Cottonwood trees at the Elkhorn Ranch Site
This audio presentation provides narrative and perspectives on Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, including quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Sewall, and historian Clay Jenkinson.
Park visitors traveling to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit will find the audio track an excellent resource for the trip to the site of Theodore Roosevelt's home ranch. Right-click to download the audio file to your computer for use in an .mp3 player or to burn to a CD. You may also listen to the program below.
Elkhorn Ranch Audio Guide
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- Credit/ Author:
- National Park Service
Narrator (female voice): "On behalf of the National Park Service, I welcome you to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Today, we'll be talking about the Elkhorn Ranch. The 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch Unit is the most historically significant site in the park because of its close association with Theodore Roosevelt. In 1884, after establishing his first ranch, the Maltese Cross Ranch near Medora, Theodore Roosevelt rode his horse 35 miles north along the Little Missouri River in search of a site for his second ranch. Although the Elkhorn Ranch house is no longer at the site, visitors today are able to see the land the same way Roosevelt did when he chose this location for his home.
"The time Roosevelt spent here served him well. It transformed him from a boy-politician to an American President; from a frail, sickly, young gentleman, to a man of strong, robust health; and from a person in deep grief to someone who was able to love again and remarry. Theodore Roosevelt described his experiences in the badlands of Dakota this way:"
Theodore Roosevelt: "It was still the Wild West in those days, the far west, the west of Owen Wister's stories and Frederick Remington's drawings, the west of the Indians and the buffalo hunter, the soldier, and the cow-puncher. In that land, we led a free and hardy life, with horse and with rifle. Ours was the glory of work and the joy of living. I do not believe there ever was any life more attractive to a vigorous, young fellow than life on a cattle ranch in those days. It was a fine, healthy life, too. It taught a man self-reliance, hardihood, and the value of instant decision."
Narrator: "A young, 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt first arrived by train in Dakota during the early hours of the morning on September 8th, 1883, to hunt for one of the few remaining bison in the area. He and his guide, Joe Ferris, were on a hunt for ten days before Roosevelt achieved his goal of killing a bison bull. Roosevelt stayed in the area longer than he anticipated, but it gave him the opportunity to meet local citizens and explore the badlands area.
"Roosevelt learned a great deal from the local ranchers during his first visit and truly fell in love with the cowboy way of life. Before he returned to New York City, he decided to buy into the Chimney Butte, or Maltese Cross, Ranch, located seven miles south of Medora. He had two partners: Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield.
"Back in New York City, during the winter of 1884, Roosevelt had to cope with the loss of two beloved people in his life. Listen to Theodore Roosevelt scholar Clay Jenkinson describe Roosevelt's personal tragedy."
Clay Jenkinson: "After the simultaneous death of Roosevelt's wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie on Valentine's Day, 1884, he was a broken man and he really didn't know how he was going to recover, if he could recover. And the scenes of his grief were so depressing to him that he decided to take advantage of his connection with the badlands of North Dakota and come out here. He started to scout around for a place where he could really disappear from the world, and he had heard from a rancher by the name of Howard Eaton that there was some really good land downstream on the Little Missouri. That would be north of Medora by about 35 miles. And Roosevelt rode out there alone and he found this spot and he chose it and called it the Elkhorn Ranch site not because he wanted to get rich running cattle. This was not chosen primarily as an economic decision. He chose it because it was really in the middle of nowhere. And if he built a small cabin there, he could guarantee that he would be left alone, and that's what he needed at that point in his life."
Narrator: "Before his return to Dakota, after the death of his wife and mother, Roosevelt began making plans for his ranching operations. He decided that if his cattle at the Maltese Cross Ranch wintered well, he would purchase more cattle and establish another ranch along the banks of the Little Missouri River. He planned to ask Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, his hunting guides from Maine, to manage the operations at his second ranch. In March, Roosevelt wrote Sewall."
Theodore Roosevelt: "I hope my western venture turns out well. If it does and I feel sure you will do well for yourself by coming out with me, I shall take you and Will Dow out with me next August. Of course, it depends upon how the cattle have gotten through the winter. The weather has been very hard and I am afraid they have suffered somewhat. If the loss is very heavy, I will have to wait a year longer before going into it on a more extended scale, so, as of yet, the plan is doubtful."
Narrator: "The men from Maine traveled to New York to meet with Roosevelt about the ranching business proposal. Neither of the men had any ranching experience. However, Roosevelt guaranteed them a share of the increase in stock, and if the endeavor turned out to be a losing one, he would pay them wages. When Roosevelt returned to his ranch in 1884, he learned that his cattle had wintered well, so he decided to put in 1,000 more cattle and make it his 'regular business.'
"Roosevelt discovered a piece of land that interested him 35 miles north of Medora along the banks of the Little Missouri River that would be a perfect site for his ranch. At the time, however, the land seemed to be occupied. TR gave a fellow who had a hunting shack, that perhaps cost $25, $400 for his possession. He named his ranch the Elkhorn because he found two sets of interlocking elk antlers at the site. Roosevelt wrote Sewall and Dow in early June to inform them that it was time to come west. Roosevelt wanted Sewall and Dow to come to Dakota in August. Roosevelt would put them on a ranch with very few cattle to start with and, in the course of a few years, give them quite a little herd."
Theodore Roosevelt: "I have arranged matters in the West, and found a good place for a ranch, and have purchased a hundred head of cattle for you to start with. So fix up your affairs at once and be ready to start before the end of this week."
Narrator: "On August 25th, 1884, Sewall and Dow arrived by train and moved into the shack, or 'the Den,' near the site where the ranch house would be built. By October, they began collecting wood, mainly cottonwood trees, to build the Elkhorn Ranch house. By mid-December, the walls of the house were completed. Years after the home was completed, Sewall gave a good description of the location of the ranch house and how they built it."
Bill Sewall: "We started building the ranch house in a clump of large cottonwood trees near the bank of the Little Missouri River. West of the house, it was smooth and grassy for about a hundred yards, then there was a belt of cottonwoods which went back for some two hundred yards. They were the largest trees I ever saw in Dakota, and it was from them that we got most of the timber for the house. Back of them, the steep clay hills rose to the height of two or three hundred feet and looked like miniature mountains. A little to the northwest was a hill with coal veins in it which burned red in the dark. To the east, we looked across the river about two hundred yards, then across a wide bottom covered with grass, sagebrush, and some small trees, to the steep clay hills which rose almost perpendicular from the river bottom. Beyond that was the badlands for perhaps twenty miles. Early in October we began hewing timber for the house and we were at work getting materials almost all the time until New Year's. I designed the house myself, and it was a sizable place: sixty feet long, thirty feet wide, and seven feet high, with a flat roof and a porch where, after the day's work, Theodore used to sit in the rocking chair reading poetry."
Narrator: "By the Spring of 1885, the ranch house was completed, and Sewall and Dow went with Sylvane Ferris to Minnesota to meet William Merrifield to purchase more cattle and other supplies for the two ranches."
Bill Sewall: "One thousand were for us, four hundred for them. Then there were bulls, cows, etc., which brought it up to some over fifteen hundred."
Narrator: "The cattle were taken to Medora by way of the train, and Sewall and Dow drove their herd to the Elkhorn Ranch. The local newspaper, The Badlands Cowboy, reported the arrival of the addition to Mr. Roosevelt's herd."
Newspaper Reporter: [Typewriter keys clicking] "Fifteen hundred head of steer yearlings in twos came in Thursday morning for the Elkhorn and Chimney Butte ranches of Theodore Roosevelt. They were in fair condition after their long ride, and except for the disadvantage of a large number being yearlings, give every evidence of growing into good beef. The larger majority are steers, a good lot of shorthorn bulls and one pulled Angus were in the herd. A thousand of these cattle will be driven to the Elkhorn Ranch and five hundred to the already well-stocked Chimney Butte Ranch."
Narrator: "Roosevelt spent little time at the ranch site while Sewall and Dow were building the house, but that changed greatly after the house was completed. When Roosevelt returned to the badlands, he no longer stayed at his Maltese Cross cabin. He spent most of his time at the quiet Elkhorn Ranch. If he wasn't on a hunting trip, or leading a round-up along the Little Missouri River, he was sitting at his Elkhorn writing desk, writing about his experiences. Roosevelt paints the picture of what life was like on the Elkhorn Ranch through his books and personal letters. From his writings, you can visualize how the home was situated. As the view from the veranda is described, you are truly seeing what Roosevelt saw over 100 years ago. Roosevelt wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail,"
Theodore Roosevelt: "My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranchman above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me, about ten miles distant. The general course of the stream here is northerly but, while flowing through my ranch, it takes a great, westerly reach of some three miles, walled-in, as always, between chains of steep, high bluffs, half a mile or more apart. The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms first on one side and then on the other, and in an open glade among the thick-growing timbers stands the long, low house of hewn logs. Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant. But few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the river through whose broad, sandy bed, the shallow stream winds as if lost except when a freshet fills it from brim to brim with foaming, yellow water.
"The bluffs that wall in the river valley curve back in semicircles, rising from its alluvial bottom generally as abrupt cliffs, but often as steep, grassy slopes that lead up to great, level plateaus. And the line is broken every mile or two by the entrance of a coulee or dry creek whose head branches may be twenty miles back. Above us, where the river comes 'round the bend, the valley is very narrow and the high buttes bounding it rise, sheer and barren, into scalped hill-peaks and naked, knife-blade ridges. The other buildings stand in the same open glade with the ranch house. The dense growth of cottonwoods and matted, thorny underbrush, making a wall all about, through which we have chopped our wagon roads and trodden out our own bridle paths."
Narrator: "In Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, he wrote,"
Theodore Roosevelt: "My home ranch house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cottonwoods, one looks across sandbars and shallows to a strip of meadowland behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking chairs – what true American does not enjoy a rocking chair? – book in hand, though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the afterglow of the sunset. The story-high house of hewn logs is clean and neat, with many rooms, so that one can be alone if one wishes to. "
Narrator: "The Elkhorn Ranch house was soon a crowded home with the presence of Sewall and Dow's families from Maine. Dow returned to Maine for a short time, and before his return, he was married. He brought his new wife, along with Sewall's wife and young daughter, back to the Elkhorn Ranch to live with them. Additions to both families occurred within a week of each other when Mrs. Sewall and Mrs. Dow both gave birth to baby boys which were nicknamed 'The Badland Twins.' Sewall made a cradle big enough for the two boys. While the cradle was being made, Roosevelt said that Sewall was making too much noise and should be quieter for the sake of the babies. But Sewall said that the noise was good for them. The Sewalls' little girl did not have a playmate, let alone toys to play with. Roosevelt wrote his sister Anna requesting that she send some toys for the little girl. He wanted her to have the following toys, charging her to make sure that they were sturdy and cheap: a big, colored ball; some picture blocks; some letter blocks; a little horse and wagon; and a rag doll.
"Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, the two families lived in the ranch house year-round. They didn't enjoy their time there as much as Roosevelt did. Sewall didn't like the treeless wastes of the Little Missouri badlands, and lacked much enthusiasm for the cattle venture. His wife wrote of how she found life at the Elkhorn to be very lonesome. By the Fall of 1886, the Maine hunting guides decided to get out of the cattle business. By late September, they squared their accounts with Roosevelt and returned home, leaving the Elkhorn Ranch cattle to Ferris and Merrifield to manage.
"The winter of 1886-87 marked a turning point in Theodore Roosevelt's life. He re-entered an active role in eastern politics and married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Karow. That winter forever changed the amount of time that Roosevelt would spend in the badlands. In Dakota, the winter was very severe, and local cattle wintered poorly. On average, local ranchers lost 75% of their cattle while Roosevelt lost 60%.
"Roosevelt maintained both ranches until 1890 with the Elkhorn as his center of operations with Ferris and Merrifield managing it. However, he did not return to his ranches as often as before. Roosevelt made a few, short trips over the next few years, sometimes bringing family and friends from the East to stay at the Elkhorn. His sister described William Merrifield as the 'superintendent of the Elkhorn Ranch,' and Ferris his 'able Lieutenant.'
"In 1890, Roosevelt released William Merrifield from his contract, and later, Merrifield and Ferris dissolved their partnership. Roosevelt abandoned the Elkhorn Ranch. Roosevelt maintained his cattle interests until 1898, when he asked his brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson, to sell his ranch to Ferris. The Elkhorn Ranch house at this time was sadly deserted with infrequent visits from cowboys and hunters passing through the area. A few years after Roosevelt abandoned the Elkhorn, the buildings disappeared. Settlers began to salvage what usable materials were left of the house and, soon, the home was almost completely gone, with only some rotting foundation logs remaining.
It is likely that the parts of the Elkhorn Ranch buildings live on in other homes, shacks, and sheds in the badlands today. Only a small portion of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch is preserved as part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Other portions of the Elkhorn Ranch lands are protected by the U.S. Forest Service and State of North Dakota.
Today, you can still see the land the way TR saw it, the land that transformed him into the man that would be President. The land didn't just change him, body and soul, but led him to develop new ideas about how Americans should treat the land. TR became known as our 'Conservation President,' and many of his ideas about conservation were planted in his mind when he was living in the Dakotas. He once said,"
Theodore Roosevelt: "It is not what we have that makes us a great nation, it is the way in which we use it."
Narrator: "Roosevelt's days in North Dakota stayed with him for the rest of his life. Maybe the peace and tranquility of the Elkhorn Ranch will have the same impact on you."
Narrator: Jen Whitcomb
Clay Jenkinson as Himself
Theodore Roosevelt: Nathan King
Bill Sewall: Dan Whitcomb
Newspaper Writer: David Swenson
Recorded at Makoche Recording Studio