Roberts, Margaret

Margaret Barr Roberts (1853-1938) was a rancher, an entrepreneur, a single mother, and a friend to Theodore Roosevelt. 

She was born on September 15, 1853, in Ireland. She immigrated to the United States with her family ca. 1854, when she was just an infant.

She married John Lloyd Roberts, a butcher and a cattle dealer, in April 1871. In 1878-79 Roberts was a contract supplier of beef to the United States Army. By 1882 he was the foreman of the famed Custer Trail Ranch a few miles south of today’s Medora, North Dakota, on the east bank of the Little Missouri River. In 1883, at Margaret’s suggestion, the family created the Sloping Bottom Ranch approximately ten miles south of the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks.

In late 1886, during the hardest winter on record on the northern Great Plains, John Lloyd Roberts disappeared. He left for Cheyenne, Wyoming, with two thousand dollars in his pocket. He was never heard from again. Margaret Roberts believed that he had been murdered for the cash he was carrying. At the age of 33, she was suddenly alone with five young children, all daughters, on a modest ranch, in a region where women were few in number and single women virtually non-existent. At the time of her “widowhood,” Margaret’s property consisted of nothing more than the house John had built for her at the Sloping Bottom Ranch, a dozen head of cattle, five horses, and a small flock of sheep. 

Roberts determined to stay on in the Little Missouri River valley. While holding the ranch together as well as she could, Margaret sold meat, butter, eggs, wild fruit, and garden produce to neighboring ranchers and Medora hotels and restaurants to support her young family. She also did laundry, sewing, and knitting for area cowboys. Theodore Roosevelt regarded her as a woman of courage, intelligence, and culture. Partly thanks to his support, she became known as the “First Lady of the Badlands.” 

Theodore Roosevelt met Margaret Roberts at least twice in the years following his Dakota sojourn: in 1903 when he traveled through North Dakota as president, and once toward the end of his life when he passed by train through Dickinson. On both occasions he singled her out in the crowd and asked that she be brought forward to talk with him. On the 1903 journey, he informed the crowd she was "the most wonderful little woman in the Bad Lands." 

 In 1906 Mrs. Roberts moved to Dickinson, North Dakota, where she operated a boarding house. She also continued to provide a range of practical services to the public, and she is said to have become a kind of informal banker in the community. 

She eventually wrote a short account of her relations with Roosevelt. 

She died on April 9, 1938, in Dickinson. Her grandson Harry Roberts wrote extensively of the family’s adventures in western North Dakota. He was also for many years the site supervisor for the Chateau de Mores in Medora, North Dakota.