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Curt Eriksmoen, Published October 27 2013

‘Wild West’ character had enigmatic childhood

One of the most fascinating characters of the North Dakota Badlands during the first half of the 20th century had an extremely enigmatic childhood.

As an adult, Bill “Badlands” McCarty owned one of the highest-profile ranches in the nation. He produced rodeos, organized “Wild West” shows and had Tom Mix, the most popular movie cowboy of the 1920s and early ’30s, as one of his best friends. McCarty was the best man at Mix’s wedding in 1909.

McCarty was born William Henry Harrison on Sept. 11, 1878, (his 1918 World War I civilian registration shows his birth date as 1874) to John and Tennessee (Kelly) Harrison. Most biographies list his birthplace as Des Moines, Iowa. However, in the 1910 census, McCarty lists Missouri; in the 1930 census, he said Arkansas; and the 1940 census shows Oklahoma.

According to his obituary, “His father died when he was very young, and Bill went to live and work for a family named McCarty.” However, in the entry for Bill “Badlands” McCarty in the “Elrod/Flood Family Tree,” his father died in 1900, when Bill was 22 years old. When he was young, he lived with a family named McCarty and took that as his surname. We also know that he had a passion for horses and that he traveled a great deal.

Most of what we know about McCarty with any certainty involves his life after he arrived in North Dakota in 1900. That year, he helped bring up a herd of horses and with the money he received for the drive, rented pasture land west of Hettinger. McCarty loved western North Dakota and realized that he had found the state where he wanted to put down roots.

After scouting out locations, he purchased a ranch 4 miles south of Alexander, in McKenzie County, and began buying wild horses on a large scale. McCarty also participated in rodeos, winning a silver-trimmed trophy saddle at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1903.

In 1907, McCarty purchased a ranch near the mouth of Magpie Creek, which flowed into the Little Missouri River. For his first purchase of horses for his new ranch, he traveled to Wibaux, Mont., where he bought 3,500 wild horses and herded them to his ranch. Joining McCarty on the drive was “a skilled horseman,” Tom Mix. Together, they broke the horses and McCarty sold them to homesteaders and the military.

In late fall 1908, Tom Mix returned to North Dakota to help McCarty with the roundup and assist with the herding and branding of horses.

In December, Olive Stokes arrived in western North Dakota to purchase horses. With her brothers, she co-owned a ranch near Deering, Okla. At the Medora railway station, she saw Mix, who she already knew after being introduced to him by Will Rogers at the St. Louis World’s Fair four years earlier.

The two began dating, and at a Christmas party in rural Billings County, Mix proposed to Stokes. Together, they spent some time at McCarty’s ranch before getting married on Jan. 19, 1909.

When the married couple traveled to Miles City, Mont., for their honeymoon, McCarty went along.

In 1910, McCarty purchased the Custer Trail Ranch, four miles south of Medora. This ranch had a rich history. It was located on the site where Col. George Custer camped on his way to the Little Big Horn, and Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent guest at the ranch when it was owned by the Eaton brothers, who turned it into the first “dude ranch” in America.

In 1914, McCarty was instrumental in starting the Miles City Roundup. He supplied much of the stock and served as the arena director. Ever since, the roundup has provided rodeo promoters with some of the best animals in the country. In 1923, McCarty joined with members of the Heart River Roundup to form the Mandan Roundup.

“In the 1920s, the horse market turned sour,” and McCarty began adding purebred Hereford cattle to his ranch. He later raised bison as well.

One of McCarty’s neighbors was George Gardner, who also specialized in raising horses. At the turn of the century, Gardner had joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, performing as a “rodeo contestant, American cowboy and peace officer.” With the drying up of the horse market, Gardner abandoned ranching and organized the Elkhorn Ranch Wild West Show.

Joining this enterprise was McCarty, and they traveled the Midwest putting on shows and staging rodeos.

McCarty stopped buying wild horses and began rounding up the wild mustangs that roamed the Badlands with help from the adventurous and brave young men he hired.

Many of these men came from the nearby Fort Berthold Reservation. In 1932, one of these adventurous and courageous young men was William Dunn. Dunn later wrote, “In 10 days we captured 622 wild horses and then drove them 350 miles to Sisseton, South Dakota, where they were sold. When we returned, McCarty had us round up another group of horses.” As a pilot, Dunn later became the first American ace during World War II.

In 1947, McCarty sold his ranch, and with his old International truck, hauled cattle for ranchers.

He died Oct. 11, 1958. In 2000, the Custer Trail Ranch was inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, and McCarty was inducted four years later.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.