MEDORA, N.D. — Theodore Roosevelt’s first impressions of the Little Missouri Badlands were decidedly dour.
He wrote his wife back in New York City a grumbling letter. The scenery was desolate, nothing but barren hills. The grass was stingy. The frontier town of Little Missouri consisted of a handful of ramshackle shanties. The water was “rank alkaline” that made him sick for days.
And the September 1883 weather was cold and rainy, often leaving him in “shivering misery.”
Roosevelt had traveled to the Little Missouri Badlands to shoot a buffalo, which rapidly were being hunted to the edge of extinction on the Northern Plains after already being annihilated in the central and southern plains.
Later, Roosevelt said the romance of his life began in the Badlands, where he joined the Dakota Territory cattle boom of the early 1880s as an open range rancher and avid hunter — a romance North Dakota will eagerly revisit as preparations mount for a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in or near his namesake national park.
But Roosevelt’s Badlands infatuation wasn’t immediate. The initial experiences that gave him a dim view came as a raw frontier was freshly opened after the railroad reached the remote Badlands, unlocking exciting possibilities for the adventurous.
Despite the persistently miserable weather and frustrating scarcity of buffalo, Roosevelt relished the adventures and misadventures, thriving on the adversity.
He spent long, punishing days in the saddle. His horse became mired in quicksand. Horse and rider tumbled more than once on the crumbling badlands. Wolves with “sinister green eyes” spooked Roosevelt's horses and his hunting guide in the middle of the night, sending them on a weary chase.
Then, after almost two weeks of hunting in vain, Roosevelt finally bagged his buffalo.
After the buffalo went down, Roosevelt performed his idea of an Indian war dance and presented his beleaguered guide with a $100 bill.
“By golly,” guide Joe Ferris remarked later, “I was enthused myself.”
As he was concluding his prolonged buffalo hunt, Roosevelt made the fateful decision to enter the cattle business, which was booming as ranching moved into Dakota Territory in the early 1880s, and wealthy investors poured money onto the open range.
The business decision came after conversations that ran late into the night the ranch cabin Roosevelt used as his hunting headquarters, while his weary guide dozed. Roosevelt decided to form a partnership with Sylvane Ferris, his guide’s brother, and Bill Merrifield.
With no collateral, Roosevelt wrote out a $14,000 check — the equivalent of $355,050 in today’s dollars — and became, with the stroke of a pen, a rancher. His partners traveled by train to Minnesota to buy cattle, a purchase arranged just as Roosevelt wrapped up his trip.
As he boarded the train back to New York, Roosevelt’s luggage included hunting trophies, such as the huge head of his prize buffalo, which later would hang prominently in the study of his stately home at Sagamore Hill on Long Island.
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The greatest tragedy of Theodore Roosevelt’s young life came just two days after the birth of his daughter.
On Feb. 14, 1884, his wife and his mother both died. Roosevelt, who was in Albany, where he served as a minority leader in the state assembly, had rushed back the day before when he learned that his wife’s health was failing.
In his diary, Roosevelt drew a stark “X” and wrote, “The light went out in my life.”
Months later, he took a train back to the Badlands, where he decided to cope with his grief by immersing himself in the work of running a ranch and indulging his hunting hobby — living what he would call “the strenuous life.”
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In the popular imagination, Roosevelt arrived in the Badlands a sickly, pale figure, pampered by the privileged comforts of New York’s silk stocking district and unequipped for the rigors of the Dakota Territory frontier.
But the record suggests the truth is something different, according to Rolf Sletten of Bismarck and Medora, author of “Roosevelt’s Ranches: The Maltese Cross and Elkhorn.”
Roosevelt demonstrated surprising stamina in his first trip in pursuit of buffalo. After a five-day train ride and only a few hours sleep, Roosevelt was making arrangements for the hunt, rode to the Maltese Cross Ranch, slept on the dirt floor, then rode 35 miles to another ranch to begin his two-week hunt, which he pursued vigorously, most of it in the rain, Sletten said.
Only a few months before that trip, Roosevelt had gone to an institute to try to improve his poor health.
“But then he comes out here, and he runs poor old Joe basically into the ground,” Sletten said. “Joe wants to take a rest and Roosevelt won’t have it. That’s how it went day after day after day. That doesn’t sound like a sickly guy. He had incredible stamina.”
Undeniably, Roosevelt’s health became more robust because of the strenuous life he led in the Badlands, roping cattle on horseback, never just delegating work to his ranch hands.
When he returned to New York for a visit, Roosevelt was tickled when some of his friends didn’t recognize him, with a more developed physique and a tan that made him “brown as a hickory nut.”
Very soon after his return to the Badlands, Roosevelt decided that he didn’t want to stay at the Maltese Cross Ranch, located by a well-traveled road seven miles south of Medora. He opted to settle on what he called the Elkhorn Ranch in a more remote area 35 miles north of Medora.
“The Elkhorn was his refuge, a place to write, a place to grieve,” Sletten said. On the other hand, the Maltese Cross, where Roosevelt still maintained a financial stake, was “a real cattle operation.”
Roosevelt became accepted by his fellow ranchers, impressed by the Harvard-educated easterner who adopted the ways of his fellow westerners. He organized the Little Missouri River Stockmen’s Association and later became a delegate to the Montana Stock Growers Association.
His political ambitions also bloomed. In 1886, Roosevelt was orator of a July 4 celebration in Dickinson, where he delivered his first important political speech, proclaiming his fondness for “big things” — “big parades, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, railroads — and herds of cattle too.”
But Roosevelt saw big signs of trouble on the range. Overgrazing left the grass in poor condition, which would not end well for ranchers. On his hunting trips around Medora and throughout the west, he saw that game was becoming increasingly scarce and in danger of extinction.
He became convinced that the virtual elimination of the buffalo could befall elk, bighorn sheep and other game species if something wasn’t done.
The punishing winter of 1886-87, when subzero cold clung to the region and repeated blizzards piled snow on top of the range, burying the grass, ranchers suffered devastating losses; as many as 80 percent of cattle, already weakened by the poor grass conditions, perished.
Roosevelt, who had spent the winter in New York, didn’t learn about the extent of his losses until he returned to the Badlands in March of 1887. He had lost more than half of his cattle.
He soon began selling off his ranching interests, but did so gradually in an effort to minimize his losses.
Many have found it difficult to reconcile many of Roosevelt’s contradictions, especially how a zealous trophy hunter turned into what many regard as America’s greatest conservation president. Roosevelt twice thought he’d shot the last elk in the Badlands, and shot a buffalo that clearly had wandered away from Yellowstone National Park, the bison’s last stronghold while it was on the verge of extinction, Sletten said.
Yet he would help found the Boone and Crockett Club, which advocates fair-hunting practices, was involved in bison conservation and set aside more national parks and wildlife refuges than any other president.
Sometimes Roosevelt’s diaries consisted of little more than long lists of the animals he killed.
“And yet he’s the most important conservation president in history, no doubt about it," Sletten said. "In his defense, his accomplishments as a conservationist far outweighed his shooting.”
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It’s sometimes difficult to separate fact from embellishment or distortion in recounting Theodore Roosevelt’s Badlands exploits.
Roosevelt was not above a little puffery involving his accomplishments, according to Douglas Ellison, a historian and proprietor of Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music in Medora.
Take, for instance, Roosevelt’s claim that he served as a sheriff’s deputy during his ranching days in the Badlands.
Although Roosevelt was reimbursed for expenses in catching thieves who stole his boat — more about that later — Ellison was unable to find any record that Roosevelt was officially listed or paid as a deputy in Billings, Stark or Morton counties.
“If so, I can only conclude that it was a verbal commission by a sheriff,” Ellison said. He explored that claim and other incongruities in his recent book, “Theodore Roosevelt and Tales Told as Truth of his Time in the West.”
Possibly Roosevelt’s most famous exploit was his capture of three boat thieves in the spring of 1886. Roosevelt was irate at the theft of the boat, taken from the Elkhorn Ranch as the ice was coming off the Little Missouri River.
In Roosevelt’s telling, he and two ranch hands had to wait for a furious blizzard to subside before pursuing the boat thieves. But one of his ranch hands described the trek overall as a “nice excursion,” Ellison said.
“I think Roosevelt leans toward the dramatic more often than not,” he said. “In T.R.’s version, they’re battling ice and snow and it was an impressive journey.”
Despite the delayed start, Roosevelt captured the thieves and walked 45 miles as they were taken to Dickinson.
Some have claimed that Roosevelt was in league with Montana vigilantes who took the law into their own hands in dealing with cattle thieves — an allegation both Ellison and Sletten believe is false.
The story stemmed from the wife of a Montana vigilante leader recounting events 30 years in the past. According to that story, Roosevelt and the Marquis de Mores, a wealthy French nobleman with whom Roosevelt had a frosty relationship, supposedly both met with the vigilante leader.
Not only is that improbable, given the estrangement between the two men, it was impossible given the published whereabouts of Roosevelt and the marquis, who were in separate locations far apart at the time of the supposed meeting, Ellison said.
“Their schedules disprove the story,” he said.
Both Sletten and Ellison said vigilantism was plainly out of character for Roosevelt, who went to extraordinary lengths to catch the boat thieves and bring them to justice without imposing his own punishment.
“It seems contradictory,” Ellison said. “It is a question of his character.”
Another myth that Ellison shot down involves the buffalo Roosevelt worked so hard to kill. The location of the hunting triumph as it passed into history is often given as Montana Territory. That’s the conclusion reached by an early account, “Roosevelt in the Badlands,” by Hermann Hagedorn, and often repeated by subsequent writers, he said.
But an account by Joe Ferris, interviewed by the Bismarck Tribune in 1900, makes clear that the location was squarely within North Dakota, on Little Cannonball Creek north of today’s Marmarth in Slope County.
“According to Joe Ferris, who was the only man with Roosevelt, the buffalo was shot in North Dakota,” Ellison said.
Roosevelt famously credited the North Dakota for molding him into the man who became president — although he once told a Wyoming audience the same thing, Sletten said, but believes he had a deep appreciation for his formative Badlands experiences.
The idea to form a “cowboy army,” which materialized as the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War of 1898, first was conceived in 1886 while Roosevelt was in Dakota Territory, Sletten said.
The notoriety he achieved from leading the Rough Riders helped catapult Roosevelt’s political career, including a stint as governor of New York, which put him in line for the vice presidency and ultimately the White House.
Altogether, Roosevelt spent a little over a year in the Badlands, most of it between 1883 and 1887. He last visited Medora during a whistlestop in 1918, the year before he died.
“I think the time he spent out here was a very, very important chapter in his life,” Sletten said. Roosevelt once told a New Mexico politician that if he could return to just one memory, it would be to his ranch in North Dakota.
“He wasn’t pandering to anybody,” Sletten said. “So it meant a lot.”
Alongside his prized buffalo head, Roosevelt hung the branding irons from his Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranches.