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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
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National Park Service Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Consists of three units along the Little Missouri River between Watford City, in McKenzie County, on the north, and. Medora, in Billings County, on the south. The visitor center and park headquarters are at Medora.

This park commemorates Roosevelt's contributions to conservation and his role in the growth of the open-range cattle industry on the northern Plains. From his experiences in North Dakota, he came to appreciate the country's natural resources and gained an awareness of the need to preserve them, a policy he championed as President. Within the boundaries of the park, topography, plants, and wildlife remain essentially unchanged from his time and the era when the open-range cattle industry flourished.

In the fall of 1883, Roosevelt, a young New York legislator, made his first trip to the Badlands of North Dakota. His primary purpose was to hunt buffalo and other game. Not long after his arrival on September 7 in the tiny settlement of Little Missouri, on the west bank of the Little Missouri River opposite the newly founded cowtown of Medora, he hired a cowboy, Joe Ferris, as a guide. The latter took Roosevelt to the Chimney Butte, or Maltese Cross, Ranch. It was about 7 miles south of Medora and operated by Joe's brother, Sylvane, and his partner, William J. Merrifield. Roosevelt and his guide then traveled to their hunting base, the ranch of Gregor Lang, on the Little Missouri River about 50 miles south of Medora.

Maltese Cross Cabin
Maltese Cross Cabin. (National Park Service.)

During his brief stay, Roosevelt's association with the Ferris brothers, Lang, and Merrifield fired his enthusiasm for the prospects of the cattle industry on the northern Plains. By the time the hunt ended, he had decided to invest in ranching. Before returning to New York, he bought the Maltese Cross Ranch. In a contract he signed with Sylvane Ferris and Merrifield, Roosevelt agreed to stock the ranch with about 400 head of cattle. In return, Ferris and Merrifield were to operate it for 7 years, at the end of which time they would return to Roosevelt his original investment plus half the increase. The other half was to be theirs.

Returning to New York, in November Roosevelt won reelection to his last term in the legislature. By the next summer, however, grieving over the loss of his wife and mother, both of whom had died on the very same day the previous February, he returned to North Dakota seeking to regain his sense of purpose. He found that a ranching boom was in progress. Encouraged by the success of his ranch, he purchased 1,000 head of cattle and selected a site for a second on the Little Missouri River, the Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles north of Medora. The buildings, begun in the autumn of 1884, were completed in the early summer of 1885. The ranchhouse, one of the finest in the Badlands, became headquarters for Roosevelt's cattle operations, which reached a peak in 1885-86. At that time, he probably owned between 3,000 and 5,000 head.

During his periodic visits to the Badlands, when not participating in ranching chores, Roosevelt turned to writing. At the Maltese Cross Ranch, he completed one book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885); at the Elkhorn Ranch, he wrote most of his Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1886). He also helped organize and served as chairman and then president of the Little Missouri Stockmen's Association and was a member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

The winter of 1886-87 brought disaster to the range cattle industry on the northern Plains. During the preceding summer, many southern Plains cattlemen, plagued by almost continuous drought and frequent brush fires and seeking new forage areas, drove their stock northward onto the already overstocked ranges of the western Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana, which were also in poor condition. By the time winter broke, most cattle herds were in a weakened state. A brutal cycle of heavy snowfall, partial thawing, and subzero freezing ensued, crusting the ground with impenetrable ice. Thousands of animals froze, starved, or fell prey to predators. Newspapers estimated the total loss of stock as high as 75 percent. When Roosevelt returned to Medora in the spring of 1887, he found that more than half his herd had perished. From that time on, his family and political career occupied more of his time and he visited the Badlands less frequently.

Between 1890 and 1892, Roosevelt abandoned the Elkhorn Ranch and shifted his headquarters to the Maltese Cross Ranch. In the latter year, he formed a partnership, the Elkhorn Ranch Company, with some other Dakota ranchers and increased his stock, hoping to make up some of his losses. The company achieved limited success, but Roosevelt, whose burgeoning political life demanded more and more of his time, became disenchanted with the cattle industry. In 1898 he sold out to Sylvane Ferris. Roosevelt did not return to Medora until 1903, the year he made a Presidential tour of the West. At that time, practically the entire population of the Badlands turned out to greet him. His last visit, in 1911, was brief.

Despite his failure as a rancher, Roosevelt felt that his associations with the West immeasurably enriched his life. He once wrote, "I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experience in North Dakota." Certainly, he always regarded his life on the range as an idyllic interlude and contended that "the romance of my life began" there. He admired the rough virtues and the rugged integrity of the men with whom he rode in the Dakotas. They inspired him to help organize the Rough Riders, which brought him fame during the Spanish-American War (1898) and furthered his political aspirations. He also idealized his frontier experiences in his multivolume The Winning of the West (1889-96).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Scene at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (National Park Service, Bouchers, 1958.)

The park consists of about 110 square miles. It is divided into three units along the Little Missouri River: the South Unit, near Medora; the North Unit, near Watford City; and the Elkhorn Ranch site, west of and about midway between the other two units. To reach the latter site, accessible only by a rough dirt road, the Little Missouri River must be waded or forded. Local inquiry should be made before attempting to reach it. Neither the ranchhouse nor any other buildings remain at the site today, but a diorama at the Medora visitor center provides an accurate reproduction. The site has been excavated and nearly all the original ranch features have been located.

Motorists entering the South Unit at the Medora entrance should first stop at the visitor center, which features exhibits on the history and natural history of the park. To the north of the center is the Maltese Cross cabin, built by Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield in 1883-84, the only surviving building from either of Roosevelt's ranches. Removed in 1904 from its original location (now located at the Visitor Center complex in Medora), it was exhibited in various cities and stood for many years on the State capitol grounds at Bismarck, N. Dak. There, the State and the Daughters of the American Revolution administered it as a historic site. In 1959 the National Park Service acquired it, moved it to Medora, and restored it to its original appearance.

Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands
Administrative History

The cabin is a three-room structure of hand-hewn pine logs. There are two doors, several glass-paned windows, mortar chinking, and a high-pitched shingled roof. The roof provides an extra half-story, accessible by a ladder and trapdoor in the kitchen and used for storage and as a sleeping loft for ranch hands. All the furnishings are representative of the 1880's and a few of them are Roosevelt items.

The park is open all year, but spring, summer, and autumn are the best seasons to visit. Camping and picnic facilities are in the North and South Units. The badlands landscape—tablelands, buttes, canyons, and rugged hills—is of considerable scenic beauty and geologic interest. Although the climate is semiarid, much interesting plant and wildlife may be seen. A major attraction is a herd of buffalo that has been introduced into the park.

Medora, still an active cowtown, contains a number of historical structures that help round out the picture of frontier life in the 1880's. The town of Little Missouri no longer exists.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004