltese Cross Ranch.
Five months later his wife, Alice, and his mother died on the same day. Grief stricken, Roosevelt decided to leave the East and increase his interests in the cattle business. In March of 1884 he wrote to Bill Sewall, his hunting guide on an earlier hunting trip in Maine: "I hope my Western venture turns out well. If it does, and I feel sure that you will do well for yourself by coming out with me, I shall take you and Dow (another Maine woodsman who had served as Roosevelt's guide) out next August. Of course it depends on how well the cattle have gotten through the winter. The weather has been very hard and I am afraid they have suffered somewhat; If the loss has been very heavy I will have to wait a year longer before going into it on a more extended scale. So, as yet, the plan is doubtful."
After attending the 1884 Republican convention in June, where the candidate he was backing lost, Roosevelt left for the Dakota Territories. His cattle had wintered very well and he decided to put in 1,000 more head and "make it my regular business." During that visit, Roosevelt selected the site for his second ranch, naming it the Elkhorn. He purchased the rights to the site, located thirty-five miles north of Medora, from the previous occupant for $400.00
By mid October Sewall and Dow had moved onto the site of the Elkhorn Ranch and were cutting and collecting cottonwood logs for the ranch house. Working through the winter, they completed the building by the spring of 1885. The house was 30 feet by 60 feet, with seven foot high walls, and contained eight rooms and a piazza (porch) along the east wall. Several other buildings were constructed on the site: a barn consisting of two 16 x 20 stables with a 12 foot roofed space connecting them; a cattle shed; chicken house; and a blacksmith shop.
In August 1885 Dow visited his home in Maine and returned to the Elkhorn with his wife and Mrs. Sewall, as well as the Sewall's small daughter. In 1886 both women gave birth to sons at the ranch.
Sewall and Dow operated the ranch for Roosevelt until the fall of 1886 when they returned to Maine, after "squaring accounts" with Roosevelt. Roosevelt then turned the operation of the Elkhorn over to Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield, his managers at the Maltese Cross Ranch.
After the disastrous winter of 1886-87, Roosevelt lost approximately 60% of his cattle. He maintained both his ranches, but, until at least 1890 the Elkhorn was his center of operations. After a late summer visit to the Elkhorn in 1890, Roosevelt apparently abandoned the ranch. On October 20 he wrote Sewall, " ... This is the last year I shall keep the ranch house open; I have just parted with Merrifield. Sylvane will take care of the cattle now."
Roosevelt's last known visit to the Elkhorn was in 1892. He sold the ranch and buildings to Sylvane Ferris in 1898. Gradually the buildings were stripped of their furnishings and, according to a local stockman, by 1901 "every scrap of the Elkhorn Ranch had disappeared with the exception of a couple of half rotted foundations."
In his writings Theodore Roosevelt often referred to the Elkhorn as his "home ranch". His vivid descriptions of it, and of ranch life, enable his readers to imagine how things must have been.
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