Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area landform origins, western South Dakota, USA

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

The Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area discussed here is located in western South Dakota, USA. Although detailed topographic maps of the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area have been available for more than fifty years detailed map evidence has not previously been used to interpret the region’s geomorphic history. The interpretation provided here is based entirely on topographic map evidence. The Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area is interpreted to have been eroded during immense southeast-oriented flood events, the first of which flowed on a topographic surface at least as high as the highest points in the present-day drainage divide area. Flood erosion did not end when headward erosion of the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley first captured the southeast-oriented flood flow. Until headward erosion of the Cheyenne River valley reached the Black Hills south end, flood water moving around the Black Hills south end flowed to the White River valley and some of the flood water then spilled northwest into the actively eroding Cheyenne River valley. Flood flow in the region ended when all flood flow routes reaching this area were beheaded to the west and northwest of the Black Hills.

Preface:

The following interpretation of detailed topographic map evidence is provided as evidence in the Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project, which is compiling similar evidence for all major drainage divides contained within the Missouri River drainage basin and for all major drainage divides with and within certain adjacent drainage basins. The research project is interpreting evidence in the context of a previously unexplored geomorphology paradigm, which is briefly described in the introduction below. Project essays are listed on the sidebar category list under their appropriate Missouri River tributary drainage basin, Missouri River segment drainage basin (by state), and/or state in which the Missouri River drainage basin is located.

Introduction:

  • The purpose of this essay is to use topographic map interpretation methods to explore western South Dakota Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area landform origins. Map interpretation methods can be used to unravel many geomorphic events leading up to formation of present-day drainage routes and development of other landform features. While each detailed topographic map feature provides detailed evidence to be explained, the solution must be consistent with explanations for adjacent area map evidence as well as solutions to big picture map evidence puzzles. I invite readers to improve upon my solutions or to propose alternate solutions that better explain evidence and are also consistent with adjacent map area and big picture evidence. Readers may do so either by making comments here or by writing and publishing their own essays and then by leaving a link to those essays in a comment here.
  • This essay is also exploring a paradigm in which erosional landforms are interpreted as evidence left by immense glacial melt water floods. Implied in that interpretation is the immense floods were derived from a thick North American ice sheet that created a deep “hole” in the North American continent and also melted fast. The previously unexplored paradigm being tested in this and similar essays is a thick North American ice sheet, comparable in thickness to the present day Antarctic ice sheet, occupied approximately the North American region usually recognized to have been glaciated and through its weight and erosive actions created a “deep” North American “hole”, through its weight and deep erosion (and perhaps deposition) along major south-oriented melt water flow routes caused significant crustal warping and tectonic change, through its action of melting fast produced immense floods that flowed across the continent, and through its action of melting fast systematically opened up space in the ice sheet created “hole” so headward erosion of newly developed north-oriented drainage systems captured immense south-oriented melt water floods and diverted immense melt water floods north into space the ice sheet had once occupied.
  • If this previously unexplored paradigm is correct the geographic region explored by this essay should contain evidence of immense floods that were captured by headward erosion of new valley systems so as to cause the floods to flow in a different direction. Ability of this previously unexplored paradigm to explain western South Dakota Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area landform evidence will be regarded as evidence supporting the “thick ice sheet that melted fast” paradigm.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area general location map

Figure 1: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area general location map (select and click on maps to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 1 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area this essay addresses. The Cheyenne River begins in Wyoming west of the figure 1 map area and flows into South Dakota and to the Black Hills south end where it turns northeast and north to join the Belle Fourche River and then flows northeast to join the southeast-oriented Missouri River. The White River begins in northwest Nebraska and flows northeast into South Dakota to the east end of the Badlands National Park where it turns to flow in an easterly direction to join the southeast-oriented Missouri River (east of figure 1). The Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area addressed here extends southeast from the north boundary of Badlands National Park to the Oelrichs, South Dakota area. Landforms along the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide will be interpreted here in the context of an immense southeast-oriented flood that flowed around the present day Black Hills upland, with flood waters flowing southeast along the Black Hills northeast facing flank (along what is today the southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River alignment)  and southeast-oriented flood waters flowing to the Black Hills south end where the flood waters were captured by actively eroding northeast-oriented valleys (first the northeast-oriented White River valley and subsequently the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley). To understand the present day Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area landforms it is important to remember that prior to Cheyenne River valley headward erosion southeast-oriented flood flow moving southeast along the present day southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River alignment and flood flow moving around the Black Hills south end met in the present day Badlands National Park region. This combined flood flow had been captured by headward erosion of what was then a deep and actively eroding White River valley. Headward erosion of what was then a deep and actively eroding Cheyenne River valley in a series of capture events captured the southeast-oriented flood flow using the present day southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River alignment and beheaded flood flow routes to the actively eroding White River valley. However, before the deep Cheyenne River valley captured most flood waters flowing around the Black Hills south end, some of those flood waters continued to actively erode the White River valley southwest and filled the newly eroded White River valley so completely flood waters spilled northwest into the newly eroded northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley. These complex water movements account for the present day Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide landform evidence illustrated in the detailed maps presented below.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area detailed location map

Figure 2: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area detailed location map. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 2 provides a detailed location map for the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area discussed here. The Cheyenne River flows from the Black Hills south end in the figure 2 southwest corner to Wasta in the figure 2 north center. The White River flows north from the figure 2 south center and turns northeast to flow to the Badlands National Park east end and then turns east to flow to the figure 2 east center edge. Note southeast-oriented tributaries flowing to the northeast-oriented Cheyenne and White River segments and northwest-oriented tributaries flowing from the southeast. This northwest-southeast alignment of tributary drainage routes is evidence both the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley and the northeast-oriented White River valley segments eroded headward to capture multiple southeast-oriented flood flow routes and flood waters on the northwest ends of beheaded flood flow routes reversed flow direction to erode northwest-oriented tributary valleys. Evidence for an immense southeast-oriented flood moving to the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area has been presented in essays found under Black Hills on the sidebar category list. For example essays describing Little Missouri River-Belle Fourche River drainage divide evidence and Moreau River-Belle Fourche River drainage divide evidence document southeast-oriented flood flow moved along the Black Hills northeast flank and the essays describing Belle Fourche-Cheyenne River drainage divide documents that flood water moved west of the Black Hills to what is today the Cheyenne River valley at the Black Hills south end (these essays can be located under appropriate river names on the sidebar category list) . Additional essays establish the flood water source was northwest of Montana’s present day Yellowstone River and Missouri River valleys and probably was a rapidly melting North American ice sheet in Alberta. Rapid melting of a thick North American ice sheet located in a deep “hole” not only could account for the flood water source, but also for systematic capture of southeast-oriented flood water to divert the flood waters further and further to the northeast and north to fill space being opened up as the thick ice sheet melted.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Sage Creek Basin area

Figure 3: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Sage Creek Basin area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 3 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide northeast end. Southeast-oriented drainage in the Conata Basin in the figure 3 southeast corner flows to the northeast and east-oriented White River. Southeast-oriented drainage in the figure 3 northwest corner flows to the northeast-oriented Bad River and northwest-oriented drainage in the figure 3 north center flows to the Cheyenne River. Sage Creek flows through a large northwest-oriented valley (or water gap) to the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River located in the figure 3 northwest corner. Note how Sage Creek drains a large southeast-oriented escarpment-surrounded basin, which is an abandoned flood eroded headcut. The best way to understand how this drainage pattern developed is to think of an immense southeast-oriented flood, flowing from the southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River drainage basin to the northwest, meeting an immense northeast-oriented flood coming from the Black Hills south end at approximately this location. That was the situation when the deep east-oriented White River valley headcut eroded west into a topographic surface that was significantly higher than the highest figure 3 elevations today (a deep Bad River valley was also eroding southwest at about the same time, although headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley had not quite reached the figure 3 area). Flood waters moving to the actively eroding White River valley head eroded a deep White River valley southwest from this region while flood waters coming from the northwest started to erode multiple deep headcuts (or valleys) northwest from the newly eroded northeast-oriented White River valley northwest wall. Headward erosion of those deep southeast-oriented headcuts was halted when the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley eroded southwest and captured the southeast-oriented flood flow (beheading southeast-oriented flood flow routes to the actively eroding southeast-oriented headcuts). Flood waters coming around the Black Hills south end continued to reach the actively eroding northeast-oriented White River valley and those flood waters then filled the White River valley to the point that flood waters spilled over the newly created Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide (along the headcut rims) and eroded northwest-oriented valleys into the former headcut rims. Some of those valleys, such as the Sage Creek valley, developed into flood spillways as they quickly drained White River valley excess water to the Cheyenne River valley, and once drained the White River valley never filled to overflowing again, probably because headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley captured most flood water moving around the Black Hills south end.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Scenic Basin area

Figure 4: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Scenic Basin area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 4 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area southwest of the figure 3 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 3 and 5. The previously discussed Sage Creek Basin is located in figure 4 northeast corner. A north oriented Cheyenne River valley segment is located along the figure 4 west edge (north half). Note the Scenic Basin, which like the previously described Sage Creek Basin, is a southeast-oriented escarpment surrounded basin or abandoned headcut. Today the Scenic Basin is drained by northwest-oriented Spring Draw and Bear Creek, which flow through northwest-oriented valleys (or water gaps) to the north and northeast-oriented Cheyenne River. The present day Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide is located southeast of the Scenic Basin and the White River drainage basin has southeast-oriented drainage (figure 4 southeast corner). Like the southeast-oriented Sage Creek abandoned headcut the southeast-oriented Scenic Basin abandoned headcut was eroded headward from the newly eroded northwest wall of what was then the actively eroding northeast-oriented White River valley (with the White River valley being eroded southwest by flood water moving from the Black Hills south end and the southeast-oriented Scenic Basin being eroded by southeast-oriented flood water coming from what is today the southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River drainage basin). Active erosion of the southeast-oriented Scenic Basin headcut ceased when headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley captured the southeast-oriented flood flow that had been eroding the Scenic Basin headcut. However, the actively eroding White River valley continued to receive flood waters moving around the Black Hills south end and became filled with water to the point that water spilled over the newly created Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide (located then along the headcut rim). That spillage of water from the White River valley to the Cheyenne River valley eroded northwest-oriented valleys into the newly eroded Cheyenne River valley southeast wall and some northwest-oriented valleys, such as the Bear Creek valley and the Spring Draw valley, developed into northwest-oriented flood spillways as they flushed excess water from the White River valley to the Cheyenne River valley. Once the White River valley was drained it never filled to overflowing again, probably because by then the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley had captured most flood water moving around the Black Hills south end.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Sheep Mountain Table area

Figure 5: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Sheep Mountain Table area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 5 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area southwest of the figure 4 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 4 and 6. The northeast-oriented Cheyenne River flows across the figure 5 northwest corner. Flood waters originally flowed on a topographic surface significantly higher than any points along the present day Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide. The Pine Ridge Escarpment rim elevation (not illustrated in this essay) may represent the topographic surface level the deep White River valley headcut originally eroded into. Erosional remnants such as Sheep Mountain Table are evidence such a higher level topographic surface did exist. The gentle northwest-oriented slope on the Sheep Mountain Table top may have developed as the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley eroded southwest or it may be related to events for which most other evidence has been removed. Figure 5 northwest-oriented drainage flows to the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River and southeast drainage flows to the northeast-oriented White River. Note through valleys linking headwaters of southeast-oriented drainage routes with headwaters of northwest-oriented drainage routes. For example, Cottonwood Pass links southeast-oriented North Cottonwood Creek with northwest-oriented Big Corral Draw. These water eroded through valleys are evidence water once crossed what is today the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide. The drainage divide was created when headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River captured multiple southeast-oriented flood flow routes that had been eroding southeast-oriented valleys headward from what was then the newly eroded northeast-oriented White River northwest wall. Northwest-oriented valleys were eroded by reversed flood flow on the northwest ends of the beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes. Reversed flood flow was probably significantly aided in the erosion of the northwest-oriented valleys by the previously discussed spillage of significant amounts of flood water from the White River valley to the Cheyenne River valley.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Cuny Table area

Figure 6: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Cuny Table area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 6 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area southwest of the figure 5 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 5, 7, and 8. A Cheyenne River valley segment is located in the figure 6 northwest corner. Cuny Table is a flat-topped erosional remnant providing evidence flood waters once flowed on a much higher level topographic than exists today. Perhaps the most significant Cuny Table features for purposes of this essay are the large south-southeast-oriented Horse Creek escarpment-surrounded basin or abandoned headcut and the somewhat smaller, but more complete and quite significant north-northwest-oriented Battle Creek Canyon escarpment-surrounded basin or abandoned headcut. The south-southeast-oriented Horse Creek abandoned headcut may today be incomplete and was eroded by southeast-oriented flood flow moving to what was then the deep and actively eroding northeast and east-oriented White River valley. Before the Horse Creek headcut could be eroded further headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley beheaded the southeast-oriented flood flow that had been eroding the south-southeast-oriented Horse Creek headcut. Reversed flow on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes initiated erosion of northwest-oriented Cheyenne River tributary valleys and was greatly aided when flood waters overfilled the White River valley and spilled over the newly created Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide. In the case of Cuny Table the spillage was not able to erode a through valley across the abandoned headcut rim, but was able to erode the significant north-northwest-oriented Battle Creek Canyon headcut south-southeast into the Cuny Table surface before erosion of deeper valleys on either side of Cuny Table (and at the Sage Creek and Scenic Basin locations further to the northeast) flushed the excess flood water from the White River valley. The White River valley never again filled to overflowing, probably because headward erosion the Cheyenne River valley captured most of the flood flow and subsequently headward erosion of deep valleys west of the Black Hills captured all flood flow that had been moving to the Black Hills south end.

White River valley east of the Cuny Table area

Figure 7: White River valley east of the Cuny Table area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 7 illustrates the White River valley east of the figure 6 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 6 and 8. The previously discussed Horse Creek escarpment-surrounded basin or abandoned headcut is located in the figure 7 southwest corner. The north-northwest oriented Battle Creek Canyon escarpment-surrounded basin or abandoned headcut is located to north of Cuny Table along the figure 7 west edge. The White River flows northeast through Rockyford, South Dakota. Drainage from the northwest to the northeast-oriented White River is predominantly southeast-oriented. Note how southeast-oriented Fog Creek flows from a smaller, but recognizable escarpment-surrounded basin eroded into the Cuny Table east end. This Fog Creek escarpment-surrounded basin is another abandoned headcut, having been eroded by southeast-oriented flood water flowing to the actively eroding White River valley head, probably at a time before erosion of the much larger Horse Creek escarpment-surrounded basin or abandoned headcut to the southwest. Remember, at the time the Fog Creek and the Horse Creek escarpment-surrounded basins were eroded the White River valley was being eroded headward into a topographic surface higher than the highest figure 7 elevations today and the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River drainage basin to the northwest did not yet exist. The present day landscape including the present day Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide was carved and created by southeast-oriented flood waters that were first captured by headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented White River valley, second captured by headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley, and third that spilled from the newly eroded White River valley to the newly eroded Cheyenne River valley.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide southwest of Cuny Table area

Figure 8: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide southwest of Cuny Table area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 8 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area southwest of the figure 6 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 6 and 7. The northeast-oriented Cheyenne River is the blue line just south and east of Harrison Flat in the figure 8 northwest corner. The previously discussed Cuny Table and south-southeast-oriented Horse Creek escarpment-surrounded basin is located in figure 8 northeast quadrant and south-southeast oriented Horse Creek flows to the figure 8 southeast corner and then to the northeast-oriented White River (not shown). The south-southeast orientation of White River tributaries and north-northwest orientation of Cheyenne River tributaries suggests this figure 8 region was eroded primarily by south-southeast-oriented flood flow that was moving south from the southeast-oriented Belle Fourche drainage basin area to what was then the actively eroding northeast-oriented White River valley, although flood water from the southwest (going around the Black Hills south end) had to be playing a significant role as well. Headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley then captured the south-southeast oriented flood flow and flood waters on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes reversed flow direction to create north-northwest-oriented Cheyenne River tributaries. The Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide southwest of Cuny Table is a pronounced ridge indicating reversed flow on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes was able to capture (yet to be captured by headward erosion of the Cheyenne River valley) flood waters from the south and southwest. For example, note how First Black Canyon and Jim Wilson Canyon begin as north-oriented valleys and then turn to become north-northwest oriented valleys. This change in direction makes sense if those valleys were eroded to capture yet to be captured (by headward erosion of the Cheyenne River valley) flood waters coming from the south and southwest. Those yet to be captured flood waters from the south and southwest had flowed around the Black Hills south end.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in White River Divide area

Figure 9: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in White River Divide area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 9 illustrates the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area southwest of the figure 8 map area and includes overlap areas with figures 8 and 10. Blue lines in the northwest figure 9 corner are irrigation canals in the Cheyenne River valley. The Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide begins in the figure 9 southwest corner and becomes the well-defined White River Divide ridge further to the northeast. Note the change in orientation of White River tributaries from the figure 9 northeast quadrant to the figure 9 southeast quadrant. The south-southeast orientation in the northeast quadrant suggests flood waters were coming from the north and flowed from the southeast-oriented Belle Fourche River drainage basin area to the actively eroding White River valley head when that valley head was located just east and south of the figure 9 map area. The east-southeast orientation of White River tributaries in the figure 9 southeast quadrant suggests those tributaries were eroded by flood waters that flowed around the Black Hills south end and that were flowing east to the same actively eroding White River valley head. Again, remember the White River valley at that time was being eroded into a much higher level topographic surface than exists today and the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley did not yet exist. Cheyenne River tributaries in the figure 9 map area are predominantly north-northwest oriented. The railroad at Smithwick is following the valley of north-northwest oriented Sand Creek, which flows to the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River.

Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Oelrichs, South Dakota area

Figure 10: Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide in Oelrichs, South Dakota area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 10 illustrates the southwest end of the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area to be discussed here and includes overlap areas with figure 9. The sequence of detailed maps has now progressed south of where the Cheyenne River flows around the Black Hills south end (see figure 1). Horsehead Creek flows northwest from Oelrichs to the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River as a barbed tributary and was initiated as a reversal of southeast-oriented flood flow on the northwest end of a flood flow route to what was then the actively eroding White River valley head, which did subsequently erode further south and west from east of this location to capture yet to be beheaded flood waters not yet captured by headward erosion of the Cheyenne River valley and its various tributary valleys. East-oriented Blacktail Creek (in figure 10 east center) and east and northeast-oriented South Branch Blacktail Creek in the figure 10 southeast corner flow to a north-oriented White River valley segment east of the figure 10 map area. Note how both Blacktail Creek and South Branch Blacktail Creek have eroded shallow (compared to what was seen earlier along this drainage divide) escarpment-surrounded basins into what is today the prevailing topographic surface. These “shallow” escarpment-surrounded basins are also abandoned headcuts because they were eroded by flood waters from the west and northwest and active erosion of these headcuts ceased when Cheyenne River valley headward erosion captured those flood flow routes and diverted the flood water to the northeast.

Additional information and sources of maps studied

This essay has provided only a sample of the detailed topographic map evidence supporting the flood erosion interpretation. Many additional illustrations could be provided. Readers are encouraged to look at mosaics of detailed topographic maps to see the abundance of available data. Maps used in this study were created and published by the United States Geologic Survey and can be obtained directly from the United States Geological Survey and/or from dealers offering United States Geological Survey maps. Hard copy maps can also be observed at United States Geological Survey map depositories which are located throughout the United States and elsewhere. Illustrations used here were created using National Geographic Society TOPO software and digital map data. TOPO software and map data can be obtained from the National Geographic Society and/or dealers offering National Geographic Society digital map data.

2 Comments

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  1. lesliengland

    was the band of erosion north of casper to douglas wyo likely a product of this theory as well?

  2. Eric Clausen

    Yes, see the first three essays listed when you click Powder River on the side bar. Erosion in different areas probably occurred at slightly different times, but otherwise the processes were similar.

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