Podcast Episodes

The Land That Made a President

On his 22nd birthday, in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. Their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, was born on February 12, 1884. Two days after his daughter was born, his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. Distraught, he escaped to a cattle ranch in the Dakotas.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the 26th President of the United States, and his time in North Dakota, in an area now known as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – National Park Service Website

Theodore Roosevelt and Conservation -National Park Service Website

Muir, Roosevelt, and Yosemite: A Camping Trip That Changed the World – Our podcast episode on the time Roosevelt ditched his secret service detail to go camping with John Muir, planting the seed for the National Park idea.


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The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

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Not many realize that Theodore Roosevelt, one of our country’s most famous tough guy cowboy personas, grew up a feeble child who suffered from debilitating asthma and generally poor health. He experienced sudden nighttime asthma attacks that created the feeling of being smothered to death, which terrified him and his parents. Nevertheless, he was an energetic and mischievously inquisitive child. Born in New York City, young Theodore grew up homeschooled by his parents — socialite Martha Stewart “Mittie” Bulloch and businessman Theodore Roosevelt Sr. At age seven, he saw a dead seal at a local market, managed to procure its head, and formed the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” with his two cousins. He learned the basics of taxidermy and filled his “museum” with animals he caught or hunted … it was a different time.

Family trips included tours of Europe, and when hiking with his family in the Alps in 1869, Teddy found that he could keep pace with his father, who he thought to be the greatest man alive. The physical exertion actually minimized his asthma, beginning his lifelong devotion to exercise. After an altercation with two older boys on a camping trip, he had lessons from a boxing coach to teach him to fight and gain strength.

On his 22nd birthday, in 1880, Theodore Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee. Their daughter, Alice Lee Roosevelt, was born on February 12, 1884. Two days after his daughter was born, his wife and mother died on the same day in the same house. Distraught, he escaped to a cattle ranch in the Dakotas.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the 26th President of the United States, and his time in North Dakota, in an area now known as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

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A twenty-four-year-old Theodore Roosevelt first took the Northern Pacific Railroad to the Dakota Territory the year before the tragic loss of his wife and mother. The New York City tenderfoot didn’t receive the warmest of receptions from the local frontiersmen, but Roosevelt’s pocketbook quickly convinced twenty-five-year old Joe Ferris — a Canadian living in the Badlands — to serve as Roosevelt’s guide.

Roosevelt came to the Dakotas to hunt Bison, which proved challenging to find. Commercial hunters had slaughtered most of the herds. But Roosevelt’s grit and determination impressed Ferris. They slept outdoors on the ground for the most part, except through terrible weather when they stayed at the ranch cabin of Gregor Lang. Roosevelt and Lang spent late evenings debating politics and discussing ranching, sparking a fire in Teddy’s mind — he became obsessed with the idea of raising cattle in the northern plains.

Cattle ranching was booming in the area at the time, mainly because of the depleted bison population. Cattle were being driven north from Texas to graze the Dakotas’ nutritious fields. The railroad provided speedy delivery to the east, avoiding the long drives that diminished the quality of the meat.

To Roosevelt, it was a sound business opportunity. He put down an investment of $14,000 in the Chimney Butte Ranch, more than his annual salary, and went into business with a couple local cattlemen. More than just an investment, though, Roosevelt saw this venture as an opportunity to immerse himself in the western lifestyle that he had long romanticized.

Roosevelt returned to New York, resuming his legislative duties in Albany. He was a member of the New York State Assembly, where he acted more like an investigator than a legislator. He took on corporate and government corruption, exposing high-profile figures, including a federal judge, making newspaper headlines in the process.

His political career was gaining traction. He was becoming a key player in the 1884 presidential election, when, on February 12, 1884, a telegram arrived announcing the birth of his first child. He celebrated with his colleagues until he received a second telegram that would hurry him home. His wife and mother were had both taken ill. On Valentines Day morning, Roosevelt sat by his mother’s side as she succumbed to typhoid fever. That evening he held his wife’s hand as she died from kidney failure that had been masked by the pregnancy. Devastated, Roosevelt wrote a large ‘X’ as that day’s diary entry, along with “The light has gone out of my life.”

Roosevelt never spoke of his wife Alice again, even to their daughter. He set out to erase her memory, destroying any letter that mentioned her name.

Roosevelt single-mindedly immersed himself in his work, and then, when the legislative session ended a couple months later, he left his newborn daughter in the care of his sister and went west again. His new profession would now be his escape, and he set forth with the idea that he would eventually spend the rest of his life as a rancher.

Roosevelt had instructed his partners to build a cabin before he left, and he found it easily upon his return. It was dubbed the Maltese Cross Ranch, but, only seven miles from the town of Medora, it wasn’t quite remote enough for the solitude Roosevelt required. He headed north along the Little Missouri River another 30 miles and built a second ranch he named Elkhorn, which would become his home. He threw himself into badlands cowboy life. He helped stop stampedes, he participated in month-long roundups, arrested thieves, even punched out a drunken gunslinger in a bar.

He had been riding for enjoyment through the western part of the Dakota Territory and into eastern Montana Territory for many days when he stopped at a hotel bar for the night. Roosevelt described the incident in his autobiography:

“It was late in the evening when I reached the place. I heard one or two shots in the bar-room as I came up, and I disliked going in. But there was nowhere else to go, and it was a cold night. Inside the room were several men, who, including the bartender, were wearing the kind of smile worn by men who are making believe to like what they don’t like. A shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face.

…As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.

As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed.”

By the next morning, the man had left town on a freight train.

On a more political level, Roosevelt led efforts to organize ranchers to address overgrazing and other shared concerns, forming the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association. He coordinated conservation efforts, establishing the Boone and Crockett Club, whose primary goal was the preservation of large game animals and their habitats.

He split his time between New York and his Dakota ranches over the next few years. Not yet 30 years old, New York Republicans tapped him to run for mayor of New York City in 1886. He accepted, despite having little hope of winning. He campaigned hard, but took third place with 27% of the vote. He thought the loss spelled the end of his political career, and focused his attentions to ranching again.

He began writing “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman,” the first of three books on his experiences ranching and hunting. He wrote, fatefully, about how the cattle industry in the Dakotas was unsustainable. With no regulation, the region became overgrazed. That year, a late thaw and sweltering summer delivered a brief growing season. Wildfires raged, and the cattle were underfed. Ranchers were ill-prepared to feed their livestock through the winter. As fate would have it, the winter weather would also present a challenge. Blizzards piled on top of one another, burying the grazing land, and cattle were found “frozen to death where they stood” in temperatures that reached as low as -41°. Once the snow melted, Cows were found dead in trees having climbed snowdrifts to reach anything edible. Nearly 80% of all cattle in the Badlands died. Roosevelt lost over half of his herd.

Roosevelt was not around for that winter, however. He had been in London, where he married his childhood friend Edith. He was unaware of the devastation until he returned to the U.S. in late March of 1887, where, in the spring thaw, an unimaginable number of cattle carcasses floated down the flooded Little Missouri river. His investment destroyed, he cut his losses and decided to be done with cattle ranching. He sold his interest in the Maltese Cross. He began to divest from Elkhorn, but still used the cabin as a basecamp for excursions and hunting trips, as he returned to New York to focus on politics. In the next 14 years, he would rise from New York City Police Commissioner to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to the Governor of New York, Vice-President, and President.

Although ranching in the Dakotas proved a financial disaster, the experience fed the rest of Roosevelt’s life — as a steward of the land, as a politician, as a person. Roosevelt’s last visit to North Dakota came in the fall of 1918, just a few months before his death at the age of 60.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once said. “It was here that the romance of my life began.”

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park was named in honor of the man who felt the North Dakota lands he roamed so vital, but also for the man who would double the number of sites in the National Park system, creating Crater Lake, Wind Cave, and Mesa Verde, and then passing the antiquities act enabling Roosevelt and succeeding Presidents to proclaim national monuments. By the end of his presidency, he had proclaimed 18 of them.

During Roosevelt’s time in office, the Maltese Cross cabin was hosted in St. Louis at the Word’s Fair, before traveling to Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. It then headed back to Fargo, and then Bismarck, North Dakota, and in 1959, twelve years after the park was established, the Maltese Cross Cabin returned home, restored to its original state behind the South Unit Visitor Center.

Only the foundation stones of the Elkhorn Ranch residence remain, still sitting where they were originally laid, accessible by a long gravel road in a detached unit of the park.

Visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park can experience the land much as Roosevelt did. A diverse array of wildlife – Elk, Bison, Deer, Pronghorns, and Golden Eagles – roam the nearly treeless plains. “Prairie dog towns,” where hundreds of prairie dogs conduct their business, amuse the 500,000 visitors a year that take the short detour from Interstate 94 through western North Dakota.

Isolation is on the menu in these wild lands. In fact, the entire state only has about 250,000 more people than the number that visit the National Park each year. The prairie skies are free of light pollution, allowing infinite stars to shine through the night. And it’s palpably quiet. The silent sunsets are an out-of-body experience.

Two primitive campgrounds are available, with most sites first-come first-served. Backcountry camping is nearly limitless, and an incredible way to see the park, sleeping on the ground, just like Teddy Roosevelt did.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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