Distance Learning

Post by Marilyn Stemp

Worldwide circumstances have conspired to ensure that this year’s 80 th 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 bikeriders, 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
Waymarking.com 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 1870’s 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 9 th , 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.