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STURGIS 2020, The History Behind the Badlands

Worldwide circumstances have conspired to ensure that this year’s 80th anniversary Sturgis Rally won’t be the stellar celebration once planned

By Marilyn Stemp

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Worldwide circumstances have conspired to ensure that this year’s 80th anniversary Sturgis Rally won’t be the stellar celebration once planned. That said, once August 7th rolls around, the eight-decade occasion will most certainly be marked, if with less fanfare.

As bike riders, we appreciate the significance of an 80-year milestone in motorcycling, especially one celebrated in western South Dakota where the aura of wild west rebellion and revelry so synergistically dovetails with biking. I’d wager that’s part of the rally’s allure for us cowboys and cowgirls on iron horses. But even the most fervent rider would agree: the relative longevity of this motorcycle rally pales quickly compared to the much longer and far more dramatic American pioneer heritage that’s rife in these parts.

On my annual treks to the Black Hills to cover the rally over several decades, I barely caught a glimpse of the region’s frontier history. It was all about the here and now. But in more recent years, as I started arriving early, staying later and finally moving to South Dakota, my inner history nerd won out. Women’s letters on the westward journey, soldiers’ diaries recounting military campaigns, even cowboy poetry became my reading of choice. Each year, when rally work was wrapped up, the western horizon beckoned. Yes, I went to Yellowstone, Cody and Little Big Horn, of course. But there were also gold mines, ghost towns, sacred sites, buffalo jumps and rock formations both natural and man-carved. So much to see!

I soon went full-on geek, sifting through the Historical Marker Data Base and before trips. I’d alter my route when I spied small brown road signs reading “Lewis & Clark Trail.” I hated when circumstances demanded I leave a roadside “point of interest” unexplored. One October I happened upon scenery so stunning along Highway 20 south of Thermopolis, Wyoming, that I did a U-turn at the bottom of the canyon just to ride it the other direction and back again.

So, imagine my delight when I learned of a memorial commemorating the little-known Battle of Slim Buttes so close to home; a mere 90 miles north of Sturgis, near Reva, SD. The story goes like this:

In the late 1860’s Jonathan White was one of many former Civil War soldiers seeking fortune and adventure in the West. Sharp scouting skills and an affable nature earned him work as a civilian scout with the Army. By the 1870s he’d met and become a devotee of Buffalo Bill Cody, emulating Cody’s mode of dress and literally following him around. General Philip Sheridan once said White followed Cody too closely, mockingly nicknaming Buffalo Bill’s ardent admirer “Buffalo Chips White”

By the autumn of 1876, White was scouting for General George Crook, whose troops were combing western South Dakota for bands of Native Americans in the months after the Battle of Little Big Horn. On September 9th, Crook got word that Captain Anson Mills, who’d been sent to Deadwood for supplies, had captured a Lakota Sioux village near the Slim Buttes, an area so named for its rocky formations. A counter assault was expected and Mills wanted help.

When Crook, White and three cavalry companies arrived, Mills and his men were under attack by Crazy Horse’s warriors, led by Chief American Horse. Thanks to the reinforcements, the Army ultimately took control. Though there were heavy casualties among the Natives, only three on the Army side were lost, one of them civilian scout Jonathan “Buffalo Chips” White.

Based on remaining accounts, the good-natured scout was sorely missed. Among the stories that persisted is one claiming he was so steadfast a friend that he once saved Buffalo Bill Cody’s life. Friends like that come along but rarely.

Bike riders know about prized friendships, the ones we make on the road, the ones that persist over decades. Riding together has a way of turning strangers into friends. That’s why naming his campground after “Buffalo Chips” White made sense to Sturgis Buffalo Chip owner Rod “Woody” Woodruff. Woody’s witnessed quite a few friendships made, molded and multiplied over the Chip’s 39 years. I’d wager he’s also made a few friends himself.

So, when you’re next in the Black Hills, why not make new friends or travel with old ones on your social-distance machines to pay respects to the grit and fidelity of “Buffalo Chips” White? It’s an ideal destination ride for celebrating the steadfast courage of those who tamed the wild west and the staunch friends they made in the process. Comforting thoughts in these turbulent times.

* The Battle of Slim Buttes monument is located off SD Highway 20, ¼ mile west of the intersection with SD Highway 79, about one mile west of Reva, SD.


Check the Iron Trader out.
Check the Iron Trader out.

Don't miss the cool 5-Ball Racing Leather Collection or a book to keep you entertained.
Don't miss the cool 5-Ball Racing Leather Collection or a book to keep you entertained.

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Reader Comments

Maybe this explains why the Black Hills feels like home to me....I'm not sure I'm related to the cat, but he had a cool name!

John T White
Humble, TX
Friday, July 24, 2020
Editor Response It's so interesting, history and how it relates to people and communities. We are living through some of these lessons right now. I watched a strange movie last night, called the White Countess. Crazy shit.
Great article Marilyn.

Too many people visit Sturgis and miss so much of the history of the region, history, which is at the very heart of the American story.
In my visits over the last two decades, I have always made it a point to check out as many historical sites as possible.


Doc Robinson
Somerton Park, SA, Australia
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
Editor Response Damn, and I only hit the bars.
This is a great read. Very thought out and well put together. This makes me keep reading till the end. Great article ????

James Bakalich
Daytona Beach, FL
Monday, July 13, 2020
Editor Response You made Marilyn's day.

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