Balm of the Badlands


One of the hardest parts of life is moving on after a devastating tragedy. A person must somehow find the inner strength to continue living. The only real question confronting a person is how to find that strength. During the late nineteenth century, an American politician suffered two crushing losses simultaneously. He sought relief by fleeing into the vast American West. Over the next few years, he slowly regained the strength he would need to become president of the United States. His name was Theodore Roosevelt. This is the story of how his time in the Badlands helped heal him after the deaths of his wife and his mother on the same day.

Theodore Roosevelt always seemed to overcome hardships during his early life by turning to active outlets. He was born in New York City on October 27, 1858 with severe asthma and digestive problems. He worked to strengthen himself by boxing and wrestling. He also spent considerable time outdoors horseback riding, rowing and hunting in the Maine wilderness. He also devoured books written by naturalists. By the time he entered Harvard in 1876 he had hopes of becoming a naturalist. The death of his father in early 1878 put an end to such aspirations though. The loss devastated Theodore, and he recorded in his diary how he “had a good square break down.” By October he had recovered enough to visit nearby Boston. On one of these visits he met Alice Lee, and after a long courtship, they were married on October 27, 1880, his twenty-second birthday. Soon after, he embarked on a political career by winning election to the New York Assembly. It seemed he was on the road to success, but only four years later he would endure a tragedy so great that it would be uncertain if he would ever be able to return to a normal life.

In early 1884 Roosevelt was ecstatic about becoming a father. He often travelled back and forth between his home in New York City and the state capital in Albany. On February 10, 1884, he arrived home to find that his mother had typhoid, but despite being ill herself, his wife Alice appeared to be fine. He returned to Albany, and on the 13th he received word that a daughter had been born the previous day. His joy quickly turned to alarm when he got word a few hours later that Alice was dying and he needed to come home immediately. Heavy fog delayed his arrival at the house on West Fifty-seventh Street until nearly midnight. His brother Elliott met him in the front hallway and told him, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.” Roosevelt wasted no time in running up the stairs to Alice’s bedside. She was so weak she barely recognized him. He held her close even as he heard the church bells chime announcing that it was February 14th, Valentine’s Day. He remained by her side for nearly two hours until he was informed that if he wanted to see his mother one last time he had to go now. He went to his mother’s bedroom and was sitting beside her when she died at 3:00 a.m. As she slipped away, Roosevelt too claimed that “there is a curse on this house.” With a heavy heart, he returned to Alice’s bedside and held her as her kidneys failed. At 2:00 p.m., Alice finally died. All Roosevelt was able to write about the day’s events was a single sentence declaring that “the light has gone out of my life.”

In the immediate aftermath of that black day, Theodore Roosevelt did not know where to turn for comfort. Friends and family observed that “there was a sadness about his face that he never had before.” He spent much of his time in Albany and threw himself into his legislative work. In addition to his grief, his asthma flared up again, and he decided the best option was to seek refuge in the Dakota Badlands. He would spend much of the next three years there. Leaving his daughter in the care of his older sister, he travelled by train to the town of Medora on the Little Missouri River.

Roosevelt arrived in the Dakota Territory on June 9, 1884, and the next day he rode out of town to the ranch he had previously bought, called the Maltese Cross Ranch. He intended to settle down as a cowboy. His ranch hands did not think much of him at first, but he quickly won them over by learning to saddle his own horse and by showing a willingness to listen to their advice. He was able to ride well, but he never quite mastered breaking a bronco. Nevertheless, Theodore still rode out every day to inspect the herds of cattle and ponies he kept on the ranch. That November he helped round up a herd of cattle and drove them into town to ship them to market. He also made preparations to buy a second ranch and a thousand more cows. He named the new ranch Elkhorn in honor of the two elk skulls he found and soon turned the ranch into a hunting lodge. As he had always done, he completely threw himself into his new life. By the end of 1884, Theodore Roosevelt was well on his way to becoming a true man of the West.

Throughout 1884 and 1885, Roosevelt shed his eastern persona in favor of a western one. He carried a Colt Model 1873 revolver and adopted the dress of a typical cowboy, including a wide-brimmed hat, “shotgun” chaps, boots and a kerchief bandanna. He had a local woman make him a buckskin suit to show how he identified with the American frontier. It was not just his clothing that changed though. In one letter to his sister Anna, he wrote that he was once able to spend thirteen hours in the saddle without dismounting. He also took on the challenge of riding alone through the prairie. During these rides, he often pursued and killed big game like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and grizzly bears as well as small game like beavers, ducks and grouse. He enjoyed these kinds of masculine activity. Life was, once again, invigorating. It was not just the hunting he enjoyed though. He often wrote letters to his sister, and later books and articles, describing the beauty of the surrounding countryside. It was clear through his writing that the Badlands were proving a balm to his broken spirit. As he regained his spirit, he slowly returned to politics.

Roosevelt strove to show not only his fellow ranchers but also the ordinary citizens that he truly belonged in their western society. He was known for treating his common ranch hands fairly, even allowing them to choose the best mounts for themselves during roundups. He showed a level head when he single-handedly faced down a party of Indians and when as a deputy sheriff he pursued and captured three outlaws. Each of these actions impressed his fellow ranchers and encouraged them to select him as the chairman of the Little Missouri River Stockmen’s Association. They also selected him to serve as a delegate to the larger stockmen’s association in Miles City, Montana where he so impressed the ranchers that he was asked to serve on the executive committee. His reputation continued to spread, as shown by his appearance as the keynote speaker at the 1886 Independence Day celebration in Dickinson, Montana. In the speech he addressed the civic duties that all Americans owed. It was clear that he had a vision of uniting the country. An adopted Westerner from the East Coast, he seemed to serve as a symbol of that unification. He understood that Easterners needed to work with Westerners to preserve the uniqueness and beauty of the American West.

Theodore Roosevelt would not stay in the Badlands forever, but he would continue to protect them and areas like them for the rest of his life. He left the Badlands for good in 1887 after seeing the effects of several devastating blizzards that had swept through the region. He kept his ranch until 1897, but he always maintained an interest in wildlife. He continued hunting game in the Badlands, the Rockies and the Kootenai region of Idaho, but he found there were fewer and fewer animals left. It was then he decided he must help preserve the remaining wildlife so his children could enjoy them as much as he had. In the ensuing years, he cooperated with friends to form various conservation organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club, designed to preserve wildlife as well as wildlife habitats. He worked with others to win support for the 1894 National Park Protective Act to punish poachers who ventured onto national parks like Yellowstone to hunt wildlife. As he pushed to the forefront politically, he continued to lead conservation efforts, first as governor of New York and then as president of the United States. He was known as our country’s “Conservationist President,” and among many other efforts, created the U.S. Forest Service, established 5 National Parks and 150 National Forests, and protected approximately 230 million acres of public land. Remembering his own roots, he also appointed fellow ranchers who actually understood ranching to government posts and helped fund efforts to keep the cattle business going. On a personal level, he continued to collect artifacts from the West and displayed them at his home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill. It was there surrounded by memories of his life in the West that Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep of an embolism on the morning of January 6, 1919.

Theodore Roosevelt’s rehabilitated life as a cowboy proved that comfort and relief can come in many forms. With a broken heart Roosevelt arrived in the Badlands in 1884, but by the time he left in 1887, he had found the strength to continue living. The rejuvenation he drew from his time in the Badlands gave him a new lease on life, and he now had dreams of taking on the world. Transformed by the experience, he became one of the greatest presidents in American history. Stories of suffering and tragedy are common today, but it is the healing afterwards that most of us seek. Theodore Roosevelt rose above his personal tragedy — so can we.

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