Before I came to work for the Theodore Roosevelt Center here in Dickinson, North Dakota, I never knew Theodore Roosevelt had lived here. I am originally from central New York and I knew Theodore Roosevelt to be our guy: born in the City, governor of the state, and first came to the presidency in Buffalo, New York. He was as traditional a New Yorker as one could get. Sure, he went off and hunted and explored throughout the country and the rest of the world, but I never realized his strong affinity with the Dakotas, or that he’d once ranched here, even thought of moving here permanently after the tragic loss of his first wife and his mother on the same day. How different history would be if he’d stayed!
Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt a buffalo before they were gone. He fell in love with the stark landscape and challenge of the area and before leaving, he bought into a ranching operation as you’ll see in the ledger below which details Roosevelt’s investments from 1883 to 1885 in Dakota cattle ranching. You’ll note land is not listed as an expense. Roosevelt never owned an acre of land in Dakota; none of the ranchers of the time did. They were essentially squatters on mostly government-owned land. The land was open range for the vast herds of cattle so ranchers simply had “headquarters” and tradition stated that a rancher was entitled to four miles of land upriver and four miles downriver from that spot.
Detail from a ledger Theodore Roosevelt kept for his business in the Dakota Badlands. MS Am 1454.39, 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.
Roosevelt’s romance with ranching on the banks of the Little Missouri faded after his second marriage and improved political prospects back east. Also, the disastrous winter of 1886-7 ruined his herds and Roosevelt wrote to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, “The losses are crippling. For the first time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to any ranch. I shall be glad to get home.” Roosevelt would keep up ranching operations until 1898 when he would sell what was left to his good friend Joe Ferris. However, his time in Dakota had profoundly changed the man Roosevelt was, leaving him to say later in life that he would never have been president if it were not for his experiences in North Dakota.
Clay S. Jenkinson, Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands: An Historical Guide (Dickinson: Dickinson State University, 2006).