Theodore’s Cattle

(Left) A frail-looking Theodore Roosevelt, September, 1875 (a month shy of his 17th birthday). (Right) Theodore Roosevelt, likely in his mid-late ‘20’s (studio photograph, no  known credit or date).

(Left) A frail-looking Theodore Roosevelt, September, 1875 (a month shy of his 17th birthday).
(Right) Theodore Roosevelt, likely in his mid-late ‘20’s (studio photograph, no known credit or date).

By: Bert Entwistle

As Theodore stepped down from the train he stood for a moment in the failing light taking it all in. It was early September of 1883, and his presence in the tiny Badlands town of Medora was hardly enough to impress anyone. At five foot nine, painfully skinny and the picture of poor health, his thin moustache and wire frame glasses made him a portrait of a dude, which he was. At twenty-five, he’d left the wealthy trappings of his New York City childhood to go out West and make his mark. He told his friends he wanted to kill a wild buffalo before they were all gone. He was also there for his health, an issue he chose to keep private.

A Harvard graduate and politician by trade, Theodore was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the western lifestyle. He had really come to buy cattle, with plans to eventually start his own ranching business. Shortly after arriving he connected with three young Canadians; two brothers named Joe and Sylvane Ferris, and William Merrifield. Living on the Maltese Cross Ranch and grazing their cattle on public land, Roosevelt liked them immediately and the relationship between the four men lasted his entire lifetime.When he left Medora, he gave them a check for $14,000 to buy 450 head of cattle to start his operation.

His next order of business was to kill his buffalo and he enlisted Joe Ferris to guide him for the hunt. Everyone found out early that the little eastern politician didn’t like the name Teddy, but preferred his given name Theodore. Early in the relationship some still called him Teddy, or four-eyes, or sometimes even worse behind his back.

Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the future President of the United States had yet to prove himself to anyone in the Wild West; it wouldn’t be long before the skeptics became true believers. Ferris and Roosevelt scoured the Badlands on horseback for a week in all kinds of weather looking for a suitable trophy. After missing the first two that
he shot at, he finally got his prize and ran up to the dead bison and let out a war whoop that could be heard for miles. After concluding his impromptu celebration he handed Ferris a hundred dollar bill and returned to Medora a happy man.

Back home in New York his wife, Alice, was several months pregnant. The first letter that she received from him was full of excitement and typical Roosevelt enthusiasm. “Darling Wife,… by Jove, my usual bad luck in hunting has followed. I haven’t killed anything, and afraid the hall will have to go without horns, for this trip at least. But I have had adventures enough at any rate.”

Roosevelt talked about wagon breakdowns, missed shots at buffalo and antelope, rain, rough country, wind and generally miserable conditions. He was sick from drinking bad water, and subsisted on dry crackers and rainwater for several days. He wrote that after spotting four bull buffalo, they “… crawled nearly a quarter mile on our bellies like snakes.” By his own admission he hit the old bull “… too far back, and the wound did not disable him.” The bull recovered enough to catch up with the others.

“The next hour was as exciting as any day I ever spent,” he continued. They gave chase on foot and horseback. When they finally caught up to the wounded bull, Roosevelt writes, “… the bull turned to bay and charged me; the lunge of the formidable looking brute frightened my pony. He threw up his head and knocked the heavy rifle into my head.” Roosevelt was half blinded from bad eyesight and blood in his eyes. The bull then charged Ferris and he escaped with his fast horse.

Eventually, he claimed his trophy for the hallway, and after two weeks it was time to return to New York to be with his wife when she gave birth. Returning to Medora the following June was a bittersweet moment. His wife Alice died in childbirth and his mother died on the same day in the same house. The pain was nearly more than Roosevelt could take, and he knew the wild loneliness of the Badlands country was the only thing that might save him from the depths of his depression. He once wrote that “The Badlands look like Poe sounds.” When he returned, he declared that ranching would forever be his occupation, bought more cattle and plunged into the business with his three Canadian partners and loved every moment of it.

This time he came to the Badlands prepared; he looked like the cover of one of the popular dime novels of the day. He was covered in buckskins, chaps, a giant hat, silver Conchos and a big buckle. With his droopy mustache and glasses he raised more than a few eyebrows. Many locals had a good laugh on him, but he didn’t care, he was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do. Roosevelt wasn’t the only one to take to the grasslands around Medora.

A few months before Roosevelt arrived, a Frenchman with the impossible sounding name of Antoine Amedee- Marie-Vincent-Manca de Vallombrosa Marquis de Mores had also decided to stake his claim in the grass of the Badlands. Tall and handsome, he was also wealthy and arrogant. He decided to buy land rather than free range his stock. Soon he had 3,000 fenced acres and hundreds of cattle. Since there was now a rail line, he built a slaughter plant and planned to ship his meat east by rail. It was the Marquis de Mores that founded the town of Medora.

Between Roosevelt, the Marquis and other area ranchers, the cattle business boomed. They could ship all the live cattle they wanted in livestock cars, or butchered meat in the Marquis’ new refrigerated railcars. It was a good time for Roosevelt. His childhood weaknesses and his asthma were long gone; he was now a healthy, even robust young man, toughened up by the country and the work. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had been fashioned into the foundation of the Rough Rider he would later become.

The legendary blizzard of ‘86 – ‘87 changed their world and the cattle business quickly and forever. The ranchers of Wyoming, Montana and the Dakota Badlands were wiped out. Every living animal on the open range was dead. In the spring, thawing rivers plugged up with the bloated carcasses of the cattlemen’s futures. The Marquis had left early that winter, and after the storm Roosevelt wrote that he had “… rode for three days without seeing a live steer.” The Badlands cattle business was done. As for the future president, he took the defeat in stride and moved on, but the Badlands of North Dakota had succeeded in shaping up a skinny, sickly rich kid into the man who now looks out proudly from Mount Rushmore overseeing what he helped build.


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