Foley, James

James Foley (1874-1939) was a young man Theodore Roosevelt met in the badlands of Dakota Territory. He was a poet, a journalist, and a secretary to North Dakota political figures. Theodore Roosevelt knew Foley’s father, who was his contemporary, and the young poet, whom he first encountered in Medora towards the end of his four-year sojourn in the Dakota badlands.

Foley was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1873. His family moved to North Dakota in the 1870s. The family lived at Fort Abraham Lincoln, where the future poet first attended school.

Foley’s father moved to Medora to work for the Marquis de Mores. The family, including the poet’s mother and five other children, remained in Bismarck for a number of years. Foley graduated from Bismarck High School in 1888 at the age of 14. He was a member of the second class to graduate from the school. Foley's first book, A Little Book of Prairie Breezes, was published in 1902. The Bismarck High School yearbook, Prairie Breezes, is named for Foley’s book.

After graduation, Foley moved to Medora, where he lived for a year, before attending the University of South Dakota, also for one year. Later he spent a number of years in the Dakota badlands. For a time he taught school in Medora.

After the Marquis de Mores left Dakota Territory permanently, Foley’s parents, James Foley, Sr., and his wife Gertrude, lived with their children in the Von Hoffman House, which has recently been restored in Medora. Title to the house was transferred to the Foley family in 1914.

For many years Foley served as a writer and later an editor for the Bismarck Tribune. He became interested in state politics and for many years served as a stringer for a number of national newspapers. He was also for a number of years the state secretary to the North Dakota Republican Party. In 1904, at the age of 30, he went to work as the secretary to North Dakota Governor E. Y. Sarles. Beginning in 1907 he was employed as the secretary to the North Dakota state senate.

Foley gained a measure of national fame for his poetry. He wrote prose both for the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post. He produced more than a dozen books of poetry. When Roosevelt traveled through North Dakota in 1903, Foley wrote a poem celebrating TR’s return. He also wrote a poem entitled “Theodore & Joe,” about the friendship between TR and his first hunting guide Joe Ferris.

Foley left North Dakota on December 1, 1913. He and his wife relocated to California, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Foley was regarded by many as the unofficial Poet Laureate of North Dakota. In 1926 the Superintendent of Public Instruction for North Dakota, Minnie J. Nielson, invited Foley, who was by now living in California, to write lyrics for a song about North Dakota. Foley’s song, “North Dakota Hymn,” was premiered in 1927 at the Bismarck City Auditorium. Dr. C. S. Putnam of North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) created the arrangement, based on a tune called “The Austrian Hymn.” Foley’s song was officially adopted as the North Dakota State Song in 1947, the same year that Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was created by Congress.

Foley is best known for his poem, “A Letter Home.”

In 1916, former President Roosevelt wrote the introduction to one of Foley's books, Voices of Song. "Among the friends I made was the father of the author of this volume,” Roosevelt wrote. “Mr. Foley was one of the comparatively few men of that time and region who was devoted to reading and to books. Now and then, after six or eight weeks on the range with valued friends who were of distinctly non-literary type, I would come in to spend an evening with Mr. Foley for the especial purpose of again listening to speech about books. At that time the present poet was one of the small Foley boys, and seemed far more likely to develop into a cow-puncher than a literary man. At different times he and his brothers worked for me and with me.”

In the same foreword, Roosevelt also explained that Foley had been entrusted to drive a guest of TR’s, “a certain Eastern college professor and his wife out to see the Bad Lands,” during TR’s absence. Foley lost control of the horses, which ran away and eventually caused the professor to break his leg. Roosevelt said that Foley went to visit the scholar in the hotel where he was convalescing, and generously offered to waive his fee.