MEDORA, N.D. — Theodore Roosevelt’s first impressions of the Little Missouri Badlands were decidedly dour.
His 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 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.
Then, after almost two weeks of hunting in vain, Roosevelt finally bagged his buffalo.
After the buffalo went down, Roosevelt performed his idea of a Native American war dance and presented his beleaguered guide, Joe Ferris, with a $100 bill.
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.
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.
'The strenuous life'
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. 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.”
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.”
"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.”
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.
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.
'An impressive journey'
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.
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.”
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.”