President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.
Though Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president, was a Texan and an absentee rancher with acreage and cows west of Austin, and though Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, acted in Western movies and TV dramas and owned the 688-acre Rancho Cielo in Santa Barbara County, Calif., both were more hat than cow. Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, owned two ranches and ran cattle near the town of Medora, N.D.—the Chimney Butte Ranch, also known as the Maltese Cross, and the Elkhorn, a few miles from the Montana border. Roosevelt was an energetic, ebullient figure who loved the outdoors. A New Yorker, a Harvard graduate, and eventual Nobel Prize laureate and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, he was just 42 years old when he took office in 1901, the youngest president ever. And it was the West that had molded him into a man.
Roosevelt first came west in the summer of 1880. He and his younger brother, Elliott, hunted in Iowa and Minnesota, and within a month, they bagged more than 400 animals between them. After getting married, Roosevelt made his second venture west in September 1883. Now a New York State Assemblyman and a captain of the New York National Guard, he stepped off the train at the Little Missouri station (called “Little Misery” by locals) in Dakota Territory, intending to hire a guide and kill some buffalo. He wore a Derby hat, a Brooks Brothers suit, and thick pince-nez eyeglasses, and soon the scattered denizens of the Badlands were calling him “Four Eyes.” They snickered at his Harvard accent and raspy tenor voice and remarked that he spurned tobacco and hard liquor. But Roosevelt bought two ranches, and after tragically losing his wife in childbirth (“The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote.), he returned to Dakota Territory in 1884 and spent the next two years working cattle.
A chronic housebound asthmatic as a child, he flourished in the dry Western air and found solace in the West, still a great blank land in the 1880s, where a man could lay aside his sorrows and lose himself in lonely grandeur. He learned to rope and brand steers, buck a horse, and breathe trail dust. While he never sat a horse with the confident ease of a hand, he won a grudging admiration for his willingness to ride any horse brought to him. Ever the hunter, he killed and dressed antelope, elk, sage hen, prairie chicken, duck, and rabbit, and even shot a nine-foot-tall, 1,200-pound grizzly “through the brain.” By campfire light, he would read aloud from a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that he kept in his saddlebags.
“It was still the Wild West in those days, the Far West of Owen Wister’s stories, and Frederic Remington’s drawings, the soldier and the cowpuncher,” he wrote in 1894. “And in that land we led a hardy life. Ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.”
In this period, while working furiously to make his ranch profitable, he also served as deputy sheriff of Billings County under “Hell-Roaring” Bill Jones. When thieves stole from his Elkhorn spread, Roosevelt and a small posse trailed the three bandits for days, captured them, and delivered them to the sheriff’s office in Dickinson. Clay S. Jenkinson, the authority on Roosevelt’s Dakota days, says that Roosevelt “refused to consider any labor beneath his dignity, however dirty, dangerous, or unpleasant it was.”
Roosevelt returned to the East Coast in 1886 “as brown and tough as a hickory nut” and campaigned for mayor of New York City. He married his childhood playmate, Edith Kermit Carow, and served as governor of New York and then as vice-president. Following the assassination of Williarn McKinley in 1901, he was named president of the United States and was re-elected in 1904. He had sold his ranching interests in 1897 but returned to the West many times over the years. During his presidency, Roosevelt also created five national parks, 150 national forests, 51 national wildlife refuges, 50 bird sanctuaries, and several national bison preserves.
He shares a mountain with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln for darn good reason. In October 1918, just three months before his death at age 60, he stopped in Bismarck and Fargo, N.D., on a national speaking tour and said, “I owe more to the times when I lived out here and worked with the men who have been my friends than to anything else.”
Theodore Roosevelt at San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.