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Violence in the Old West

Aug 09, 2011

The last of our interns are finishing up this month but they still have things to share! Today, Charity from Texas who looks at Theodore Roosevelt’s old West and the hard lessons to be learned there.

Theodore Roosevelt’s writings burst with his personality. Reading his letters was like reading an e-mail from a good friend describing the events of his day, his opinion on a variety of issues. They were truly a joy to read. I was most touched by Roosevelt’s understanding and acceptance of people’s foibles. He gave leaders little leeway in abusing their office or endangering the country. But for the everyday things, he neither turned a blind eye nor did he judge harshly. In a letter describing his 1903 tour of the old west, his description of the farmers, ranchers, miners and criminals bore this out.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) Houghton Library. Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) 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.

In 1886, Roosevelt wrote to his sister Corinne about how he brought in three thieves– the last two days by himself. Although he describes the conditions and how he had to stay watchful, he never went into detail as to what the men had done or who they were. I found it a fascinating letter, one that tends to reinforce an almost Hollywood vision of the old west. [Editor's note: this is the famous boat thieves episode, one of the iconic stories of Roosevelt's time in North Dakota]

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, April 12, 1886. MS Am 1785 (1185). Houghton Library. Harvard University.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, April 12, 1886. MS Am 1785 (1185). 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.

So I was thrilled when letter I found a similar incident mentioned in a very long (36 page) letter written to Secretary of State John Hays. In 1903, President Roosevelt took a tour of the Western States and during it, he discovered the fate of a thief he had caught, Lippy Slim.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) Houghton Library. Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) 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.

What struck me was how accepting and understanding Roosevelt was of the violence found in the West. As he put it in his letter to Secretary Hays:

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) Houghton Library. Harvard University.

Detail, Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Hay, August 9, 1903. MS Am 1785.2 (104) 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.

But Death by violence had entered into their scheme of existence in a matter-of-course way which would doubtless seem alien to the minds of Boston anti-imperialists.

Other instances he mentions in the letter reinforced this observation. Although he did not seem to condone it, he never quite condemned it either. In our own current time of divisive politics, Roosevelt’s realization of how different attitudes and people are in different parts of the country seems to be a very important message to us today.

Charity Martin has worked in libraries as a professional and paraprofessional for almost 20 years. After moving to Texas and working part time substitute teaching and cataloging, she is currently exploring starting her own business. In this project, she found a combination of two of her passions – cataloging and history.

Posted by Charity Martin on Aug 09, 2011 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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