White River drainage basin landform origins, Nebraska and South Dakota, USA, overview essay

Authors

A geomorphic history based on topographic map evidence

Abstract:

The White River originates as a southeast-oriented river in northwest Nebraska and then turns to flow in a northeast direction into western South Dakota before turning to flow in a generally east direction to the southeast-oriented Missouri River. The White River drainage basin includes most of the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment slope, with the White River and some White River tributaries originating south of the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest. This overview essay provides highlights from more detailed essays which use topographic map evidence to describe drainage divide origins for drainage divides between White River tributary drainage basins and between the White River drainage basin and adjacent drainage basins. The detailed essays can be found under White River on this website’s sidebar category list. Detailed essays illustrate and discuss topographic map evidence suggesting the Pine Ridge Escarpment is the south wall of what was once a giant headcut that eroded headward (or west) along the White River valley alignment to capture immense southeast-oriented floods. Flood waters were derived from a rapidly melting North American ice sheet and were flowing in a southeast direction along the decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin. A 200-meter or more deep and east-oriented White River headcut eroded headward from what was then the actively eroding Missouri River valley, which was eroding a deep valley headward along the decaying ice sheet’s southwest margin. A major flood water route responsible for eroding the deep east-oriented White River headcut moved flood waters around the Black Hills south end, although southeast-oriented flood flow moving across what is now the high Black Hills upland region and also moving north of the Black Hills upland flowed into the newly eroded White River valley as well and completely removed the north valley wall and significantly lowered the region north of the present day White River valley. Headward erosion of the northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley subsequently beheaded all southeast-oriented flood flow routes to the White River valley, while to the east headward erosion of the deep southeast-oriented Missouri River valley may have captured east-oriented White River valley flow onto the decaying ice sheet floor.

Figure 1: Regional map showing White River location. National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

South Dakota and Nebraska White River drainage basin drainage history

The White River originates in the Nebraska northwest corner and flows in a southeast direction before turning to flow in a northeast direction to Crawford, Nebraska and into southwest South Dakota. Once east of the southern Black Hills the White River flows in an east direction to join the southeast oriented Missouri River. The major White River tributary shown in figure 1 is the east and northeast oriented Little White River. North of the White River drainage basin in the South Dakota southwest corner is the southeast and northeast oriented Cheyenne River drainage basin, with the Cheyenne River flowing in a southeast and northeast direction around the Black Hills south end. Further east the northeast oriented Bad River drainage basin is located between the Cheyenne River and White River drainage basins. The Cheyenne and Bad Rivers both flow in a northeast direction to join the southeast oriented Missouri River. South of the White River drainage basin is the Niobrara River drainage basin, with the southeast, northeast, and east oriented Niobrara River joining the Missouri River in northeast Nebraska. In addition to detailed essays found under White River on the sidebar category list readers may wish to study essays found under Cheyenne River, Bad River, SD Missouri River, and Niobrara River to obtain a region picture.

  • Topographic map evidence illustrated and described in the Missouri River drainage basin landform origins research project essays is interpreted in the context of the rapid melt down of a thick North American ice sheet. The ice sheet was located in a deep “hole”, which had been formed by a combination of deep glacial erosion underneath the ice sheet and of crustal warping caused by the ice sheet weight. The ice sheet was probably comparable in size, including thickness, to the present day Antarctic Ice Sheet and by a combination of deep glacial erosion under the ice sheet, deep melt water flood erosion of ice sheet marginal regions and all regions between the ice sheet and adjacent ocean basins, crustal downwarping of regions under the ice sheet, and related crustal warping (uplift) of ice sheet marginal regions, the ice sheet presence significantly altered the North American landscape. While different from most commonly published glacial histories, evidence illustrated and described in these essays suggests when fully developed the ice sheet had probably been several kilometers thick and had probably stood two or more kilometers above the surrounding region while the ice sheet roots may have extended one or more kilometers below the surrounding region. North American landscapes seen today are radically different from pre-glacial landscapes and it is possible no remnants of the pre-glacial landscape have been preserved. White River drainage basin history, at least in the context of the White River drainage basin landscape seen today, began late during the ice sheet melt down history, at a time when at least in the south the ice sheet no longer stood high above the surrounding surface.
  • At the time White River valley headward erosion began an immense southeast and south-oriented supra-glacial river was flowing along the approximate route of the present day James River in southeastern North Dakota and eastern South Dakota to the ice sheet’s south margin, which was at that time probably located near the South Dakota-Nebraska state line, at least in southeast South Dakota. This gigantic supra-glacial river carved a huge ice-walled and ice-floored canyon into the decaying ice sheet surface. This ice-walled and ice-floored canyon later became a huge ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon extending in a southeast direction from eastern Alberta across southwest Saskatchewan and into North Dakota where it turned to become a south-oriented canyon and continued into South Dakota. This large canyon eventually detached the ice sheet’s southwest margin. The northeast and east-facing Missouri Escarpment in Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and South Dakota is today what remains of the giant ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon’s southwest and west wall. The Missouri Coteau, which is a region of thick glacial deposits located between the Missouri River and the Missouri Escarpment in both North and South Dakota, represents debris deposited by the detached ice sheet southwest margin. In South Dakota the Prairie Coteau west-facing escarpment is what remains of the giant canyon’s east wall and the Prairie Coteau upland region, another region covered by thick glacial debris, is the location of another detached ice sheet remnant. Flood waters emerging from the ice sheet margin were responsible for eroding the deep southeast oriented Missouri River valley eroded headward into southeast South Dakota to the present day James River-Missouri River confluence area. Headward erosion of the deep Missouri River valley caused the floor of the giant southeast and south-oriented ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon to become significantly lower than the ice margin surface further to the west of the decaying ice sheet’s margin where immense southeast-oriented ice-marginal melt water floods were flowing.

Figure 2: South Dakota and Nebraska White River drainage basin location map. National Geographic Society map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software.

Figure 2 provides a somewhat more detailed regional map of the White River drainage basin area. Note how the White River begins near Harrison, Nebraska and flows for a short distance in a southeast direction before turning to flow in a northeast direction into South Dakota and then in the Badlands National Park area the White River turns again to flow in a more easterly direction to join the southeast oriented Missouri River. Note also how the Cheyenne River to the north flows in a southeast direction to Edgemont, South Dakota and Angostura Reservoir before turning to flow in a northeast direction between the Black Hills and the northeast-oriented White River. Figure 2 illustrates many more White River tributaries than in figure 1, especially White River tributaries from the south. Note how these additional north-oriented White River tributaries are frequently oriented in a northwest direction. While figure 2 does not show contour lines the 200-300 meter high northwest and north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment is located south of the White River and longer north-oriented White River tributaries originate along the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest and flow in a north direction down the Escarpment slope. The Pine Ridge Escarpment was eroded as the south wall of the deep east-oriented White River valley which eroded headward across immense southeast oriented ice marginal melt water floods  and may have eroded headward from the south end of the gigantic southeast and south oriented ice-walled and bedrock-floored canyon. Probably multiple valleys eroded headward across the decaying ice sheet southwest margin with the present day Missouri River valley being eroded at about the same time as the large 200-300 meter deep east-oriented White River valley or headcut. These valleys served to further break up the decaying ice sheet southwest margin and created even smaller detached ice sheet remnants.

  • The deep east-oriented White River valley when initially eroded was eroded into a surface at least as high as the present day Pine Ridge Escarpment crest, if not higher. The valley was 200-300 meters deep if not deeper and captured southeast-oriented flood flow as the deep valley or headcut eroded headward (or to the west). Headward erosion of the deep valley beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes to what was then the newly eroded Niobrara River valley. These flood flow routes were beheaded in sequence from east to west. Flood waters on north ends of beheaded flow routes reversed flow direction to erode north and northwest-oriented tributary valleys. Because flood flow routes were beheaded in sequence from east to west and because flood flow routes were anastomosing, or interconnected, reversed flood flow in newly beheaded flood flow channels captured flood waters from flood flow routes further to the west. Such captures of flood water from west of the actively eroding White River valley head provided the water volumes required to erode the north-oriented White River tributary valleys and also to erode the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment slope. Note how the north-northeast oriented Little White River has east-oriented headwaters, located on the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest. The east-oriented Little White River headwaters valley was eroded by flood waters moving from west of the actively eroding White River valley head to reversed flood flow eroding the north-northeast oriented Little White River valley. At the same immense southeast-oriented floods flowing into the newly eroded White River valley deeply eroded the valley’s north wall so the north wall no longer exists.
  • Headward erosion of the deep east-oriented White River valley significantly lowered base level and caused flood waters to begin to deeply erode the region south of the Black Hills. Headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Bad River valley and soon thereafter of the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley next captured the southeast-oriented flood flow which had been moving into the newly eroded White River valley, although south of the Black Hills flood waters still moved into the White River valley. Cheyenne River valley headward erosion then captured the main southeast-oriented flood flow route around the Black Hills south end which had been supplying flood waters to the actively eroding White River valley, although some flood waters from west of the actively eroding Cheyenne River valley head still reached the actively eroding White River valley head. Capture of the large southeast-oriented flood flow route around the Black Hills south end greatly reduced flood flow to the actively eroding White River valley and the White River valley was no longer able to erode as deep as the actively eroding Cheyenne River valley to the north. The deeper Cheyenne River valley next beheaded all southeast-oriented flood flow to the actively eroding White River valley, causing White River valley headward erosion to cease. The southeast-oriented White River headwaters valley was eroded along the last major southeast-oriented flood flow route supplying flood waters to the White River valley.

Figure 3: Little White River-Antelope Creek drainage divide area near Mission, South Dakota. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 3 provides an example of topographic map evidence illustrated and described in the White River drainage basin detailed essays. The figure 3 map area illustrates a region on the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment slope. Mission, South Dakota is the town located at the highway junction in the figure 3 south center area. The Little White River is the north-northeast oriented stream flowing from the figure 3 southwest corner area to the figure 3 north edge (west half) and is flowing down the Pine Ridge Escarpment slope to the east-oriented White River located near the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment base. Other streams flowing to the figure 3 north edge are either Little White River tributaries or are tributaries to the east-oriented White River. Antelope Creek is the north-northwest stream flowing from the figure 3 south center edge to near Mission where it turns to flow in a southeast direction to the figure 3 southeast corner area. In the figure 3 southeast corner area Antelope Creek joins northeast-oriented Rock Creek to become the southeast-oriented Keya Paha River. Note how the southeast-oriented Antelope Creek-Keya Paha River valley is linked by through valleys with valley of northwest-oriented Little White River tributaries and how headward erosion of the north-northeast oriented Little White River valley beheaded the southeast-oriented Antelope Creek-Keya Paha River valley. Figure 3 map evidence demonstrates southeast-oriented Antelope Creek-Keya Paha River valley headward erosion preceded headward erosion of the deeper Little White River valley which eroded headward from the much deeper White River valley (north of figure 3). The southeast-oriented Antelope Creek-Keya Paha River valley eroded headward at a time when the deep White River valley did not exist and flood waters from the northwest were flowing on a surface at least as high the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest. Headward erosion of the deep White River valley and its Little White River tributary valley next beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow to the newly eroded Keya Paha River valley and lowered base level to the north, which enabled deep flood flow water erosion of the entire northern plains north of the Pine Ridge Escarpment.

Figure 4: Little White River Minnechaduza Creek drainage divide area north and west of Valentine, Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 4 uses a reduced size topographic map to illustrate evidence southeast-oriented flood flow moved across a topographic surface which was removed further to the north by White River valley headward erosion. The southeast-oriented stream flowing to the figure 4 southeast corner area is Minnechaduza Creek, which flows to the Niobrara River south and east of the figure 4 map area near Valentine, Nebraska (see figures 1 and 2 for location). The southeast-oriented stream in the figure 4 northwest quadrant which then turns to flow in a northeast and north-northeast direction to the figure 4 north edge (just east of the north center edge) is the Little White River. The figure 4 map area is located along the north-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment crest and the deep north-northeast oriented Little White River valley (Crazy Horse Canyon) is eroded into the Escarpment face. Low hills in the figure 4 southwest quadrant are probably sand dunes. Note how northwest-oriented Spring Creek joins the Little White River near the Escarpment crest and is located on the same alignment as southeast-oriented Minnechaduza Creek to the southeast. Further note how the northwest-oriented Spring Creek valley is linked by a through valley with the southeast-oriented Minnechaduza Creek valley. The southeast-oriented Minnechaduza Creek valley, northwest-oriented Spring Creek valley, and southeast-oriented Little White River valley segment all provide evidence of a major southeast-oriented flood flow channel that once provided flood waters to what was once the newly eroded Niobrara River valley. At that time the deep White River valley did not exist and there was no Pine Ridge Escarpment because elevations to the north were at least as high the present day Pine Ridge Escarpment crest shown in figure 4. Flood waters flowed freely in a southeast direction across that high level topographic surface into the figure 4 map area and then to the newly eroded Niobrara River. Sand dunes in the figure 4 map area are located along the north edge of the large Nebraska Sand Hills region, which may be located on what may have been a large deltaic deposit formed as flood waters flowed into what may have been a large flood formed lake, where flood waters converging from different directions were temporarily ponded before headward erosion of deep valleys further to the south drained the region.

Figure 5: White River-Niobrara River drainage divide area south of Chadron, Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 5 uses a reduced size topographic map to illustrate the northwest-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment and White River-Niobrara River drainage divide area south of Chadron, Nebraska. Chadron is the town located near the figure 5 north center edge (see figures 1 and 2 for location). The White River is the northeast-oriented stream located in the figure 5 northwest corner area. The northwest-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment crest extends from the figure 5 southwest corner area to the figure 5 northeast corner area. Elevations on the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest are approximately 300 meters higher than elevations on the White River valley floor. Note how the Pine Ridge Escarpment slope is drained by north and north-northwest oriented streams. Southeast-oriented streams located south and east of the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest are tributaries to the Niobrara River which is located south of the figure 5 map area. Close study of southeast-oriented valleys on the southeast-oriented slope suggests those valleys are relics of a southeast-oriented anastomosing channel complex which once moved flood water into was probably a newly eroded Niobrara River valley. At that time there was no deep White River valley to the north and west, nor was there a deep Cheyenne River valley further to the north and west. Flood waters moved on a high level topographic surface at least as high if not higher than the present day Pine Ridge Escarpment crest into the figure 5 map area and then to what was then the newly eroded and deep Niobrara River valley. Headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented White River valley then captured the southeast-oriented flood flow and beheaded the southeast-oriented anastomosing flood flow channels in sequence from the northeast to the southwest. Flood waters on northwest ends of beheaded flood flow channels reversed flow direction to erode the north and north-northwest oriented White River tributary valleys and to erode the northwest-facing Pine Ridge Escarpment slope. Subsequently headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley further to the north and west beheaded flood flow routes to the newly eroded White River valley and ended all flood flow into the figure 5 map area.

Figure 6: White River head waters area near Harrison, Nebraska. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 6 uses a reduced size topographic map to illustrate the White River headwaters area near Harrison, Nebraska. Harrison is the town located near the figure 6 west edge in the figure 6 southwest quadrant. Crawford, Nebraska is the town located near the east edge in the figure 6 southeast quadrant. The White River begins a short distance south and east of Harrison and flows in a southeast direction before turning to flow in a northeast direction to Crawford and then to the figure 6 east center edge. Note how the White River originates on the Escarpment crest as a southeast-oriented stream. Also note how in the figure 6 southeast quadrant White River tributaries from the north are oriented in a southeast direction and from the south are oriented in northwest and north directions. The north-oriented stream north of the White River headwaters is Hat Creek, which is a Cheyenne River tributary. The southeast-oriented stream in the figure 6 southwest corner is the Niobrara River. The north-facing escarpment north of Harrison is sometimes referred as the Hat Creek breaks to distinguish it from the Pine Ridge Escarpment which is located south of the northeast and east-oriented White River. The Hat Creek Breaks Escarpment was eroded by headward erosion of the deep Cheyenne River valley which captured the southeast-oriented flood flow which had been eroding the deep White River valley. When the deep White River valley eroded headward into the figure 6 map area the deep Cheyenne River valley, including the deep Hat Creek valley, did not exist. The entire figure 6 map area was at least as high as the topographic surface found today in the figure 6 southwest quadrant and was an erosion surface eroded by flood waters moving to what was then the newly eroded Niobrara River valley. Headward erosion of the deep White River valley created a lower base level for the region and southeast-oriented flood waters flowing into the newly eroded White River valley eroded the low-level erosion surface seen in the figure 6 northeast corner. Headward erosion of the deep northeast-Cheyenne River valley next beheaded and reversed southeast-oriented flood flow routes to the newly eroded White River valley and headward erosion of the deep north-oriented Hat Creek valley (by reversed flood flow which captured flood flow from further to the west) beheaded all flood flow routes to what was then the actively eroding White River valley. Without a source of additional flood water headward erosion of the White River valley ceased.

Figure 7: Scenic and Sage Creek Basin area along the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide located east of Black Hills. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 7 also uses a reduced size topographic map to illustrate the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide area in the Badlands National Park region east of the Black Hills. The northeast river in the figure 7 northwest corner is the Cheyenne River. The northeast and east-oriented river in the figure 7 southeast corner area is the White River. Note how Cheyenne River tributaries from the southeast are oriented in a northwest direction and White River tributaries from the northwest are oriented in a southeast direction. Also note how the northwest-oriented Cheyenne River tributary valleys are linked by through valleys with the southeast-oriented White River tributary valleys. The tributary orientations and through valleys provide evidence Cheyenne River valley headward erosion beheaded and reversed southeast-oriented flood flow channels to what was then the newly eroded White River valley. Figure 7 evidence also includes some additional complications, which provide additional evidence about White River headward erosion history. Sage Creek is the northwest-oriented stream draining the Sage Creek Basin, which is located in Badlands National Park area located in the figure 7 north center. South and west of the Sage Creek Basin is the Scenic Basin with the town of Scenic being located on its floor. The Scenic Basin floor is drained by northwest-oriented Spring Draw and Bear Creek. What is interesting about both the Sage Creek Basin and the Scenic Basin is they are southeast-oriented escarpment surrounded basins drained by northwest-oriented streams which flow through water gap type valleys eroded across the escarpment rims. This complication requires further explanation.

  • This figure 7 map area is located east of Black Hills and represents the area where when White River valley headward erosion reached this point southeast-oriented flood flow moving along the Black Hills northeast flank converged with northeast-oriented flood flow moving around the Black Hills south end. When headward erosion of the deep White River valley reached this point it began to erode deep valleys or headcuts headward in two different directions with two parallel southeast-oriented headcuts eroding headward in a northwest direction along the present day Sage Creek Basin and Scenic Basin alignments and a third northeast-oriented headcut eroding headward along the present northeast-oriented White River valley alignment. Headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Cheyenne River valley beheaded southeast-oriented flood flow routes to the southeast-oriented Sage Creek Basin and Scenic Basin headcuts and the escarpments surrounding those basins are today abandoned headcut faces. At that time the Cheyenne River-White River drainage divide was located along the abandoned headcut rims. However, headward erosion of the northeast-oriented White River valley continued to capture southeast-oriented flood flow and that captured flood flow overwhelmed the newly eroded White River valley causing flood water to spill over the White River-Cheyenne River drainage divide and to erode the northwest-oriented Sage Creek, Bear Creek, and Spring Draw valleys. Before the Cheyenne River could capture the White River however, Cheyenne River valley headward erosion beheaded further flood flow routes to the White River valley and flood waters filling the Sage Creek Basin and Scenic Basin drained in both directions to form the present day drainage divide on the Sage Creek Basin and Scenic Basin floors.

Figure 8: Medicine Creek-White River drainage divide area south and east of Presho, South Dakota. United States Geological Survey map digitally presented using National Geographic Society TOPO software. 

Figure 8 completes this brief sample of topographic map evidence illustrated and discussed in the White River drainage basin detailed essays. The figure 8 illustrates the Medicine Creek-White River drainage divide area south and east of Presho, South Dakota (see figure 2 for location). Presho is the town located at the highway intersection in the figure 8 northwest quadrant. Kennebec is the town located east of Presho. Medicine Creek flows in an east direction from the figure 8 west edge to Presho and Kennebec and then turns to flow in a northeast direction to figure 8 north edge and then flows to the southeast-oriented Missouri River. The east oriented river located along the figure 8 south edge is the White River. Note the northwest-southeast orientation of figure 8 landforms including a northwest-southeast orientation of Medicine Creek and White River tributary valleys. Also note through valleys linking northwest-oriented Medicine Creek tributary valleys with southeast-oriented White River tributary valleys. Unlike the Pine Ridge Escarpment to the south there is no high region north of the White River valley. Southeast-oriented flood flow moving into the newly eroded White River valley completely removed what had been a high level topographic surface at least as high as the Pine Ridge Escarpment crest on which flood waters once flowed. The present day White River valley seen in figure 8 is not the deep White River which initially eroded headward across the region, but is instead a channel eroded into the floor of that the earlier 200-300 meter deep valley or headcut which had initially eroded across the region. Headward erosion of the east and northeast-oriented Medicine Creek valley beheaded and reversed southeast-oriented flood flow routes to what was then the newly eroded east-oriented White River channel seen in figure 8 and subsequently headward erosion of the deep northeast-oriented Bad River valley beheaded and reversed southeast-oriented flood flow to the newly Medicine Creek valley. This brief overview essay has provided just a sample of the topographic map evidence for headward erosion of the deep White River valley across massive southeast-oriented ice marginal flood flow included in the White River drainage basin detailed essays. And the detailed essays provide only a sample of evidence available on published topographic maps of the White River drainage basin and adjacent areas.

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.

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