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

The Investment
Theodore Roosevelt originally came to Dakota Territory to hunt a buffalo. To do so, he solicited the help of Joe Ferris, a 25-year-old Canadian, to serve as a hunting guide. Ferris showed little interest in helping the bespectacled dude at first, but Roosevelt and his cash incentives proved persuasive. Once Roosevelt found someone willing to loan him a horse, Ferris found he hardly had the energy to keep up with the dynamo from New York that had hired him. Undeterred by nasty weather or bad luck, Roosevelt pressed on, much to the exasperation of his hunting guide. Finding a buffalo to shoot proved difficult; most of the bison in the area had been killed mercilessly in recent years by commercial hunters. Unknown to Roosevelt, a herd of 10,000 had been killed nearby just a week before his arrival. Each evening at Gregor Lang's ranch, an exhausted Ferris often left Roosevelt squeezing Lang for every drop of conversation he could provide. During their conversations, and maybe as a result of them, Roosevelt expressed interest in cattle ranching in the badlands.

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
After finally bagging a bull bison in Dakota, which he mounted on the wall of his home at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt returned to New York. He showed characteristic vigor and force as he resumed his legislative duties in Albany, attacking corruption in city government and making newspaper headlines in the process. He was earning greater approval and backing than ever before, and his political career was gaining traction. On February 12, 1884, his wife Alice gave birth to a baby girl in New York City. Just at this moment of joy, tragedy fell upon Theodore Roosevelt.

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.


In June 1884, Roosevelt put his thoughts and energy to ranching at the Maltese Cross Ranch. He sunk another $26,000 into new cattle. Later that summer, Roosevelt brought two trusted friends and woodsmen from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, to help start a new, larger ranch down river, the Elkhorn Ranch. While Sewall and Dow constructed the ranch house (Roosevelt, for his energy, did not prove a useful assistant), Roosevelt went on numerous hunting expeditions, including a 6-week excursion to the Bighorn Mountains. Distracted by his other activities, Roosevelt slipped behind on his planned writing project for the summer, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, which he finished upon his return to New York in December. In the book, Roosevelt wrote about his hunting exploits and shared a prophetic view that overgrazing in the badlands could spell trouble in the future.

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.


Disaster Strikes
The late spring thaw of 1886 gave way to a disastrous season for the Badlands cattle industry. Scorching summer conditions with temperatures reaching 125° F prohibited plant growth. Few crops were harvested, and little useful grazing land was left by the time winter set in. Worse, ranchers had packed the badlands with unsustainable numbers of cattle. Overgrazing and an extremely poor growing season took their toll as ranchers were unable to store any hay for the winter. An ominous haze, probably caused by dust in the air and distant wildfires, loomed over the area throughout the autumn, which some took to be a bad omen.

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.


Although the ranching venture had spelled financial disaster for Roosevelt, the physically and psychologically transformative experience proved priceless. Roosevelt had sought to test his mettle and his manhood in an exceptionally rough part of the West, and had excelled in every degree possible. He had transformed from a scrawny asthmatic to a burly, barrel-chested, bull-necked man with a dark suntan and tireless riding ability. Not only was he physically more mature and larger in stature, he had grown immensely in the minds of the local Medora people and, later, in the eyes of the nation.

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.

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