Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area landform origins, North Dakota, USA

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

The Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area discussed here is located in McKenzie County, North Dakota and Richland County, Montana. Although detailed topographic maps of this Yellowstone River-Little Missouri 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. Based on the topographic map evidence the Yellowstone River-Little Missouri 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 ended when headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley captured the southeast-oriented flood flow.

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 Yellowstone River-Little Missouri 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 Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area landform evidence will be regarded as evidence supporting the “thick ice sheet that melted fast” paradigm.

Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area location map

Figure 1: Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area location map (select and click on map to enlarge). National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 1 illustrates the Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide segment this essay illustrates and discusses. In figure 1 the Yellowstone River flows northeast through eastern Montana to join the Missouri River just east of the North Dakota state line. The Little Missouri River (not labeled in figure 1) flows north toward Williston and near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit it turns east (with several jogs north and a significant southeast-oriented valley segment) to flow to Lake Sakakawea, which is a large reservoir located in the Missouri River valley. The word “BADLANDS” is found along the north oriented Little Missouri River segment and the North Dakota Little Missouri River valley is known for its badland landscape features. The Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide segment considered here is downstream or north from the Beaver Creek-Little Missouri River confluence (located near the letter “s” in “Trotters”—Beaver Creek is the northeast-oriented Little Missouri River tributary flowing through Wibaux, Montana and is unlabeled on figure 1). South of the Beaver Creek-Little Missouri River confluence northeast-oriented Little Missouri River tributaries and/or Yellowstone River tributaries are located between the northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley and the north and northeast-oriented Little Missouri River valley. Separate essays discuss drainage divides associated with those Little Missouri and Yellowstone River tributaries (e,g. Beaver Creek drainage basin essay and Little Beaver Creek-Boxelder Creek drainage divide essay, both found under Little Missouri River on sidebar category list). The Yellowstone River-Cherry Creek drainage divide is illustrated and discussed in a separate essay, but is also illustrated and discussed here. Cherry Creek (unlabeled on figure 1) flows in a northeast direction through Watford City, North Dakota and then turns to flow in a southeast direction to the east-oriented Little Missouri River segment.

Detailed location map for Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area

Figure 2: Detailed location map for Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 2 provides a detailed location map for the Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide segment this essay considers. Richland County is located in Montana and McKenzie County is in North Dakota. The Yellowstone River can be seen in figure 2 flowing northeast through eastern Richland County to join the Missouri River just east of the North Dakota state line. The Little Missouri River is located in the figure 2 southeast quadrant, with the Beaver Creek-Little Missouri River confluence located just north of where the Little Missouri River enters the figure 2 map area at the McKenzie County line. This more detailed map shows the Little Missouri River east-oriented segment to be more complex than the figure 1 map. Instead of flowing east the Little Missouri River flows east, jogs north, turns east again, jogs north again, and then turns to flow southeast. The origin of these jogs is addressed in separate essays. Northwest-oriented Yellowstone River tributaries this essay illustrates and discusses are Smith Creek (which joins the Yellowstone River near Savage), Shadwell Creek, O’Brien Creek, Bennie Peer Creek (which joins the Yellowstone River near Sidney), Horse Creek, and Charbonneau Creek (which joins the Yellowstone River near Cartwright, North Dakota). Timber Creek which flows to the Missouri River north of Alexander, North Dakota will also be mentioned. Note on figure 2 how Bennie Peer Creek begins as a northeast-oriented stream near the Smith Creek headwaters and then turns to become a northwest-oriented Yellowstone River tributary. Little Missouri River tributaries shown on figure 2 include Red Wing Creek, which is located just west of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit, Bowline Creek, which is the unlabeled southeast-oriented Little Missouri River tributary just west of Red Wing Creek, and Cherry Creek, which flows northeast through Watford City and then turns southeast to reach the southeast-oriented Little Missouri River segment.

Smith Creek-Bennie Peer Creek-Little Missouri River drainage divide area

Figure 3: Smith Creek-Bennie Peer Creek-Little Missouri River drainage divide area. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 3 has been reduced to illustrate the complex Yellowstone River tributary valley network west of the north-oriented Little Missouri River valley segment. The north-oriented Little Missouri River valley is located along the figure 3 east edge. Note multiple northwest-oriented tributary valleys east of the Little Missouri River valley. Tributary valleys west of the Little Missouri River are generally southeast-oriented, although northeast-oriented Beaver Creek joins the Little Missouri River at the county line in the figure 3 southeast quadrant. Tributaries to northeast-oriented Beaver Creek from the west are southeast-oriented while from the east they are northwest-oriented. The northwest-southeast orientation of Little Missouri River and Beaver Creek tributaries is preserved from southeast-oriented flood flow routes the Little Missouri River and Beaver Creek valleys beheaded and captured as they eroded south and southwest. The northwest-oriented tributary valleys were eroded by reversals of flood flow already on the northwest ends of beheaded flood flow routes. Often those reversals of flood flow captured flood waters still moving on yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes and the additional flood waters enabled the reversed flow streams to erode significant northwest-oriented tributary valleys. Such captures of flood waters from yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes is magnificently illustrated in the complex of Yellowstone River tributaries west of the north-oriented Little Missouri River valley segment. Smith Creek is the west oriented Yellowstone River tributary leaving the figure 3 map area about one-third of the way up the figure 3 west edge (west of the figure 3 map area Smith Creek turns northwest and flows to the Yellowstone River valley). Further north along the figure 3 west edge, the major northwest-oriented stream is Shadwell Creek. Note how a prominent through valley connects the Smith Creek and Shadwell Creek headwaters area. The northwest-oriented Shadwell Creek and Smith Creek valley segments are relics of southeast-oriented flood flow routes that were beheaded as the deep northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley eroded southwest to behead those and other southeast-oriented flood flow routes. Southeast-oriented flood flow on the Shadwell Creek route was beheaded and captured first while southeast-oriented flood flow continued on the yet to be beheaded Smith Creek flood flow route. Flood flow already on the northwest end of the beheaded Shadwell Creek flood flow route reversed flow direction to flow northwest into the newly eroded and deeper northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley. That reversed flood flow captured southeast-oriented flood flow still moving on the yet to be beheaded Smith Creek flood flow route and the through valley was eroded as captured flood water made a U-turn from flowing southeast on the Smith Creek route to flowing northwest on the Shadwell Creek route. Continued headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley headcut next beheaded and captured southeast-oriented flood flow on the Smith Creek route, causing flood flow on the northwest end of that beheaded flood flow route to reverse flow direction and to create the west and northwest-oriented Smith Creek valley we see today. Other similar through valleys seen in figure 3 especially in the north will be illustrated and discussed below

Smith Creek-Bennie Peer Creek-Little Missouri River drainage divide

Figure 4: Smith Creek-Bennie Peer Creek-Little Missouri River drainage divideUnited States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 4 illustrates with less reduction a section of the figure 3 map area. Bennie Peer Creek headwaters flow north-northeast to the figure 4 north center. Figure 5 will illustrate the Bennie Peer Creek valley complex north of figure 4. Northwest-oriented North Fork Smith Creek and southwest-oriented O’Neil Creek (flowing to Smith Creek) appear in the figure 4 southwest quadrant. In the figure 4 northwest corner are northwest-oriented headwaters of Poison Spring Creek (labeled “Creek”), which west of figure 4 turn southwest to flow to west and northwest-oriented Smith Creek. The valley north of the Poison Spring Creek headwaters is drained by northeast-oriented headwaters of Spring Creek, which in figure 5 turns northwest to join northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek. Figure 4 also illustrates in more detail southeast-oriented barbed tributaries to the Little Missouri River. Figure 4 evidence indicates the capture of southeast-oriented flood flow on the yet to be beheaded Smith Creek flood flow route was more complicated than described in the figure 3 discussion. The north-northeast-oriented Bennie Peer Creek headwaters segment indicates reversed flow on the Bennie Peer flood flow route also captured southeast-oriented flood flow on the Smith Creek route further east than the through valley shown in figure 3. In other words initially there were multiple flood flow routes making a U-turn from being southeast-oriented on the Smith Creek route to being northwest-oriented on the Bennie Peer Creek route and the western through valley eventually captured all of that U-turn flow, but not before the flood water flowing on more easterly U-turn routes had eroded valleys southwest from the northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek valley toward the southeast-oriented Smith Creek flood flow route water source.

Bennie Peer Creek and tributary valley complex

Figure 5: Bennie Peer Creek and tributary valley complex. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 5 illustrates the Bennie Peer Creek and tributary valley complex immediately north of the figure 4 map area. There is overlap to help you see how the figure 4 and figure 5 map areas connect. Note how Bennie Peer Creek flows in a north-northeast direction in the figure 5 southeast quadrant and then turns in the northeast quadrant to flow northwest. East of the Bennie Peer Creek elbow of capture is the Spring Creek elbow of capture, where northeast-oriented Spring Creek headwaters turn to flow northwest to join northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek. Still further east is the One-O-One Creek elbow of capture where northeast-oriented One-O-One Creek headwaters turn north-northwest to join northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek. Northeast-oriented One-O-One Creek headwaters are linked by a well-defined through valley with northwest-oriented Shadwell Creek headwaters and south of the landing strip in that through valley is the through valley to Smith Creek described in the figure 3 discussion. Northwest-oriented O’Brien Creek is located in the figure 5 northwest quadrant. In addition to the sequence of elbows of capture are additional through valleys linking the various Bennie Peer Creek tributaries and other Yellowstone River tributaries. This rather complicated valley pattern was developed by an immense southeast-oriented flood that initially flowed across a topographic surface higher than any elevations in the map area today and probably was flowing along multiple flood flow channels characteristic of a large southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex.. That flood was first captured by headward erosion of the deep north- and east-oriented Little Missouri River valley and flood routes to the newly eroded Little Missouri River valley were subsequently beheaded and captured by headward erosion of the deep Yellowstone River valley. Before southeast-oriented flood flow on the Bennie Peer Creek flood flow route was beheaded and captured it had begun to erode a deep southeast-oriented valley headward (or northwest) from the newly eroded Little Missouri River valley. That valley today includes the West Hay Creek valley in the figure 5 northeast corner and is illustrated in figures 6 and 7. When headward erosion of the deep Yellowstone River valley beheaded and captured southeast-oriented flood flow on the Bennie Peer Creek flood flow route there was a reversal of flood flow already on the northwest end of that flood flow route that also captured significant flood flow from yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes further to the south. These captures developed an anastomosing complex of flood flow routes that made a spectacular U-turn to flow northwest along the Bennie Peer Creek route (and some other routes) to the newly eroded Yellowstone River valley.

West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley

Figure 6: West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 6 illustrates the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley linking the northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek valley to the northeast-oriented Yellowstone River with the north and east-oriented Little Missouri River valley. As described in the figure 5 discussion the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley probably originated as a deep southeast-oriented valley eroded headward from the newly eroded deep Little Missouri River valley along a southeast-oriented flood flow route that had not yet been beheaded by Yellowstone River valley headward erosion. When the headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley did behead southeast-oriented flood flow on the Bennie Peer Creek route, significant flood water already southeast of the Yellowstone River reversed flow direction to flow northwest to the newly eroded and deeper northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley. The reversed flow also captured significant southeast-oriented flood flow from yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes southwest of the Bennie Peer Creek route. This reversed flood flow on the Bennie Peer Creek route eroded a significant northwest-oriented valley to the northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley and may have even captured some flood flow from the north and east-oriented Little Missouri River valley. However, headward erosion of the deep Yellowstone River valley beheaded and captured southeast-oriented flood flow further to the southwest first ending all flood flow on southeast-oriented routes the reversed flow on the Bennie Peer Creek route had captured and eventually beheading and capturing all southeast-oriented flood flow that was moving to the Little Missouri River valley and its tributary valleys on flood routes further to the south and southwest.

Detail map of the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley

Figure 7: Detail map of the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 7 provides a detailed map of the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley and the Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide in that valley. The north-oriented stream turning northwest in the southwest quadrant is Bennie Peer Creek and the northwest-oriented tributary joining it at the elbow of capture is Poker Jim Creek. Note how today the West Hay Draw-East Hay Draw through valley is a continuous valley even though it crosses the drainage divide between what are today two quite different drainage basins. Through valleys such as this one are water eroded and are excellent evidence that once water flowed across the present-day drainage divide and can be used to help decipher drainage routes that existed prior to development of present day drainage systems. Close study of the detailed map evidence for this region reveals many details not addressed here. Hopefully I have provided enough clues as to what happened that interested readers can further unravel this complicated drainage history puzzle.

Horse Creek-Bowline Creek drainage divide

Figure 8: Horse Creek-Bowline Creek drainage divide. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 8 illustrates the Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide in the region immediately north of the figure 6 map area. Bennie Peer Creek flows northwest in the figure 8 southwest corner. Northwest-oriented West Hay Draw flows to Bennie Peer Creek and progressing northwest are southwest-oriented Chicken Creek, south and southwest-oriented Sheep Creek, and south and southwest-oriented Bay Creek all flowing to northwest-oriented Bennie Peer Creek and the Yellowstone River. The northwest-oriented stream in the figure 8 northwest corner is Horse Creek, which also flows to the Yellowstone River. The north-oriented tree-lined stream east of Horse Creek is the headwaters of northwest-oriented West Branch, which flows to northwest-oriented Charbonneau Creek and the Yellowstone River. Northwest-oriented Charbonneau Creek headwaters can be seen just east of where the west to east-oriented highway turns north along the figure 8 north edge and just east of the Charbonneau Creek headwaters is a well-defined northwest-southeast oriented through valley linking headwaters of a Charbonneau Creek tributary with southeast-oriented Docs Draw, which flows to southwest and southeast-oriented Red Wing Creek and the Little Missouri River. West of Red Wing Creek is the Bowline Creek drainage basin. Bowline Creek headwaters consist of several southeast-oriented tributaries that flow to southeast and south oriented Bowline Creek and then to the Little Missouri River. Through valleys link northwest-oriented Horse Creek headwaters with south and southwest-oriented Sheep Creek and Bay Creek headwaters and document how reversed flood flow on what was the newly beheaded Horse Creek southeast-oriented flood flow route captured southeast-oriented flood flow on the yet to be beheaded Bennie Peer southeast-oriented flood flow route. Through valleys also link northwest-oriented Horse Creek headwaters with southeast-oriented Bowline Creek headwaters, although those through valleys were somewhat obscured by captured flood waters from the yet to be beheaded flood flow routes on the Bay Creek and Sheep Creek-Horse Creek routes. Through valleys linking northwest-oriented Charbonneau Creek with southeast-oriented Red Wing Creek headwaters will be illustrated and described below.

Charbonneau Creek-Red Wing Creek drainage divide

Figure 9: Charbonneau Creek-Red Wing Creek drainage divide. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Northwest-oriented Charbonneau Creek flows to the figure 9 northwest corner and eventually flows to the Yellowstone River. Southwest of Charbonneau Creek is the north-northwest oriented West Branch Charbonneau Creek while northeast of Charbonneau Creek is northwest-oriented Antelope Creek. Southeast-oriented Docs Draw flows to southwest and southeast-oriented Red Wing Creek and the Little Missouri River. Southeast-oriented drainage along the figure 9 west edge center is flowing to northeast and southeast-oriented Cherry Creek and eventually the Little Missouri River. The through valleys linking southeast-oriented Docs Draw with northwest-oriented Charbonneau Creek and Antelope Creek headwaters are evidence of a southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex that predated the existing drainage network. The anastomosing channel complex is evidence a large southeast-oriented flood crossed the region and as this and other essays have described the present-day drainage system evolved as deep east, northeast, and north-oriented valleys eroded headward to capture the southeast-oriented flood flow. In the case of the figure 9 evidence southeast flow was first captured by what is today a southwest-northwest-oriented through valley linking Red Wing Creek with Cherry Creek, a short segment of which is shown in the figure 9 southeast corner. Subsequently headward erosion of the deep north- and northeast-oriented Yellowstone River valley beheaded and captured the southeast-oriented flood flow and flow already on the northwest ends of the beheaded flood flow routes reversed flow direction to flow northwest to the newly eroded Yellowstone River valley and in the process eroded what are today the northwest-oriented Yellowstone River tributary valleys. As previously mentioned this reversed flood flow was often augmented by flood waters captured from yet to be beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes further to the southwest.

Lonesome Creek-Timber Creek-Cherry Creek drainage divide

Figure 10: Lonesome Creek-Timber Creek-Cherry Creek drainage divide. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

The Yellowstone River-Little Missouri River drainage divide north end is located near Arnegard, North Dakota at the figure 10 center. Northwest-oriented Timber Creek after turning northeast flows to the east and southeast-oriented Missouri River. South of Timber Creek, west-northwest-oriented Lonesome Creek is located just south of Alexander, North Dakota and is a Charbonneau Creek tributary, which means it is part of the Yellowstone River drainage basin. Cherry Creek flows northeast in the figure 10 southeast corner, but turns abruptly to the southeast to flow to a southeast-oriented Little Missouri River valley segment. North of Watford City are southeast-oriented Tobacco Garden Creek headwaters, but they abruptly turn northeast to flow to the Missouri River. The Cherry Creek-Tobacco Creek drainage basins have been better illustrated and described in the Cherry Creek drainage basin essay. Note in figure 10 the through valley at Arnegard linking southeast-oriented Cherry Creek tributaries with headwaters of both the northwest-oriented Timber Creek and the west-northwest-oriented Lonesome Creek. This through valley is again evidence an immense flood crossed the region and the present day drainage system evolved as deep east, northeast, and north-oriented valleys eroded headward to behead and capture southeast-oriented flood flow routes.

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 the detailed 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 were created using National Geographic 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.

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