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Image Credit: 

above: Theodore Roosevelt as hunter, 1885 (photo by George Grantham Bain/public domain) 

Sins of Omission

That Damn Cowboy

His statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York City is scheduled for removal, which is certainly ironic for one of New York’s most accomplished, adventurous, self-sacrificing, and patriotic sons, Theodore Roosevelt. Although he never owned slaves and was a recipient of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor, he is nonetheless an object of the wrath of the so-called social justice warriors, which suggests their objective is not attacking historical figures involved in slavery, but rather destroying the historic American nation and the people who created and built it. We may be in another antebellum decade.

Theodore Roosevelt was born in the heart of New York City in 1858, the second of four children. He has been characterized as a sickly child but he was actually energetic, although he did suffer from severe asthma attacks. At 11 years old he was able to hike the Alps with his father, stride for stride, and later took up boxing after being pummeled by two older boys. By the time he was in his late teens he was a robust physical specimen and his asthma attacks were far less frequent.

Though Roosevelt was homeschooled and didn’t attend one of the proper prep schools, he went off to Harvard University at age 18. His father, whom he loved and admired greatly, told him to take care of his morals and health first—and then his studies. He took his father’s advice to heart and not only seems to have been a paragon of moral rectitude, but also was a top performer on the varsity rowing and boxing teams. He also excelled in the classroom, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and finishing in the top 12 percent of his class. His achievement was all the more impressive because his father had died two years earlier.

With the inheritance Roosevelt received he could have settled into a life of indulgence and indolence. Instead, he entered Columbia Law School in the fall of 1880. At nearly the same time he married the love of his young life, Alice Lee. After a year at Columbia, the political bug bit him and he was elected to the New York Assembly. He was in his second term when tragedy struck. His wife gave birth to a daughter on Feb. 12, 1884, but two days later his mother died of typhoid fever and his wife of kidney failure. The double blow left Roosevelt devastated. For a time he threw himself into political work with a vengeance, but he soon decided to seek solace in the frontier West.

Roosevelt had first experienced the West on a hunting trip to Dakota Territory in 1883. He roughed it on several hunts, enjoying himself immensely. He also bought a ranch, the Maltese Cross, and stocked it with cattle. Now he was returning to his ranch, not for a visit but to settle. It would be these years in the West that contributed mightily to shaping him into the man America would come to admire—a man who was part cowpuncher, which helped make the cowboy a symbol of our country. Without his time and experiences in what was still the Old West, Roosevelt would not have organized the Rough Riders, not have led the charge up San Juan Hill, and not have become president. The general public today knows next to nothing about this period in his life and textbooks generally dismiss his Western years in a sentence or two.

In June 1884, Roosevelt got off the Northern Pacific Railway at the town of Medora, founded only the year before by a French nobleman turned rancher, the Marquis de Mores, and named for his wife. At the western edge of Dakota Territory near the border with Montana Territory, Medora was in the heart of the Badlands. Despite the name and its rugged terrain, the Badlands had thousands of acres of grasslands, especially in the valley of the Little Missouri River where the town and several cattle ranches developed.

From Medora, Roosevelt headed seven miles south to the Maltese Cross to begin his life as a rancher. He was soon dressed in a buckskin suit, made for him by Cornelia “Widow” Maddox, a pioneer settler with fine tailoring skills. He was armed with an ivory-gripped Colt revolver and a Bowie knife. A wide-brimmed hat sat on his head. When in the saddle, he wore spurs on the heels of his high-topped boots and stovepipe chaps. He wrote his sister:

 

Well, I have been having a glorious time here, and am well hardened now (I have just come in from spending thirteen hours in the saddle)…. First and foremost, the cattle have done well, and I regard the outlook for making the business a success as being very hopeful. This winter I lost about 25 head from wolves, cold, etc.; the others are in admirable shape, and I have about one hundred and fifty-five calves. I shall put on a thousand more cattle and shall make it my regular business…. I have never been in better health than on this trip. I am in the saddle all day long either taking part in the round up of cattle or hunting antelope…. The country is growing on me…it has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own….

 

Before the summer was out Roosevelt had laid claim to a large tract of land 42 miles to the north of the Maltese Cross. He erected a cabin on it, drove in a herd of cattle, and christened his new ranch, Elkhorn. When the Marquis heard about it, he said he had an earlier claim to the same property. Roosevelt noted de Mores had not built a cabin on the property or stocked it with cattle, and ignored the Frenchman’s protestations. Roosevelt understood that not standing fast would expose him to ridicule as a weakling. He desperately wanted to be respected as a man who lived by the Code of the West.

Many looked upon Roosevelt with suspicion when he first arrived. Would this scion from a prominent New York family be up to the rigors of life on the frontier? The glasses he wore didn’t help. However, he threw himself into working his ranches with such determination, energy, and stamina that even the most seasoned cowboys were impressed. But, when faced with life or death, would he have “sand”?

During that first summer, Roosevelt was many miles west of the Elkhorn looking for stray horses. With the sun setting, he decided to ride to Mingusville, a town on the Montana side of the border with a small cluster of buildings, including a railroad station, a livery, and a hotel. It was dark by the time he stabled his horse and walked toward Nolan’s Hotel.

Two shots suddenly rang out from the bar and dining room of the hotel. Undeterred, Roosevelt walked inside and found the bartender and several men “wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like,” and a drunken patron with a revolver in each hand swearing and strutting back and forth. A clock on the wall had two bullet holes in its face, evidence of the drunk’s prowess with his revolvers.

When the drunk spied Roosevelt, he proclaimed that “Four Eyes” would treat the house to drinks. Roosevelt laughed along with everyone else and took a seat at a table, hoping that would be the end of it. However, the drunk strode over to the table and repeated the demand. Roosevelt rose to his feet and, with a quickness that surprised all present, hit the drunk with a right cross, followed by a left hook, and then another right. While collapsing to the floor, the drunk reflexively fired his guns, hitting no one. Roosevelt later said he was ready to drop onto the man with a knee to the ribs, but saw he was unconscious.

Another incident that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a man with sand, and not just another Easterner playing cowboy, occurred just after the ice had broken up on the Little Missouri River. In fear for their lives from vigilantes in Montana, three men stole Roosevelt’s boat that he had tied to a tree just above the river’s shoreline on his Elkhorn ranch. When Roosevelt discovered the theft, he was outraged. He and two ranch hands set out in a second boat to capture the miscreants. The thieves had a couple days head start but there were still ice flows on the river and the weather turned bitterly cold, forcing them to stop frequently, build fires, and hunt for game.

After a week of pursuit, Roosevelt and his hands saw the stolen boat moored on the riverbank and smoke from a campfire. They stealthily approached and saw one man warming himself. Roosevelt sprang out of the brush and leveled a Winchester at the man, who was taken prisoner with no resistance. Still out hunting, his two partners returned singly and suffered the same fate at Roosevelt’s hands.

Now in two boats, Roosevelt, his hands, and the prisoners continued downstream until they came upon a ranch and secured a wagon from the rancher. With one of the rancher’s cowboys driving the wagon and the prisoners sitting in the back, they rolled 45 miles to the town of Dickinson. Roosevelt walked behind the wagon; he couldn’t bind the prisoners with rope for fear their limbs would freeze, so the only way to prevent their escape was for him to walk behind with Winchester in hand.

Roosevelt arrived in Dickinson limping badly on bloody and frostbitten feet. The first person he happened upon was the town’s doctor, Victor Stickney. Said Stickney:

 

He was all teeth and eyes…. He was scratched, bruised, and hungry, but gritty and determined as a bulldog…. As I approached him he stopped me with a gesture, asking me whether I could direct him to a doctor’s office. I was struck by the way he bit off his words and showed his teeth. I told him I was the only practicing physician, not only in Dickinson, but in the whole surrounding country. ‘By George,’ he said emphatically, ‘then you’re exactly the man I want to see.’

 

Roosevelt might have remained on his ranches for decades were it not for the disastrous winter of 1886-87, which killed the herds and brought an end to the open-range cattle industry. Roosevelt returned to the East but as a different man—a man political boss Mark Hanna would call “that damn cowboy.”                              

Roger D. McGrath

Roger D. McGrath

Corresponding editor Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.  A U.S. Marine and former history professor at UCLA, Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous documentaries, including Big History, Cowboys & Outlaws, Jesse James: Legend, Outlaw, Terrorist, and Wild West Tech.

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