If TR liked adventure, his hunting trip to Dakota Territory in 1883 fit the bill neatly. In a highly entertaining and incredibly vivid letter to his wife Alice, TR describes sickness, hunger, thirst, damp, cold, bloodshed, and an intense frustration over his inability to bag a buffalo – or anything else.
Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Alice Lee Roosevelt, September 14, 1883, MS Am 1541.9 (101), Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
TR and his guide, Joe Ferris, had been out on the hunt for nearly a week, and as yet had not killed a single thing. Surviving on crackers and hard biscuits, they camped outdoors in the damp cold and rode or walked all day in pursuit of game. It was not that there wasn’t game to be had.
TR was an enthusiastic hunter and outdoorsman, but the rugged conditions and foreign landscape of the Northern Great Plains took him by surprise. Of no small inconvenience was the scarce and highly alkaline water that made him sick for days after his arrival. He wrote to Alice that, “The first five days I did not eat anything but crackers, and never over six of them a day, which was a small allowance when I was riding or walking all day long, and sleeping out in the damp at night.”
Alkaline water is common throughout western North Dakota and, although it is rarely toxic, it takes a toll on one’s digestive system until he has become accustomed to its high saline levels. The day TR finally found the buffalo, he was feeling better.
After traveling by pony all day without seeing any game, they had spotted “four great buffaloes feeding out in the open” at about four o’clock in the afternoon. TR and Ferris dismounted about half a mile from the bison, continuing on hands and knees and, eventually, crawling “…on our stomachs like snakes.”
The ensuing chase is comical to read about, but would not have been so humorous to experience.
TR wrote that he managed to shoot the largest of the bison but that his shot did not disable “the old bull” and so the chase continued. The subsequent action includes gathering darkness, a charging bison, spooked ponies, a bleeding gash on the head for TR, and more missed shots. The hunt was unsuccessful.
“…it had become so dark that, after a trial, we found that we could not follow on foot; and so the infernal beast escaped after all!” TR wrote. “Our troubles were only begun.”
The trouble was the water. Or lack of it.
The ponies were played out; the night was dark and cold. They had not had a drink since noon, and were in desperate need of water. For two hours, they searched.
“We led our worn out horses over the prairie till we found a pool – and such a pool! The water was fairly putrid; it was a mere green scum; but it was liquid, and so we had to make it do,” he wrote.
Having drunk the brackish water and eaten “a mouthful of biscuit,” they settled in on the cold ground for what would prove to be a long night, and the start of a long two days. Complete with runaway ponies, “buffalo wolves,” rain, and more missed shots at bison, TR related the misery of the hunt to Alice, who was safe and dry back home in New York.
Still, with his typical buoyant energy, he declared that the hour chasing the buffalo on horseback was “as exciting as any I ever spent.”