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Plains Folk

Into the Cave Hills


The Cave Hills are a pair of broad buttes standing sandstone-capped and pine-bedecked in Harding County, far northwestern South Dakota. Bull Creek divides the South Cave Hills from the North Cave Hills. Jones Creek traces the south face of the South Cave Hills. There, in 1890, after trailing a herd north from Belle Fourche, W. H. “Virginia Bill” Hamilton established a ranch. And there, in 1998, I came to locate the old ranch headquarters in preparation for a reprint of Hamilton’s book, Dakota: Autobiography of a Cowman. I left off this story in my last essay, following a pair of pronghorn toward the hills.

The Cave Hills hold a mystic attraction for local citizens. Some of this is mythic, inspired by the petroglyphs throughout the hills and feeding on stories of George A. Custer’s visit to Ludlow Cave in 1874. To ranchers, though, the hills also offered the concrete benefits of timber for fencing, shelter from the winter wind, and fresh spring water. The Cave Hills today are included in the Custer National Forest.


The country from Deadwood to Dickinson was colonized by Texas cattlemen in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Generally we date the demise of the big outfits--the Hash Knife, the E6, the Turkey Track--from the legendary hard winter of 1886-87. That was a bad one, but it did not wipe out the big outfits and their herds the way we like to tell it. What happened was it began a period of decline when these over-capitalized operations, mainly because of bad markets, were unable to thrive, and they gave way to smaller, family-type operations.


Like Virginia Bill Hamilton and brother Jone. They picked a headquarters site in a gulch with the rimrock of the Cave Hills to the north and Jones Creek to the south. They fenced a couple of gaps in the rimrock to secure the north boundary; joined with neighbors to fence their east and west boundaries; and ran fences from one butte to another to enclose the ranch on the south. Theirs was not an open-range operation, but a fenced ranch. Every late summer they worked hard to put up hay. Now and then they traveled back east to buy Hereford bulls. When scrub bulls broke in and threatened their program of up-breeding, they ran them off or shot them. It was a new day on the range.


I turned up Cave Hills Road into the vicinity where I knew the Hamilton ranch site must lie, and enjoyed the drive in. I tell you, that little white Cave Hills Lutheran Church, built by Finnish Lutherans on the west shoulder of rugged Juhala Hill, has to be a finalist for most picturesque country church on the plains.


All right, there’s Jones Creek, and that gap in the Cave Hills must be McKenzie Gulch, named for Hamilton’s neighbor to the east. But how am I supposed to find the very gulch where the Hamiltons located? I’ve got no legals and no coordinates to go by. Fortunately, in my experience, the farther you go off the beaten path, the more hospitable and helpful people are. I found Mary Roberts at her ranch home, and she gave directions to the old McKenzie ranch site. As for the Hamilton place, she said ask Betty and Mike Butler, in the next place west.


Betty, it turns out over iced tea, is a fair country historian. Down there, she pointed, is where Virginia Bill shot Old Diamond Tail, the pesky scrub bull. And up there, she pointed north, is the ranch headquarters--Mike can take you there. Which he did, up an old Forest Service track and then off it. I took coordinates at the old well. In the bank of the gulch were dugout remains. On the flats above the outlines and vegetation patterns indicated where the buildings of the ranch complex stood. Up the gulch a little farther was a second site, which must have been where brother Jone built after he and Bill both married.


Hamilton moved back east to Missouri in 1901 for the sake of his children’s schooling, but late in life he wrote one of his sons, “Had it not been to give you children a first class education, I would never have left Dakota.”

-Tom Isern

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