Highway 12 angles across the southwest corner of North Dakota. It follows roughly the route of what was once the Yellowstone Highway, one of those named highways that crystallized during the 1910s and 1920s to promote cross-country travel. The Yellowstone Highway ran alongside the Milwaukee railroad, which built through this country in 1907, linking towns like beads on a string. Some of them, like Hettinger, Bowman, and Scranton, remain vital today. Others, like Gascoyne and Reeder, are shadows of their former selves. Still others, like Buffalo Springs or Griffin, are just gone.
This southwest corner of the state is a historic landscape we have been rediscovering by following an auto tour paid out in 1938 by the WPA, the federal Works Progress Administration. It is Tour #9 as published by the WPA Federal Writers Project in its guide to the Flickertail State.
If you’re following Tour #9 of the WPA guide, it says this as you begin your way northwest from the South Dakota border.
At 1 m. the route passes through a gravel area adjacent to HIDDEN WOOD CREEK, also called Flat Creek. Along its course, approximately a mile apart and covered with brush, are two cutbanks known as BRUSHY BANKS, near which the Custer Black Hills expedition camped on the way from Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1874.
On Hidden Wood Creek in this vicinity in 1882 was situated the main camp of the Indians from the Standing Rock Reservation who took part in the last big buffalo hunt of the Sioux tribe, said to be the last large hunt in the United States, held under the direction of Maj. James McLaughlin, then Indian agent at Fort Yates.
This was, indeed, the campsite of Custer’s Black Hills Expedition on August 8, 1874. With him were Dakota guides who led the column directly to this place, because they were familiar with it. The July 8 campsite on “Hiddenwood Creek” is clearly indicated on Custer’s map appended to his expeditionary report. The WPA writers, I am pretty sure, misheard what to call the bluffs on the south side of Hiddenwood Creek. Local settlers called this site the Bushybank, not the Brushy Banks.
There is a lot to say about this historic site, but I’m going to focus on some physical features and why they are the way they are. I do this on the basis of some specific historical evidence, including photos of the site taken by Custer’s photographer, Willing H. Illingworth; a broader knowledge of the environmental history of the northern plains; and some seat-of-the-pants reasoning.
The bluffs rising above the winding course of Hiddenwood Creek are covered with timber-not impressive forest, but good stands of chokecherry, ash, boxelder, and so on-as they were when Custer came. The creek always holds water here, even in droughty summers. Looking down from the heights, I see why-beaver dams. Beaver, of course, need the timber of the Bushybank as building material.
Now, why did this isolate stand of forest persist in a landscape that Custer otherwise labeled as sterile and barren? Why was it never consumed by fire? Hiddenwood Creek is too narrow to stop a prairie fire.
This is no accident. I my opinion, what we have here is a forested enclave preserved through the centuries by native resident hunters who backfired the creek bottom in order to protect the Bushybank. Doing so, they could be assured of wood for campsites during autumn hunts. Moreover, the timber would keep the beaver at work on site, ensuring that traditional campsites for fall hunting also would have water.
And that is why Custer’s Dakota guides knew just where to lead the expedition into camp on August 8, 1874.