When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a skinny, young, spectacled man from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that Theodore Roosevelt experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.
When young Roosevelt stepped from his train car in the predawn darkness of September 8, 1883, he had only a dim idea of what lay before him in the remote settlement of Medora North Dakota on the Little Missouri River. Roosevelt’s interest in hunting a buffalo, as well as some personal interest in the lifestyle of the West, had led him to this remote outpost. With his pregnant wife, Alice, at home 2,400 miles away, Roosevelt stood alone in the dark as the train lurched away toward Montana.
He knew no one in the small settlement before him and was unsure how the locals might receive him. As he walked toward the Pyramid Park Hotel, he was immersed in a world he had only read about, a place that bristled with distrust of outsiders, especially Easterners. Roosevelt could not have imagined how his adventure in this unfamiliar environment brimming with tough, independent men would forever alter the course of his life.
In 1883, the North Dakota Badlands region was still a place where most of the land was not privately owned, the prairie was fenceless, and the game was plentiful. During the few years he spent here, Roosevelt saw the area change dramatically as ranches, homes, businesses, roads, and towns were developed.
Early settlers were not the first to call the Badlands their home. Echoes of a more distant past still ring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park: a bison processing camp, an arrowhead placed ceremoniously on a cliff ledge, a ring of rocks, the remnants of a lodge. Who were the people who inhabited this forbidding land long before Roosevelt’s time? Why did they come here?
The North Dakota Badlands present many challenges and opportunities, certainly reasons why Theodore Roosevelt connected with the land so deeply. The Badlands, with their ecological diversity and unique geology, provided the means for ancient peoples to gather plant materials, procure clays to make paints, find water, and to hunt animals for subsistence. However, the steep terrain and the slick clay soil made travel exceedingly difficult. The badlands were hardly an inviting place to live, and the archaeological record suggests that long-term occupation was impractical.
Modern interpretations of prehistoric cultures by tribal elders tell us that the difficulties surrounding life in the badlands and the inspiring landforms made the site spiritually significant in many ways. People considered the buttes the homes of many animal spirits and came to the badlands on vision quests and for other rituals in addition to hunting and gathering.
A rich diversity of cultures utilized the badlands region during historic times. The most significant groups were the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, whose traditional bison hunting grounds included the Little Missouri River basin. West of the badlands, the Hidatsa’s close relatives, the Crow, also utilized the badlands at the eastern edge of their territory. Many other tribes including the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Sioux, and Rocky Boy came to western North Dakota in the early 19th century mainly for hunting and trading, often at the Fort Union Trading Post. These groups did not necessarily seek out the badlands in the way the Mandan, Hidatsa, or Crow might. The Assiniboine occupied a large area of the Northern Great Plains north of the Missouri River. The Arikara entered western and central North Dakota and several bands of the Lakota (Sioux) expanded their range into western North Dakota in the 19th century. Each group has its own history, traditions, spirituality, stories, and uses associated with the badlands. Eagle trapping, bison hunting, and other spiritual purposes were among the traditional uses.
Eagle trapping was important to the Mandan and Hidatsa culture. The process of eagle trapping was intensely spiritual, following certain social, spiritual, and astrological protocols. Even today, many of the specifics of the ritual are known only to those who have the rights to the knowledge within the tribes. Traditionally, only men with rights to perform eagle trapping were allowed to perform the ritual, and then only during specific times of the year as determined by astrology and presumably to coincide with eagle migration. Preparation including fasting and prayer were essential prerequisites to the act of trapping an eagle.
Bison were another critically important resource for traditional societies, and the badlands offered opportunities to hunt them effectively. The steep badlands terrain made it possible to hunt bison without firing a shot. All that was required of the hunters was to cause the bison to stampede over a steep drop-off. A few sites within the park are known to have been used for this purpose, including the remains of a bison processing area. Plains peoples had uses for every part of the bison. The most important parts were the meat for food and the hide for clothing, blankets, and tipi coverings. Other parts of the animal were used for tools, medicine, toys, decoration, rituals, and more.
Springs were the preferred place to collect colored clays used to make paints for a warrior’s face, horse, and home. Paint was considered a powerful medicine. Some springs were used for very specific purposes: for drinking, to collect a certain material, or to perform a specific ritual or ceremony. Evidence from these activities is scarce and largely based on oral tradition kept alive by today’s tribal members.
Today, Theodore Roosevelt National Park remains a significant place for many Native Americans whose association with the land is rooted deeply in the past. A modern visitor experiencing the park might look upon the landscape with the same sense of fascination, wonderment, and reverence that these traditional peoples did, even though their spiritual beliefs and values may vary.
When Theodore Roosevelt arrived in 1883, he solicited the help of Joe Ferris, a 25-year-old Canadian, to serve as a hunting guide and the two set off for the Maltese Cross Ranch. Five miles south of Little Missouri they passed near Howard Eaton’s Custer Trail Ranch which was later to develop into one of the first dude ranches in the United States. After fording the river twice they came to the Maltese Cross ranch house about three miles south of Howard Eaton’s place. Here, Roosevelt met William Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris, Joe’s brother. The next day the three men continued south along the river to Gregor Lang’s place at the mouth of Little Cannonball Creek near the scoria hills 50 miles south of Medora.
Meanwhile, his search for buffalo was beset with many disappointments. Finding a buffalo to shoot proved difficult; most of the bison in the area had been killed mercilessly in recent years by commercial hunters. Unknown to Roosevelt, a herd of 10,000 had been killed nearby just a week before his arrival.
After a week of hunting in almost continuous rains, Roosevelt and Joe Ferris discovered fresh buffalo tracks which they followed through the rough Badlands. Though they finally came upon an old buffalo bull but riding on the rough grounds caused Roosevelt to miss a shot from close range, and the animal got away. After several more disappointing days in the rain and the cold, Roosevelt finally got his buffalo, pouring three shots into the bull bison as it was disappearing over a ridge.
While utilizing the ranch as headquarters for his buffalo hunt, Roosevelt spent several evenings with Gregor Lang discussing politics and prospects for the cattle industry in the Badlands. A cattle ranching investment in Dakota seemed reasonably sound. Cattle raised in the Dakota Territory reaped the nutritional benefits of a variety of grasses Texas cattle did not enjoy, plus they could be shipped directly to market without enduring long drives that reduced the quality of the meat. That meant higher profits for Dakota ranchers. Roosevelt quickly arranged to purchase a herd of cattle tended by Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield for $14,000 – significantly more than Roosevelt’s annual salary. That winter, following Roosevelt’s request, Ferris and Merrifield constructed the Maltese Cross Cabin. Roosevelt probably did not see his investment in strictly monetary terms, but, as a binding connection to the wide-open spaces for which he had quickly become quite enamored.
Afterward, Roosevelt returned to New York, where he resumed his legislative duties in Albany. In the meantime, his wife Alice gave birth to a baby girl in New York City on February 12, 1884. A telegram arrived in Albany beseeching Roosevelt to quickly return to New York City; his wife and his mother, Mittie, were both dying in the Roosevelt home. On February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt watched in horror as his mother died, then his wife, only hours apart.
Devastated, Roosevelt dealt with his immense grief by immersing himself in work. In June 1884, Roosevelt put his thoughts and energy to ranching at the Maltese Cross Ranch. He sunk another $26,000 into new cattle. Later that summer, Roosevelt brought two trusted friends and woodsmen from Maine, Bill Sewall, and Wilmot Dow, to help start a new, larger ranch downriver, the Elkhorn Ranch. While Sewall and Dow constructed the ranch house, Roosevelt went on numerous hunting expeditions, including a 6-week excursion to the Bighorn Mountains. He returned to New York in December and the next summer was back in North Dakota. Despite his forebodings about overgrazing in the Badlands, he spent another $39,000 on additional cattle and spent significant time in local politics as chairman of the Stockmen’s Association.
The late spring thaw of 1886 gave way to a disastrous season for the Badlands cattle industry. Scorching summer conditions with temperatures reaching 125° F prohibited plant growth. Few crops were harvested, and little useful grazing land was left by the time winter set in. Worse, ranchers had packed the badlands with unsustainable numbers of cattle. Overgrazing and an extremely poor growing season took their toll as ranchers were unable to store any hay for the winter.
The winter of 1886-87 proved to be extraordinarily harsh, compounding the already difficult circumstances created by the vicious summer. Unable to feed their cattle, ranchers were forced to let them fend for themselves. One blizzard after another quickly buried what was left of the grazing land, and cattle were found “frozen to death where they stood” in temperatures as low as -41° F. Tens of thousands of cattle died in the Badlands in the winter of 1886-1887, around 80% of the total population. Gregor Lang, who in 1884, had convinced Roosevelt that cattle ranching in the Badlands was a safe investment, lost 85% of his herd of 3,000.
Roosevelt had been abroad during the devastating winter with his new wife, Edith, and was unaware of the horrors until he returned to the United States in late March of 1887. Upon his return to Medora, Roosevelt found he had lost over half his herd. The blow proved disastrous for Roosevelt, who lost over half of his $80,000 investment, the equivalent of approximately $1.7 million today. As for the future of the Elkhorn and Maltese Cross Ranches, Roosevelt wrote his sister Bamie, “I am planning to get out of it.”
The tragedy proved fatal for Medora. In 1887, the Pyramid Park Hotel, where Roosevelt spent his first night in the Badlands, was loaded onto a flatbed car and shipped to Dickinson. Medora was a ghost town within two years.
Although the ranching venture had spelled financial disaster for Roosevelt, the physically and psychologically transformative experience proved priceless. Roosevelt had sought to test his mettle and his manhood in an exceptionally rough part of the West and had excelled in every degree possible. He had transformed from a scrawny asthmatic to a burly, barrel-chested, bull-necked man with a dark suntan and tireless riding ability. Not only was he physically more mature and larger in stature, but he had also grown immensely in the minds of the local Medora people and, later, in the eyes of the nation.
A man who was largely sneered at upon his arrival in 1883, Roosevelt had grown to prominence, respect, and even admiration in the hearts and minds of local people for his manner and conduct. Roosevelt carried with him an enthusiasm and genuineness that common people connected with, and this rapport was the foundation of Roosevelt’s later political success. His enthusiasm for cowboy life spurred him to form the Rough Riders, the notable cavalry unit that brought Roosevelt national recognition during the Spanish-American War.
Importantly, the cattle ranching collapse and his experiences in the wilderness began to solidify in his mind the need for conservation, which he pursued notably in his Presidential years. The experience in Dakota had left an indelible mark on Roosevelt’s heart, though he would not return often or for long periods after 1887. To Roosevelt, the place where “the romance of my life began” became as much a beloved part of his past as it was a stepping stone for his future.
After Roosevelt’s death on January 6, 1919, a movement was initiated to establish a Roosevelt National Park in the Little Missouri Badlands. In 1921, Carl Olsen, owner of the Peaceful Valley Dude Ranch, introduced a bill in the North Dakota Legislature which petitioned the Congress of the United States to establish Roosevelt Park, but, Congress did not respond favorably at that time.
In the mid-thirties, the Resettlement Administration began purchasing the lands now in the park. Under the technical direction and supervision of the National Park Service, and with the labor and materials supplied by various relief agencies, the park was first developed as Roosevelt Recreational Demonstration Area. In 1946 the area became Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. An Act of Congress on April 25, 1947, established Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park and returned its administration to the National Park Service. In 1978, Congress officially changed the park’s name to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and designated 29,920 acres of the park’s lands as wilderness.
Visitors to the park today can experience the badlands in many of the same ways Theodore Roosevelt did in his time here, for the landscape is preserved as Roosevelt would have seen it. Whether one rides vigorously on horseback through the Badlands or relaxes in the shade of a cottonwood tree, he or she enjoys pastimes that registered deep in Roosevelt’s heart. The same sights, sounds, and smells are all to be experienced just as Roosevelt wrote about them. Most of the animals that Roosevelt saw and hunted still inhabit this unique landscape. It was here that the need for conservation was born in Theodore Roosevelt’s heart and mind, and the land here is preserved in his honor.
Since the park’s establishment, over 15 million visitors have recaptured the history of this rugged land and the men and women who challenged it.
315 Second Avenue
Medora, North Dakota 58645-0007
Source: National Park Service