The Nebraska Mountains: Driving from Chadron to Crawford on the Bridges to Buttes Byway

In honor of Never Caught Twice’s paperback release on December 1st this year, I am going to post a series of photo essays each week on my blog in order to promote the book and show readers what the pictures in the book look like when displayed in full color. I will talk a little bit about the places I shot, how the photographs fit into the story, and what happened on some of those adventures through the Nebraska Panhandle.

This image, labeled in the book as “North face of Crow Butte, near Crawford, Nebraska, 2018,” appears in the image gallery following page 140.

Picture of Crow Butte, looking from the north. It is a rocky, forested outcrop surrounded by grassy plains.
Crow Butte, as seen from the north

I never saw myself as the kind of person who would drive a Cadillac, but that’s exactly who I became when I landed at Chadron Municipal Airport on October 18, 2018. None of the major national car rental chains operate at this tiny, house-sized terminal on the High Plains, so I arranged to rent a car from a local used car dealer. They provided me with an older Cadillac . . . the kind whose owner almost assuredly used the cigarette lighter adaptor to actually light cigarettes. I could almost hear Frank Sinatra or maybe even Elvis playing over the speakers. No disrespect to people whose idea of vehicular luxury is a Cadillac sedan, since I’ve known a few folks who subscribe to the idea, but . . . well, it just isn’t for me. Nonetheless, it was what I had at my disposal, and since northwest Nebraska is a spread-out place with more cattle than people, a car was going to be necessary. A Cadillac it is, then.

My rental Cadillac
My rental Cadillac

I flew to Chadron for a few days with two goals in mind: to collect and digitize as many legal records as I could for my book research, and to take a day trip down to Fort Robinson in Crawford. Chadron is in Dawes County, which is one of the locations I chose to focus on within my book, so I needed to check out its early county and district records for evidence of horse stealing. In Nebraska, most counties continue to have some if not all of these materials in storage within their courthouses. This fact makes it logistically difficult sometimes to visit these places efficiently, but the courthouse clerks are almost always very accommodating and enormously helpful, and the towns themselves are fascinating places to visit. Having driven through Chadron a few years earlier during a trip to the Black Hills, I was already familiar with the region’s special—and uniquely vertical—beauty.

After spending my first night in town, I woke up the next morning and went to work. In the Courthouse I was able to get access to their earliest District Court case files. The District Court is where felony-level cases were heard for trial, so it was the best place to find horse stealing cases. Although I was hoping to find a wider range of court records that would give me a fuller accounting of horse theft reports across the county, I was able to get enough information there to move forward with my research. This only took a couple of days, which left me with one more free day to roam around the area.

Chadron at sunset
Chadron at sunset
Storefronts in Downtown Chadron.
Storefronts in downtown Chadron

Chadron may come as a surprise to travelers who are only familiar with Nebraska’s Interstate 80 corridor. Unlike the flat, sprawling Platte Valley, Chadron is bordered on the south by the Pine Ridge, an escarpment formed by erosion from the White and Niobrara Rivers. This has created a long, narrow corridor of buttes, canyons, cliffs, and outcroppings that stretches over 100 miles. Although none of these prominences are technically mountains, their exposed cliff faces and ponderosa pines form a stark contrast with the surrounding Plains. Or, as Alanis Morissette might describe them, they look like jagged little hills.

On my last day in town my plan was to drive about 27 miles down Highway 20 to Fort Robinson State Park. Known as the Bridges to Buttes Highway, this road connects the high, eroded tablelands in the Western Nebraska panhandle with the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa. Pine Ridge stretches along the southern horizon, coming within five miles of the highway at points, its low buttes sticking up and out of the prairie like solitary molars in an otherwise toothless mouth. There are few objects around to impede the view. Although the ridge itself is forested, the surrounding plains are full of long, tall grasses swaying in the wind. I no longer feel like I am on the Plains at all, but someplace even further “West.”

As I passed through the town of Crawford and approached Fort Robinson from the east, the roadway took me even closer to the ridge. But now another ridge, this one to the north, ran down toward the roadway as if trying to catch up. West of town, along the White River, these buttes come almost right up to the highway. This ridge provided Fort Robinson with some additional protection from the north and east, and gave its soldiers a commanding view of the valley.

Low-lying ridge near Crawford, Nebraska

Fort Robinson was a fulcrum point before and during the Plains Indian Wars. Established in 1874, its proximity to the Red Cloud Agency and its location between the Union Pacific Railroad and the Black Hills placed it at the heart of the growing conflict between the Lakota and trespassing whites that eventually culminated in open war. But Fort Robinson may be best known for a single incident that occured on September 5th, 1877. After Crazy Horse surrendered that previous May, soldiers at the fort killed him for attempting to resist his captors. Today a plaque marks where he fell.

One and a half years later, an even bigger tragedy occurred not far from Fort Robinson when Morning Star (or Dull Knife) attempted to lead nearly 150 Northern Cheyennes away from the fort in a daring late night escape from capitivity. The group, which has been imprisoned and held in starvation conditions at Fort Robinson, was apprehended while attempting to return north from their miserable yet mandatory reservation in Oklahoma. After their second escape, this time from Fort Robinson, soldiers pursued and fired upon the fleeing men, women, and children, killing sixty of them before recapturing most of the survivors.

Today Fort Robinson looks vibrant, clean, and not a place where people were starved and shot. The State of Nebraska has done a wonderful job preserving many of the original buildings, and there is a fantastic museum on the site.

On my way back to Chadron, I decided to check out Crow Butte. It is the most imposing, if not the tallest, of the buttes in this section of Pine Ridge. It was also the site of a climactic clash between two Crow and Brulé Lakota bands in 1849 (which I discuss on page 32 of my award-winning book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, which will soon be available in paperback).

Fort Robinson
Crazy Horse monument at Fort Robinson
Fort Robinson Selfie!

The Butte itself is on private property, so I had to admire it from afar. I drove my now dusty Cadillac down one of the small roads that criss-crosses the region and got as close as I could to it without leaving the road itself. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I snapped a bunch of pictures with my phone while listening to the wind sweep against the prairie. One of those pictures ended up in the book.

As I began to head back to Chadron and pack for the trip home, I stopped on the northbound road back to the highway to snap a few more pictures. The road was on a slight promontory, and I was high enough that I had a commanding view of the surrounding plains. In the far distance to the north and west, I saw the very tippy-tops of the Black Hills some sixty miles away. And at that point I felt immense gratitude, certainly not for the first nor for the last time, at being privileged enough to be able to come to places like this for research.

Looking north from the sloping plains just south of Crow Butte. If you look really carefully you can see the very top of the Black Hills in the distance.

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