When Theodore Roosevelt left the Dakota badlands after several weeks of hunting in the fall of 1883, he was enamored of the landscape, the people and the potential for profit. He was 24 years old and had, after all, enjoyed a successful hunt. To his wife Alice he wrote, “I will bring you home the head of a great buffalo bull, and the antlers of two superb stags.”
The hunt had been risky enough, fraught with incidents, accidents, rattlesnakes and quicksand, but TR called it “…by all odds the pleasantest and most successful trip I have ever made.” He was feeling robustly healthy and self-assured. The stage was set for him to venture into something even more risky – the cattle business.
This photograph of the Maltese Cross Ranch (also sometimes called the Chimney Butte Ranch) is from the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Sylvane M. Ferris is seated in the buggy, and an unidentified man is on horseback.
In a letter dated September 23, 1883, TR wrote to Alice, “I have also carefully examined the country, with reference to its capacity for stock raising; and the more I have looked into the matter – weighing and balancing everything, pro and con as carefully as I know how – the more convinced I became that there was a chance to make a great deal of money, very safely, in the cattle business.”
Although the letter is addressed to Alice, the words TR wrote read more like the internal monologue of a man who is simultaneously trying to justify a decision he has already made and to convince himself that it was the right thing to do.
Granted, he had adequate reason to search for additional income. By this time, Alice was expecting their first child and the young family’s financial situation was not as secure as he would have liked. Even though Roosevelt was moderately wealthy, his lifestyle as an elite member of New York society was costly.
If the cattle business proved successful, he reasoned, “…it will go a long way towards solving the problem that has puzzled us both a good deal at times – how I am to make more money as our needs increase… “
He decided to enter cautiously, intending to invest more heavily the next year if the first year was profitable. He purchased the Maltese Cross Ranch (also sometimes called the Chimney Butte Ranch) for $14,000, consulting only himself and his perceptions.
“I have been on the ground, I have carefully looked over the chances; I know I run a certain risk, but I do not consider it a very large one, and I belive (sic) that the chances are very good for making more of a success than I could in any other way.”
He noted that others would likely not approve of his decision. However, he wrote, “I have long made up my mind that any successful step I take must be taken on my own responsibility.”
TR was an astute intellectual, a man of reason, and a great negotiator. But, like every mere human, he could not foresee the future. His venture was, at first, moderately profitable and the following year he invested an additional $26,000 when he established the Elkhorn Ranch. Eventually, he would own as many as five thousand head of cattle and have invested as much as $80,000 in his two ranches.
The harsh winter of 1886-87 was a turning point for TR as a cattleman. Across the Great Plains, ranchers lost approximately 60-70 percent of their herds and TR was no exception. He wrote to his sister Anna on April 16, 1887, that, “It is even worse than I feared; I wish I was sure I would lose not more than half the money (80,000) I invested out here. I am planning how to get out of it.”
Although he did not pull out of the business immediately, he scaled back significantly. By the time he finally sold his remaining cattle interests in 1901, he had lost $23,556.68, according to his ledgers. A risky venture, indeed.