A nice article in Sporting Classics by Roger Pinckney recounts how it was the Wild American West that made Theodore Roosevelt into the man who could become president.
â€œI have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota, for it was there that the romance of my life began . . . There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears, mean horses, and gunfighters; but by acting if I were not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid.â€
It was wild country, alright, absolutely no fences. General Sherman said the Badlands looked like hell with the fires burned out. He was more right than he knew. The Little Missouri cut through lignite coal veins and lightning strikes set them afire. They were still burning when Roosevelt saw them and they are burning today, 50,000 years after they first lit up.
Buttes, canyons, coulees, draws, shelter from the winter wind, water running from the rocks and the bluestem and buffalo grass grew stirrup high everywhere. A perfect place to winter cattle, and America was hungry for beef. Roosevelt drew on his inheritance and bought additional cows in several installments, pastured them on two spreads, the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn.
â€œMy home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri,â€ he wrote of the Elkhorn. â€œThe nearest ranch above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten miles distant. The story-high house of hewn logs is clean and neat with many rooms, so that one can be alone if one wishes to. The house is situated where the summer sun never hits the porch and one may enjoy a smoke in a rocking chair. Rough board shelves hold a number of books, without which some of the evenings would be long indeed.â€
Roosevelt, already an accomplished horseman, took right to the cowboy life, though his ranch hands noted he never mastered the lariat. He wore silver spurs, chaps, a slouch hat, a handmade buckskin outfit, a skinning blade from Tiffanyâ€™s, and a lavishly engraved .45 Colt Peacemaker. But he worked daylight to darkâ€” â€œcanâ€™t-see to canâ€™t-seeâ€â€”right alongside his men. He kicked together driftwood fires and slept on the ground and was covered with dirt, soot and plastered with manure at branding time. He arrested desperadoes at gunpoint and hauled them to justice.
He had an 1876 Winchester lever gun in .45-75 for hunting in the mountains, a tight-choked 10-bore hammer shotgun for ducks and geese, an open-choked 12 for grouse. When just knocking around, he kept an over-under 16-bore and .45-70 combination gun close to hand in his saddle scabbard. He kept himself, his hands and neighbors well supplied with game and was appointed to the local cattlemanâ€™s association. He volunteered for vigilante posse duty, but was turned down as â€œhis face was too well known.â€
But there was big trouble coming. The white man had been in the Badlands only a few dozen years, too short a time to fully gauge the potential of Dakota weather, which can be ruthless in the extreme. The summer of 1886 was dry, the high ground pastures played out early, and there was no hay to be made. Indeed, there was scant machinery to even make hay. Ranchers had never needed hay before, as the cattle wintered just fine in the grassy coulees, draws and gulches. When the moisture finally came, it was snow, not rain.
Cowmen in the Badlands still speak of it today, â€œthe Great Die Off.â€ One blizzard after another buried what was left of the grazing land, and cattle were found frozen to death where they stood at minus 40. Tougher animals survived long enough to eat the tarpaper off ranch houses. Others were found dead in cottonwood trees along the river bottoms after the snow melted, having climbed massive snowdrifts to reach edible twigs before expiring 20 feet off the ground. Tens of thousands of cattle died, around 80 percent of the herd.
â€œIf you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble,â€ Roosevelt later wrote, â€œyou wouldnâ€™t sit for a month.â€
Roosevelt lost a million in todayâ€™s money, almost half his net worth. And he did not sit down; he fled back East, got to know his young daughter, married a childhood friend, Edith Kermit Carow, ran for mayor of New York City and lost. But this was not the man New Yorkers knew before.
â€œHis voice which would not even raise an echo in Albany,â€ one reporter noted, â€œis now strong enough to drive oxen.â€