What I Learned from Virginia Bill


It was a good place to end up.  I’d wasted a full week of glorious mid-summer cooped up in federal district court, Fargo, a defendant (fortunately vindicated by a sensible North Dakota jury) in a suit brought by a disgruntled would-be professor who argued that when we, his peers, decided not to grant him tenure, it caused him to become sexually impotent, and therefore he was entitled to cash damages.  Liberated, I lit out for the West in search of Virginia Bill Hamilton, author of Dakota: An Autobiography of a Cowman, feeling just as good as he did about returning, as he put it, to “the ways and habits of the West.”  Having concluded my library research at the state historical society in Pierre; done my field work, locating the Hamilton homestead and ranch sites and all the other local landmarks he wrote about; and gotten some good advice about where best to wrap myself around a good prime rib, I ended up at the Corner Bar, Camp Crook, South Dakota.


The name, I know, is unprepossessing–the Corner Bar.  So is the building, a gable-roofed pile of stucco, indeed on the corner in the middle of Camp Crook, a town that time may not have forgotten but most everyone else has.  It is, however, a place with good prime rib, cold beer, and character.  I was instructed to arrive and leave early before the fights started, but nobody seemed at all belligerent, although there were bullet holes in the massive, century-old bar, about the provenance of which local opinion varied.  The wood floor hadn’t seen any varnish in a long time.  There were at least ten deer-heads on the walls, snake skins twined among the antlers, and a few antelope.  Conversation was B+–most of the people there had started drinking an hour or two before I arrived.  When I sat down for supper, I found myself beside a carload of folks, friends from Bowman County, North Dakota, who had driven down for supper.  Long light lingered on the sage as I drove out of Camp Crook, satisfied.


What I mean to convey with these opening scenes is that I enjoy being a historian, enjoy historical research, and particularly delight in field work.  What I mean to relate through the rest of my talk is some of what I learned in one particular piece of research–on the trail of Virginia Bill.


Learning from Virginia Bill


My involvement in this project began with a call from Nancy Tystad Koupal inviting me to do a little spade work on the author of Dakota, W.H. Hamilton, and to write an introduction that would set the reprint of the work into context.  It is a rule of mine always to do what Nancy asks.  I suspect she called me because one of the few things I know much about is the history of farming and ranching on the Great Plains; because I had been doing research on farms and ranches in nearby Bowman County (in which county, incidentally, cousins of Virginia Bill were among the first pioneer ranchers), and therefore I knew the area; and because she was pretty sure I would deliver a manuscript in time to meet publication schedules.


So here we have the handsome reprint.  That’s a worthwhile product in itself, but for me, there have been other benefits to the project.  Here are four things I learned about, or was brought to think about, because of it.


  1. The environment of Virginia Bill’s West, which comprises the two northwestern-most counties of South Dakota, Butte and Harding.  What was this land like a century and more ago?  What were its physical features, its plants and animals, and how did people interact with them?  I learned about that.


  1. The art of exploring a historical landscape, with benefit of modern technology.  Using current maps and communications and global positioning systems set me thinking about all sorts of new possibilities.


  1. The transition in the range cattle industry in the 1880s and 1890s.  Was the blue winter of 1887 really the breaking point for the big outfits?  I suspected not, and now I know not.


  1. The romance of the range.  I’m not one to get sentimental about cowboy life, but there is such a thing as the romance of the landscape, and I think I understand how Virginia Bill felt about it.


Virginia Bill’s Western Environment


The western environment as experienced by Virginia Bill was significantly different than it is today.  Besides that, the western environment as perceived by Virginia Bill, the way it registered and was ordered in his mind, was substantially different than today.


Some things, of course, remain pretty much the same.  For instance, the soils of the West River, and specifically those in the area between Belle Fourche and Bowman, are largely gumbo of the Linler-Lismas and Pierre-Kyle associations.  Brigadier General George Crook, while campaigning against the Indians, said that these soils were horse-killers.  Virginia Bill and his neighbors learned that it was simply impossible to travel or work after a rain.  Pioneer historian Doane Robinson said that wet gumbo “is very adhesive and roads and paths are practically impassable.”


It also tends to resist absorption of water.  Water pools up on the surface of the level ground between the buttes and offers opportune breeding habitat for mosquitoes.  Of these insects Hamilton remarked, “Anyone who has never been in the north in mosquito time knows nothing about them.  You simply could not breathe without something to protect your face.  I have seen them so thick on horses I could not tell their color.”


Whereas on the northern plains we still enjoy the descendants of the insects that plagued Virginia Bill, we seldom anymore encounter a bighorn sheep.  Hamilton had several encounters with them, and a neighbor even tried to domesticate one.  Before his time there were bighorns on every butte in the country, but these were highly vulnerable to early hunters.  Bighorns were eradicated from the region.  They have been re-established in the badlands, but these are a different sub-species than the original.  Other large wild herbivores persisted better, but by 1910 or so pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and whitetail deer all were practically eliminated from the plains.  Virginia Bill had hunted pronghorn for the market; had shot and eaten many a blacktail; but regarded the whitetail as a rarity.  Fortunately, under state protection, antelope and more especially deer have rebounded to plentitude on the plains since the 1950s.


It is unlikely, however, we will ever see native grouse–sharptail and sage grouse–in such plenty as did Virginia Bill when he shot them for market.  The native grouse and partridges of North America commonly thrived on the frontier–actually increased in numbers with earliest settlement, which introduced grains into the food supply–but declined with subsequent wholesale changes in land use.


We must not leave off the topic of animals without mention of wolves, the bane of the small rancher seeking to establish a cow-calf operation.  The plains wolf that the Hamiltons cursed and hunted was the subspecies Canis lupus nubilus, which was to persist in the region until the 1920s, but is now extinct.  Reading about the Hamilton’s pursuit of wolves in the 1890s, I realized that while their campaign had an economic basis, it was also recreation.  They loved hunting wolves.  They crossbred their trailing hounds with greyhounds to produce a hunting dog that could track, overtake, and kill a wolf.  I suspect that had Virginia Bill still been in Dakota when the wolves were extirpated, he would have missed them.


Interaction with animals was the stuff of everyday life, but in a larger sense, the early ranchers interacted with the landscape differently than a modern, automotive people.  The key landmarks were the bare buttes and the oversized, flat-topped, timbered buttes given the name “hills.”  Modest buttes–Mud Buttes, Two-Top, Macy Butte, and others–demarcated the route of the Old Dickinson Road out of Belle Fourche past the Cave Hills.  The Cave Hills, the Short Pine Hills, and Slim Buttes were still more important to the ranchers.  They harbored ranch headquarters.  Their tops and slopes bore timber for construction and fuel; their rugged escarpments offered shelter for beasts and for homesteads; springs flowed from their declivities.  The Hamiltons enclosed their range by using the south face of the South Cave Hills as a southern barrier without fence, fencing butte-to-butte on the south side, and joining with eastern and western neighbors to erect the partition fences.


In general, to these early ranchers, the landscape was ordered as three domains: the buttes and hills; the rivers and creeks that ran between them; and the level prairie, where the mosquitoes swarmed in summer, where the blizzards held sway in winter, and where the dogs might run down a wolf foolish enough to foot-race them.


Exploring a Historical Landscape


Whereas Virginia Bill learned the landscape from a saddle, I arrived in his country with the advantages of modern navigational aids.  For those of you who love to explore historic landscapes, let me review a few of these.


1.      County-level maps from the state highway department

2.      Quad maps from the U.S. Geological Survey

3.      The DeLorme series of state atlases

4.      GPS


I identified the location of Virginia Bill’s homestead on the Belle Fourche River by the Register of Deeds, got good directions from present residents to find the ranch headquarters in the Cave Hills, and located other sites by reckoning from references in Virginia Bill’s memoir.  At all these sites I took GPS readings.  Later, when I constructed a web site to recount my research and to publicize the book, I included the GPS readings in the pages.


This has set me thinking about the potential of GPS and the World Wide Web to stimulate a new and higher order of historical tourism on the Great Plains–a subject I’d be happy to take up in discussion, if anyone is interested.


Transition in the Range Cattle Industry


In the chronicles of the Great Plains we like to have neat points of demarcation in matters large and small.  We date the implementation of soil conservation from the Dust Bowl, we date the advent of Colorado potato beetle in the Missouri River valley from the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush.  These turning points make good stories, but they don’t always make for credible history.


One of the most-cited turning points in the history of the plains is the blue winter, the hard winter of 1886-87.  The story goes like this: Through the initiative of the great Texas outfits, and with the great influx of eastern and foreign capital during the 1870s and 1880s, the range cattle industry expanded to every corner of the Great Plains grasslands during the late 1870s and early 1880s.  It not only expanded, it also overstocked the range, so that cattle went into the winter in poor condition.  Then came the blizzards, and the chinooks that only covered the grass with an impenetrable glaze, and after that more blizzards, and after that the buzzards, and finally Charlie Russell painting the Last of Ten Thousand.  The big Texas outfits were broken by the hard winter and abandoned the range to smaller, independent ranchers determined to operate in more sober and responsible style–making hay, fencing the range, and bringing in Hereford bulls.  Progress, darn it, flowed from disaster.


A good story, but investigating the situation between Belle Fourche and Dickinson for this project, I decided it just didn’t apply.  In the first place, the big outfits were not wiped out by the hard winter.  They took heavy losses, but nowhere near the 50 percent reported by contemporary newspapers and some later historians.  More to the point, as the Hamiltons enter the story of ranching in the region in 1890, the big outfits–the E6, the Turkey Track, and others–are still on the scene.  They haven’t been wiped out.  They are, however, suffering severely from the long-term effects of a depressed cattle market.  The new, small ranchers just slip in alongside them.  And they do make hay, fence, and up-breed–which explains why Virginia Bill had to shoot that obstreperous scrub bull, Old Diamond.


This is a transitional generation of ranchers deserving of more study.  Ranching communities grouped ordered by physical features, such as Virginia Bill describes in the Cave Hills, would be good units for such study.  There’s a thesis out there.


[Here inserted a selection of slides]




In 1893 Virginia Bill Hamilton brought his West Virginia bride, Nancy Ellen Showalter Hamilton, to the ranch in the Cave Hills.  This involved a journey by wagon up the Old Dickinson Freight road, past all the familiar landmarks.  Coming north, he says, they stopped on the divide between the North Fork of the Moreau River and Clark’s Fork of the Grand.  This was a planned stop.  From this point, Virginia Bill knew, the South Cave Hills, site of the ranch homestead, would be first visible; moreover, the vista would be compelling, and thus impressive to his bride.  Following his account, studying the topographical maps, and going over the ground myself, I think I located the place where they paused that day.  Here is what I wrote about the spot.


A century later this is still a sublime vista.  Over my left shoulder, to the southwest, rise the East Short Pine Hills, pale sandstone‑faced, dark pine‑topped. Before me is a broad prairie, with the Cave Hills visible some 25 miles north. The only signs of human life on the prairie are one ranch headquarters, a few Black Angus cattle, and here and there a windmill. To the east and west, along the face of the divide, protrude many small, bare, steep clay buttes the color of ruddy chalk. Over my right shoulder comes a south wind perfumed with sage and sweet clover. Out of the clover some thirty yards away spring two pronghorn, running off across the prairie in the direction of the Cave Hills.  No wonder Virginia Bill loved the West.


Now I’ll read you an excerpt from a letter by Virginia Bill to his son Harold in 1933, after moving back east to Missouri and raising his family there:  “Had it not been to give you children a first class education, I would never have left Dakota.”


It is not explicitly stated but is nevertheless clear how the decision was made that the Hamiltons should leave South Dakota, buy a farm in Missouri, and raise their children there.  Now I know that I am treading close to gender stereotypes here, but darn it, gender matters, and I think the best scholarship in women’s history on the plains will bear me out on this.


Men who came to the farming and ranching frontier did so because it was different from back east.  Virginia Bill Hamilton exulted in “the ways and habits of the West.”  He shot the blacktail, ran the wolf, fenced the range, and drove his herds into Dickinson or Belle Fourche the master of all before him.


On the other hand women such as Nancy Ellen Hamilton, who had four children, performed mainly the same domestic duties as they did back east, only under far less advantageous conditions–conveniences sparse, neighbors distant, doctors unavailable, schools rudimentary.  The same adventuresome conditions that stirred men’s blood posed untold dangers to children, adding anxiety to hardship in women’s lives.


I am not saying that women do not feel the romance of the landscape–I know they do, today, because they tell me so.  I am saying that a century ago, it would have been a rare woman indeed who could subsume the hardship and anxiety and fully share in the sort of exultation that Virginia Bill records in his autobiography.


[Concluded with song, “Ways and Habits of the West”]


In Search of Virginia Bill