Ferris, Joseph

Joseph A. Ferris was a hunting guide, a shopkeeper, and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt in the badlands of Dakota Territory.

Ferris was one of the first settlers in the Little Missouri River badlands. He arrived at Little Missouri Station in 1881, with his brother Sylvane Ferris and a friend, William Merrifield. The Ferris brothers grew up in New Brunswick, Canada. Merrifield was from Quebec. The three met in Fargo, Dakota Territory, while in search of work in the Dakota wheat fields. The three are said to have arrived in Little Missouri on the first train that carried passengers to the badlands.

The trio served as section hands for the Northern Pacific Railroad. They cut wood for the railroad steam engines, and later supplied wild game for NPRR passengers. By the time Roosevelt arrived in the badlands, the Ferris brothers were employed in the old army cantonment that TR's acquaintance H. H. Gorringe was fitting up as a dude resort and hunting headquarters.

Theodore Roosevelt met Joe Ferris at the cantonment on the morning of September 8, 1883. Roosevelt had arrived in the night, found a cot in the Pyramid Park Hotel, slept for a few hours, eaten breakfast, and taken a walk about the crude village. His search for a suitable guide to take him buffalo hunting brought him to Ferris, who was at first extremely skeptical of the New York dude.

The ten-day hunt in the southern badlands of today’s North Dakota was something of an ordeal. It rained through most of the hunt. Roosevelt crawled face first into a bed of prickly pear cactus. His horse reared and his rifle barrel struck the future president in the forehead, causing him to bleed profusely. Their horses bolted in the night, pulling their saddles from under their heads as they slept. Ferris said, “Bad luck followed us like a yellow dog follows a drunkard.” At one point in the misadventure, Ferris lamented, “Say, I ain't ever committed any crime deservin' that anything like this should happen!”

But Roosevelt finally got his first buffalo in the upper reaches of Little Cannonball Creek just north of today’s Marmarth, North Dakota. He did an Indian war dance around the carcass and impulsively handed Ferris a $100 bill for his pains.

They became good friends. Roosevelt employed Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield as his range managers on the Maltese Cross Ranch, which he purchased at the end of his hunting trip in 1883.

Later, Joe Ferris opened a general store in Medora, where he served also as an informal community banker. Roosevelt is said often to have stayed in the rooms above Ferris’ store during his visits to Medora.

The President of the United States wrote to Joe Ferris on October 30, 1907, to express his condolence that one of his old horses, Muley, had died. He thanked Ferris for handling the matter on his behalf. During his presidency, TR named Ferris the postmaster of Medora.

When President Roosevelt traveled through the American West in 1903, the Ferris brothers met the presidential train at Mandan, North Dakota, and traveled with TR to Medora, where the president greeted his old frontier friends and posed with several dozen of them for a formal photograph.

In June 1919, the Ferris brothers returned to Medora to meet with Roosevelt biographer Hermann Hagedorn, and participate in the documentary film he was making about Roosevelt in the badlands.