Theodore Roosevelt the Rancher
"It is certainly a most healthy life. How a man does sleep, and how he enjoys the coarse fare!" -Theodore Roosevelt
A cattle ranching investment in Dakota seemed reasonably sound. Cattle raised in the Dakota Territory reaped the nutritional benefits of a variety of grasses Texas cattle did not enjoy, plus they could be shipped directly to market without enduring long drives that reduced the quality of the meat. That meant higher profits for Dakota ranchers. The Marquis de Morès sought to connect the markets of the East with the grazing lands of Dakota by building a slaughterhouse and shipping the dressed beef in refrigerated rail cars from Medora, the burgeoning town he founded in 1883.
Roosevelt quickly arranged to purchase a herd of cattle tended by Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield for $14,000 – significantly more than Roosevelt’s annual salary. The two surprised cowboys agreed to tend the cattle for Roosevelt when they were released from their existing contract. That winter, following Roosevelt's request, Ferris and Merrifield constructed the Maltese Cross Cabin. Roosevelt probably did not see his investment in strictly monetary terms, but as a binding connection to the wide open spaces for which he had quickly become quite enamored. As biographer Edmund Morris noted, “Fourteen thousand dollars was a small price to pay for so much freedom.”
Return to New York
A telegram arrived in Albany beseeching Roosevelt to quickly return to New York; his wife Alice and mother Mittie were both dying in the Roosevelt home. On Valentine’s Day 1884, Theodore Roosevelt watched in horror as his mother died, then his wife, only hours apart. Devastated, Roosevelt recorded in his diary a large "X" and wrote only a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” Roosevelt dealt with his immense grief by immersing himself in work, laboring with almost superhuman fervor. He began to erase the memory of his beloved wife, destroying any correspondence that made reference to her, and never spoke of her again, even to their daughter. Roosevelt never looked back.
The next summer, Roosevelt found himself further entwined in Medora. Despite his forebodings about overgrazing in the Badlands, he spent another $39,000 adding cattle to his already sizable herd, and spent significant time in local politics as chairman of the Stockmen’s Association. In September 1885, Roosevelt received a somewhat threatening letter from the Marquis de Morès, who was in jail on charges of murder. The Marquis claimed that Joe Ferris, Roosevelt’s employee, had been rounding up witnesses against him, which he saw as an attack. This situation made Roosevelt nervous, for the Marquis was well known for his quick temper and itchy trigger finger. Roosevelt shot a letter back, “Most emphatically I am not your enemy; if I were you would know it…” Roosevelt’s openness satisfied the Marquis and tensions cooled between Medora’s two titanic personalities.
In the spring of 1886, thieves cut Roosevelt’s boat from its mooring at the Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt, Sewall, and Dow quickly assembled a makeshift boat to chase after them down the ice-clogged Little Missouri. Several days downriver, Roosevelt and his men caught up to the thieves and captured them. After a rough multi-day hike, Roosevelt singlehandedly delivered his prisoners to Dickinson and collected a $50 reward. Two of the thieves were sentenced to jail time; the third Roosevelt deemed too unintelligent to have had a hand in the crime. Locals wondered why Roosevelt had not killed the thieves on sight.
The winter of 1886-87 proved to be extraordinarily harsh, compounding the already difficult circumstances created by the vicious summer. Unable to feed their cattle, ranchers were forced to let them fend for themselves. One blizzard after another quickly buried what was left of the grazing land, and cattle were found “frozen to death where they stood” in temperatures as low as -41° F. Hardier cattle survived long enough to eat the tar-paper off the houses in Medora before succumbing to the elements. Others were found dead in trees after the snow melted, having climbed massive snowdrifts to reach the edible twigs before expiring amid the branches. Tens of thousands of cattle died in the Badlands in the winter of 1886-1887, around 80% of the total population. Gregor Lang, who in 1884 had convinced Roosevelt that cattle ranching in the Badlands was a safe investment, lost 85% of his herd of 3,000. In the spring, the Little Missouri swelled onto its floodplain, surging with melt water and ice. The carcasses of innumerable cattle bobbed down the icy river.
Roosevelt had been abroad during the devastating winter with his new wife, Edith, and was unaware of the horrors until he returned to the U.S. in late March of 1887. Upon his return to Medora, Roosevelt found he had lost over half his herd. The blow proved disastrous for Roosevelt, who lost over half of his $80,000 investment, the equivalent of approximately $1.7 million today. As for the future of the Elkhorn and Maltese Cross Ranches, Roosevelt wrote his sister Bamie, “I am planning to get out of it.” The tragedy proved fatal for Medora. The Marquis de Morès, was unable to pump life back into Medora, although he pumped a fortune into it. In 1887, the Pyramid Park Hotel where Roosevelt spent his first night in the Badlands was loaded onto a flatbed car and shipped to Dickinson. Medora was a ghost town within two years.
A man who was largely sneered at upon his arrival in 1883, Roosevelt had grown to prominence, respect, and even admiration in the hearts and minds of local people for his manner and conduct. Roosevelt carried with him an enthusiasm and genuineness that common people connected with, and this rapport was the foundation of Roosevelt’s later political success. His enthusiasm for cowboy life spurred him to form the Rough Riders, the notable cavalry unit that brought Roosevelt national recognition during the Spanish-American War. Importantly, the cattle ranching collapse and his experiences in the wilderness began to solidify in his mind the need for conservation, which he pursued notably in his Presidential years. The experience in Dakota had left an indelible mark on Roosevelt’s heart, though he would not return often or for long periods after 1887. To Roosevelt, the place where “the romance of my life began” became as much a beloved part of his past as it was a stepping stone for his future.
Visitors to the park today can experience the badlands in many of the same ways Roosevelt did in his time here, for the landscape is preserved as Roosevelt would have seen it. Whether one rides vigorously on horseback through the Badlands or relaxes in the shade of a cottonwood tree, he or she enjoys pastimes that registered deep in Roosevelt’s heart. The same sights, sounds, and smells are all to be experienced just as Roosevelt wrote about them. Most of the animals that Roosevelt saw and hunted still inhabit this unique landscape. It was here that the need for conservation was born in Theodore Roosevelt’s heart and mind, and the land here is preserved in his honor.