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Badlands Bill McCarty


Will Harrison was born in Iowa in 1875, but in constant search of a better life, his family moved around a lot. Will’s father died while he was still young, so he went to live with, and work for, a family named McCarty, whose name he eventually took as his own.

By age 21, he was hooked on horses and living in Texas. Jim Lowman, of Fairfield, has studied McCarty’s life and says, “Some people thought he was Mexican because he was black-eyed, swarthy-complexioned and had picked up a lot of Mexican ways down along the Rio Grande.”

Homesteaders, cattlemen and the military always needed good horses, and Bill knew how to provide them. He would take a crew of cowboys down the trail and return with a thousand or more horses that he’d work with until they were useful. Lowman says, “He knew horses, and broke, used and traded them all his life.”

In 1900, Bill trailed horses to North Dakota and rented some pastureland west of Hettinger. Soon, he bought his first ranch, south of Ragged Buttes and soon had horse corrals strung out across the range – including one on the site of what’s now a bank in Watford City. Buying and selling ranches, he eventually ended up outside Medora.

At 6' 2", Bill was strong and beefy with big ears, a peaceful brow and a floppy worn-out hat. People described him as rugged and quick as a cat. In fact, if he was using a round corral, he could jump on a horse’s head and bulldog it down rather than rope and throw it.

Over time, McCarty became known as Badlands Bill, wearing a six-gun on his hip on the range and in a shoulder holster in town. He even caught the eye of Buffalo Bill, who hired him and a fellow cowboy, George Gardner, to perform in his Wild West Show. As an opener to the show, the audience first enjoyed a movie during which a featured cowboy – Badlands Bill – was “killed.”

Bill was also a rodeo man, providing animals, promoting shows and competing. Back in 1903, he won a silver-trimmed trophy saddle at a rodeo at Madison Square Garden. One time, he was carrying receipts from a show in a hand satchel when someone told him he should put the money in a bank. Bill asked, “What for?”

“Well, New York is a tough town,” the person replied, “and someone might take it away from you.” Bill patted his gun and said, “By gawd I just might take it back!”

At some point, Bill and George took their own “101 Rodeo” on the road, and when Romania’s Queen Marie, Prince Michael and Princess Illene visited Medora in 1916, they put a Wild West show for them.

Al Stude of Medora worked for Bill in the early 1940s, by which time Bill was over 75. “He was a pretty rough ol’ character,” he says. “They told me before I went down there, ‘You can’t work for that guy. He’s a slave driver.’ [But] I got along good with him. One time we cut studs for two days straight, from daylight to dark, and a lot of them were five- and six-year-olds.”

Once, when McCarty was out east, he telegraphed Stude to ship more horses to him in New York. He told Stude to come out, too, saying the “girls lay around them water holes like alligators.”

Badlands Bill died in Beach on this date in 1958. He was 83 and had become ill three days earlier at a horse sale in Glendive.

Source: “2004 NDCHF Hall of Honorees Induction.” The Cowboy Chronicle Extra. Published by the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame: Special Edition.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm