River Thieves, the CCC and a Badlands town: Documents of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Oct 18, 2010

During my time working with different pieces in the park’s collection, there are three documents that I feel should be highlighted because of their historical value, not just to the story of the park, but their national significance. While the mission of Theodore Roosevelt National Park has evolved and expanded in its 60 plus years of existence, Theodore Roosevelt and the North Dakota badlands still remain a strong focal point. Each of the three items reflects the human spirit that is intertwined with the rugged buttes and rolling prairie contained within the boundaries of the park. They each illustrate a different stage in the park’s life from the early days of Theodore Roosevelt to the hardship of the Great Depression and the eventual establishment of the national park. The story of the park is more than the tale of Theodore Roosevelt and the inspiration of his conservation ethics, but a chronicle of the enduring American spirit.

The first of the three documents takes us along the banks of the Little Missouri River (which runs through both units of the park) in April of 1886. The letter was written by Wilmot Dow, one of Roosevelt’s close friends and Elkhorn Ranch co-manager, to his wife Lizzie Dow. It is believed to have been written during a chase up the river in which Roosevelt wanted to apprehend three men that stole a boat from his ranch. The letter briefly describes the condition of the river, which was covered in ice at the time and Theodore Roosevelt’s determination to capture these men so justice could be administered.

A page from Wilmot Dow's letter, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. To read the full digital item, go here.

However, the most intriguing aspect of this letter to me is the conditions under which it was written; being along the banks of the Little Missouri at the end of winter, far away from paper or stationery. On the back of the multi-page letter appear a couple of printed pictures, and given the way the paper is ripped on one side, it is clear the letter was written on pages from a book. Ultimately, the physical characteristic of the letter provides as much insight into Roosevelt as the context of Wilmot’s words. Taking a long journey through less-than-comfortable weather to capture boat thieves while enjoying a book (or many), captures the very essence of Theodore Roosevelt’s spirit of the strenuous life. Evidence of his nature and his enthusiasm for giving up the posh life style in New York City to embrace adventure  is what makes this letter so special and important to preserve. This letter is one of the most fascinating items I have read in the collection so far, as I was able to hold a piece of history directly connected to Roosevelt’s time in the badlands.

Our second stop takes us to the Great Depression, which proved to be the catalyst for the creation of what would later become Theodore Roosevelt National Park. First set aside as the Roosevelt Recreational Demonstration Area, the site benefited from the services of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Established by the FDR administration, this group of men were overseen by the US Army and constructed the park’s early infrastructure and recreational facilities.  Use of the land changed significantly at this point, shifting from agricultural purposes such as grazing to recreational uses like camping and sightseeing.

Changes in the badlands landscape are symbolized by a 1941 CCC “Job Application,” a form which was required by the government to be filed prior to the start of any CCC work. This application, submitted about eight months prior to the United States entering World War II, applied to raze or destroy multiple ranch-related buildings. The project manager for the recreational area noted that the buildings couldn’t be maintained and the only option was to remove them, thus eliminating physical evidence of ranching within the park—except for Peaceful Valley Ranch which still exists today. This document is one of the few sources remaining which holds a small piece of the cultural story pertaining to the North Dakota badlands prior to the establishment of the national park.

A CCC "Job Application," Theodore Roosevelt National Park. To see the full digital item, go here.

The last item I will highlight is a report completed in 1947, detailing the natural and cultural resources in and around the proposed area of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Compiled by the National Park Service, the report provides insight into the badlands and the town of Medora by offering pictures and descriptions of the area. Researchers and students, such as myself, can see firsthand how the land naturally and culturally changed over the years. The park service report also describes how the agency felt about including the proposed area in the national park system, which they rejected on the basis of not having enough national significance at the time. But the most thought provoking part of this report is not the issue of national significance, but the photos of the park and town. To be able to compare Medora then, to the bustling town today, can stir up the question of how or even why? How did a small sleepy meat-packing town become what it is today or why did the town change and not the badlands themselves? It truly makes a person reflect, seeing so much change in an area, but so little change just a short distance away.

A photo from the Medora Report, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

I have seen many groups and organizations undertake the difficult task of creating an online digital library of their collections, but a project of this magnitude and complexity is rare and refreshing to see. To have so many collections and groups, including the National Park Service, the Library of Congress, and Harvard College Library, brought together illustrates the potential for many future projects to incorporate technology and the need-to-know spirit to create cutting-edge, revolutionary systems for use by researchers and students alike. It has been exciting for me as a student of history and a park ranger to see how America’s great treasures can be incorporated even more into everyday life. While the task ahead is daunting and challenging, the reward will be great for anyone interested in western North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt.

This is the second post in a two part series on the TR Center blog highlighting the work being done at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. For the first part, see here.

Joseph Camisa is a park ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. He is currently scanning documents and collecting metadata for the Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library project at Mount Rushmore National Historic Site outside of Keystone, South Dakota.

Posted by Joseph Camisa on Oct 18, 2010 in Digital Library  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

Add A Comment

Required Fields