North Dakota tutors gave Teddy Roosevelt 'most important education'

In a 1910 speech, former President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that the time he spent living in a ranch house in Dakota Territory was "the most important educational asset of all my life."...

In a 1910 speech, former President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that the time he spent living in a ranch house in Dakota Territory was "the most important educational asset of all my life."

His primary tutors were William Merrifield, and Joe and Sylvane Ferris. Through them, Roosevelt learned the importance of preservation, how to run a large business operation, quickly ascertain a person's character and survive under the most challenging circumstances.

Roosevelt arrived in Medora on June 9, 1884. He was pleased with Sylvane and Merrifield, who managed his herd of 300 cattle at the Maltese Cross Ranch.

After spending three weeks in the Badlands, Roosevelt returned to New York to persuade a couple of his friends to run another ranch. The men were Bill Sewell and Will Dow, from Maine, and on July 31 the three men went to the Little Missouri to scout out a new site for a ranch. They found a place 25 miles north of Medora. Roosevelt ordered the construction of a cabin and called it the Elkhorn Ranch.

Roosevelt then returned to the Maltese Cross Ranch, where Sylvane and Merrifield instructed him about ranching. They taught him the arts of conducting a round-up, branding, roping and saddle-breaking wild horses. On Aug. 18, Merrifield took the future president on an extended hunt to the Big Horn Mountains of Montana.


Roosevelt returned to New York for a month and then came back on Nov. 16 to go on another hunt with Merrifield. Meanwhile, cattle rustlers were busy stealing cattle and intimidating the ranchers, including Sewell and Dow. Roosevelt contacted ranchers in the area about forming a vigilante group called the Little Missouri Stockmen's Association to protect the rancher's interests in the area. The LMSA had its initial meeting in Medora on Dec. 19 and Roosevelt was elected chairman. The next year, they voted to organize a posse "to clean up Billings County," which was created in 1879.

Early in 1885, Roosevelt was accosted by a large bully in a saloon. Relying on his experience with the Harvard boxing team, Roosevelt knocked the bully unconscious and soon gained the respect of Badlands residents who affectionately referred to him as "Old Four Eyes." This incident was picked up by the national press, which speculated that he wanted to run for Congress when North Dakota became a state.

One of the people Roosevelt spent a lot of time with was Joe Ferris, who was his hunting guide when he first arrived in the Badlands. Ferris owned a grocery store in Medora and served as the area's banker, making loans and providing a safe haven for people's excess capital. He was also frequently called upon to settle disputes through peaceful arbitration. Roosevelt respected Ferris and provided him with money to build a larger store.

During summer 1885, tension began to build between the Marquis de Mores and Roosevelt. The two had that Roosevelt would bring 100 of his cattle to the Marquis' stock yards at an agreed upon price. Roosevelt did this, but when he got there the Marquis told him he was paying him a lesser amount. Roosevelt brought the cattle back and refused to ever do business with the Marquis again.

The animosity reached a crescendo in the fall when the Marquis was ordered to stand trial for first-degree murder in the death of Riley Luffsay two years earlier. The Marquis wrongly believed that Roosevelt was behind this and, in a letter, basically challenged him to a duel. When Roosevelt accepted the challenge, the Marquis backed down, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

Roosevelt spent a limited amount of time at his Badlands ranches in 1886 because he was running for mayor of New York City. Dakota was very dry that summer, and what little grass grew was mostly eaten by grasshoppers. Sewell and Dow left the Elkhorn, and Merrifield was put in charge. The winter of 1886-87 was disastrous for the ranchers in the Badlands. On Jan. 28, 1887, a 72-hour blizzard hit the area, and most of the cattle died.

Because of the smaller herds, Roosevelt's Badlands tutors now had time for other pursuits. Sylvane and Merrifield were instrumental in organizing Billings County, and Sylvane was elected commissioner in 1887, treasurer in 1889, clerk of court in 1890, commissioner again in 1894 and auditor in 1903. Joe was appointed postmaster of Medora in 1887 and again in 1893. In February 1891, Roosevelt dissolved the partnership with Sylvane and Merrifield, but maintained Sylvane as manager of his Badlands interests. Merrifield then sold his interests to Sylvane and moved to Montana.

When Roosevelt was elected as William McKinley's vice president in 1898, Sylvane bought out the his remaining interests. With the assassination of McKinley on Sept. 14, 1901, Roosevelt became president. When Roosevelt successfully ran for president in 1904, both Sylvane and Merrifield were national delegates for his election. He appointed Sylvane as Register of the General Land Office in Dickinson, Merrifield as U.S. Marshal of Montana and Joe as postmaster of Medora.


They remained close friends until Roosevelt's death on Jan. 6, 1919. Merrifield died on Oct. 3, 1929, Sylvane on March 26, 1933, and Joe on Jan. 25, 1937.

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