4.The Bad Lands
Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough. - Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
The Badlands calmed him and lifted his spirits. He was deeply sad at times, but the physical and mental activity kept him from severe depression. He was writing now and playing cowboy. Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough, he later wrote.
The plains seemed to go on forever and ever as Theodore rode his powerful horse across them. It was the closest thing to flying. He could ride this way without seeing a house, a farm, another human being. He felt the fierce joy of it, the exhilaration. It was morning, the air was sweet and crisp, he was young and anything was possible. These rides helped heal his psychic wounds. His problems seemed infinitesimal. His dead wife, his daughter, his troublesome political conflicts seemed so far distant as to no longer matter. They were as nothing. Only his free spirit and his connection to the galloping horse beneath him mattered.
He wanted to wear something that symbolized his love of the West and its history. He saw an illustration of a frontiersman and instantly knew what he wanted. It was the fringed tunic or hunting-shirt, made of buckskin or homespun, and belted in at the waist. This was the dress which Daniel Boone was clad when he first passed through the trackless forests of the Alleghenies and penetrated into the heart of Kentucky...it was the dress worn by grim old Davy Crockett when he fell at the Alamo.1 It symbolized pioneers and hunters who had gone before and in his heart he was one of them and he wanted to wear something to symbolize his identification with them.
He felt as absolutely free as a man could feel.2
With my pearl hilted revolver and beautifully finished Winchester rifle, I shall feel able to face anything.3
The whole experience was a healing one. Activity and fatigue prevented negative thinking. So I have had good sport; and enough excitement and fatigue to prevent over much thought; and moreover I have at last been able to sleep well at night, he wrote Bamie.4 I have never been in better health than on this trip, he wrote. I am in the saddle all day long either taking part in the round-up of the cattle, or else hunting antelope.5 Hunting and overcoming danger made him happy.6
Free at last, but needing more solitude, he looked for property on which to build a ranch house.
He established a second ranch called the Elkhorn and sent for Will Sewall, who brought his nephew, Wilmot Dow, and both of their wives to manage the place. Surrounding the new ranch was, according to Lincoln Lang, virgin country, silent places, and the still unspoiled sylvan atmosphere which would always mean more to him than anything else.7 Roosevelt had Sewall and Dow build a new house. He wanted eight rooms, many windows, a stone fireplace and a cellar to be used as a darkroom.8
His day started at 2:00 a.m. and sometimes extended into the night but he was buoyantly happy.
He wrote later:
We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle, or fought in evil feuds with one another; but we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living.9
He loved the courage, physical endurance and humor of the cowboys. The cowboy was hard working, brave and self-reliant. The cowboy was a man Theodore could admire and respect.
The cowboys, wrote biographer Edmund Morris, loved him so much they would follow him anywhere, to death if necessary - as some eventually did. They and their kind, multiplied seven millionfold across the country, became his natural constituency.10
Needing something to occupy his mind, he accepted an offer from the editor of the American Statesmen Series to write the life of Thomas Hart Benton. His book about Benton was making very slow progress; writing is to me intensely irksome work, he complained.11 He envied Lodges uniformly excellent style of writing.12
He found similarities between himself and Benton. Both men were vital, stubborn, intelligent. But Benton was humorless, pompous and prejudiced.13
He wrote a tribute to Alice and briefly sank into despair. My hopes lay buried in the East, he said to Sewall. I have nothing to live for. Sewall replied, You have your child to live for. Her aunt can take care of her a good deal better than I can, Roosevelt said. She never would know anything about me, anyway. She would be just as well off without me.14
Roosevelt, Sewall and Dow were hunting one day when their boat was stolen. Roosevelt had no doubt who had stolen it. It had to be three outlaws who lived just twenty miles away. The leader was Finnegan, a horse thief with long red hair. Roosevelt and his men set to work in our turn to build a flat-bottomed scow, wherein to follow them. To submit tamely and meekly to theft, or to any other injury, is to invite almost certain repetition of the offense, said Roosevelt. They packed flour, coffee, bacon and warm bedding, books for Roosevelt to read and a camera to record the capture of the thieves. Roosevelt hoped to turn the situation into a good magazine article. It was cold so they took heavy jackets, wore heavy trousers and fur coats. Along the way they shot prairie fowl and deer because a man doing hard open-air work in cold weather is always hungry for meat.15
They floated a hundred miles in freezing weather, Roosevelt reading Anna Karenina the entire way.
As they rounded a bend they saw the boat. They could see the smoke rising from a campfire. The only one in the camp was a German whose guns were lying on the ground. He, of course, immediately surrendered. They waited for the return of the other two thieves.
When the two thieves came back, Roosevelt shouted at them to drop their guns. One did, but the leader, Finnigan, hesitated. Then, as I walked up within a few paces, covering the center of his chest so as to avoid overshooting, and repeating the command, he saw that he had no show, and with an oath, let his rifle drop and held his hands up beside his head. It was too cold to tie the men. It would mean freezing their hands and feet off during the night. They had to leave them untied and keep perpetual guard over them. It took eight days to get back to civilization. Roosevelt finished his book and noticed that the thieves had brought a large number of books themselves, including many dime novels, the History of the James Brothers and a large number of silly society novels which they eagerly devoured.16
They faced ice jams and the threat of Indians on their way back and had been reduced to eating flour mixed with river water. 17
When they reached a cow camp Roosevelt sent the other two men on, and he continued the journey with the prisoners to Dickinson, traveling through ankle-deep mud and freezing cold weather. For thirty-six straight hours he walked behind the wagon that the prisoners were in. He plodded along, hungry, cold and tired. It was a most desolate drive, he wrote later. I trudged steadily the whole time behind the wagon...it was a gloomy walk...18 When he reached Dickenson he delivered his prisoners to the sheriff.
A frontier physician described Roosevelts entry into the town:
I was just leaving my office on my way to lunch when, a block or so away, I saw the most bedraggled figure Id ever seen come limping down the street...He wore glasses, for one thing, which in itself was immoral out in that country, and his fringed buckskin jacket and chaps were covered with sticky gumbo mud. He was all teeth and eyes. His clothes were in rags. He was scratched, bruised and hungry, but gritty and determined as a bulldog. He was actually a slender young fellow but I remember that he gave me the impression of being heavy and rather large. As I approached him he stopped me with a gesture asking me whether I could direct him to a doctors office. I was struck by the way he bit off his words and showed his teeth. I told him that I was the only practicing physician, not only in Dickenson but in the whole surrounding country.
By George, he said emphatically, then youre exactly the man I want to see. Ive just come forty miles on foot from the Killdeer Mountains, bringing down some horse thieves at the point of a Winchester and my feet are blistered so badly that I can barely walk. I want you to fix me up.
I took him into my office and while I was bathing and bandaging his feet, which were in pretty bad shape, he told me the story of the capture of the three thieves...The average westerner, of course, would have hanged the thieves out of hand. But evidently that did not occur to Roosevelt.
The men were sentenced to twenty-five months in prison.19
Roosevelts motto was, He who ignores injury invites the offense. Sewall simply wrote, Dont think we will have anything more stolen from us.20
When he was in New York, Bamie managed his social life, entertaining his friends at his new house called Sagamore Hill. She strongly encouraged him to return to politics.
Winter of 1886
Roosevelt predicted the worst winter to ever hit the Great Plains in 1885 when he wrote:
It is merely a question of time as to when a winter will come that will understock the ranges by the summary process of killing off about half of all the cattle throughout the North-west.21
Just such a winter was 1886-87. The Great Plains was hit with the worst winter on record. Day after day, blizzards struck. Sheets of ice covered the vegetation and cattle starved to death, some with feet frozen to the ground. Others died smothered by snow drifts. Wolves grew fat on the trapped cattle. Temperatures dropped to 40 below zero. Children froze going between house and barn and people trapped alone in their houses committed suicide.
I am bluer than Indigo about the cattle, wrote Theodore. It is even worse than I feared. To Lodge he wrote, The losses are crippling.22
Theodore began liquidating his investments in the Bad Lands.23
During the Victorian era, it was fashionable to cling to the memory of the dead. Therefore the virile, energetic, 28-year-old Roosevelt resolved to remain faithful to the dead Alice. He fully intended never to marry again. Theodore sensed that his childhood friend, Edith Carow, was determined to marry him in spite of his vow. He asked his sister to be sure to warn him whenever Edith visited her so that he could stay away. This warning system broke down one day and he found himself face to face with the attractive 25-year-old on his sisters stairway. 24 They met frequently after that and secretly got engaged. It had been scarcely two years since his wifes death so they postponed their wedding indefinitely.
Theodore alternated between periods of elation and depression. His writing prevented boredom which could lead to obsessive thinking. His fast horseback rides in the cool, crisp air helped keep depression at bay. Keeping ones mind and body busy was all one could do at the time to fight depression. All his books got good reviews. Some of them were written very fast, perhaps during a manic period. Hunting Trips of a Ranchman was published in 1885; Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail in 1888; and The Wilderness Hunter, one of his best books, in 1893.
All were excellent books but did not have the greatness that he thought was in him. He sensed he would achieve great things in his life, but not through writing.
The New York Times had printed an article mentioning his engagement to Miss Carow. When Bamie threatened to sue the newspapers for libel, Theodore hastened to write her. He told her that what she had read was true. He himself disapproved of second marriages and berated himself for failing the dead Alice. It was not Ediths fault, he told Bamie. He assured her that she could keep Baby Lee.
Talking with the editor of the Bad Lands Cow Boy, he said he thought he could do best in a public and political way. Then you will become President of the United States, the editor said. Theodore, according to the editor, seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion. He said, If your prophecy comes true, I will do my part to make a good one.25
Sewall advised him to go back into politics because such men as he didnt go into politics and they were needed in politics...your chance to be president is good. That looks a long ways ahead to me, Theodore said. Sewall replied, It may be a long ways ahead, but it is not so far ahead of you as it has been of others that got there.26
In October of 1886 Theodore was visited by a succession of the influential Republicans of the city asking him to run for mayor. With the most genuine reluctance I finally accepted. It is of course a perfectly hopeless contest, he wrote Lodge, but they were most urgent for me to run; and I did not well see how I could refuse.27 Having little chance of winning, he booked a passage to London for himself and Bamie, where Edith was staying with her mother.28
On the way to England, Bamie and he met a British diplomat Theodores age named Cecil Spring-Rice. Spring-Rice was fascinated by Roosevelt and thought him a typical American: self-reliant, cultivated, but clumsy socially.
Theodore and Edith got married in London. Spring-Rice was Theodores best man.
While visiting Rome he wrote six articles for Century Magazine. He wrote Corinne:
Read them all to Edith and her corrections and help were most valuable to me. Now I am wondering why my Life of Benton has not come out. Here, I generally take a moderate walk with Edith every morning, and then a brisk rush by myself. I had no idea that it was in me to enjoy the dolce far niente even as long as I have. Luckily, Edith would dislike an extended stay in Europe as much as I would.29
He visited a cathedral in Milan and was awed by its majesty:
The lofty aisle, with its rows of towering column, white and shadowy, and the fretted, delicate work above, all seen in the dim half light that comes through the stained glass windows, really awes me; it gives me a feeling I have never had elsewhere except among very wild, charm-rent mountains, or in the vast pine forests where the trees are very tall and not too close together. 30
The couple moved into the 22-room house in Oyster Bay. Little Alice was living with them at both Ediths and Bamies insistence. Edith thought of Alice as her child now and Bamie knew Alice needed to be with her father.
In 1887, Theodore, Jr., was born. Little Alice said, my little brothers a howling polly parrot. Theodore, now busy writing a book on the West, wrote that Ted and Alice were the dearest children imaginable.31
Boone & Crockett Club
In November Theodore set off with some companions for five weeks of ranching and hunting. After two weeks the companions had had enough of Roosevelts hyperactive life style and rough living and went back to New York. I really prefer to be alone while on a hunting trip, Roosevelt said after they had left. He wandered for three weeks hardly seeing any game. Alarmed, he was convinced that the big game was facing extinction.32 Old men who had spent their lives hunting also viewed with alarm the wholesale killing going on around them. 33
Because of his tremendous reverence for nature and worried that the game he had hunted was becoming extinct, he started the Boone & Crockett Club which held meetings at his house. The main purpose of the Club was to conserve large game animals and their habitat.34
The Club went into action to save Yellowstone. It was successful in 1894 when Congress approved the Park Protection Act which saved Yellowstone from further exploitation. 35
The Club lobbied for the Forest Reserve Act, which became law in March 1891 and allowed the President to set aside at will any wooded or partly wooded area whether of commercial value or not. When Theodore became President he signed millions of acres into perpetuity.36
The Club also helped the American Forestry Association halt the rapid attrition of Western woodlands.
It was the first such club in the world. Its membership included scientists, lawyers and politicians and they wielded much influence. Roosevelt was president of the Club until 1894.37
A blizzard in mid-March of 1888 paralyzed New York for days and Theodore was facing an extended period of inactivity, something he hated.38 He decided to write The Winning of the West, which is a four volume history of the West from Daniel Boone to The Alamo in 1836. 39 The book was original, clearly written and exciting. It got favorable reviews and was quickly sold out.40 Volume I was finished by his thirtieth birthday, October 27, 1888. By April of 1889 he had finished Volume II. 41 To supplement his income he wrote numerous magazine articles and edited and proofread books.42
Theodore was being prepared for leadership. He was better prepared than most politicians to lead: by his time visiting Europe as a child, his years at Harvard, his work in the New York legislature where he led a committee and was minority leader, his management experience in the Bad Lands, his proven ability to defend himself against outlaws, his charisma, his energy, his practice in public speaking, his thinking and research skills, his knowledge of history and his reverence for nature.
His drive to become healthy mentally and physically had paid off. He was no longer a slender, frail youth. Rugged, bronzed, and in the prime of health was the description of him in the Pioneer Press. The New York Tribune said he had a sturdy walk and firm bearing. William Roscoe Thayer said he had become physically a very powerful man....with broad shoulders and stalwart chest, instead of the city-bred, slight young friend I had known earlier.43 I am as tough as a hickory nut, he told Bamie.44 His voice was strong and hearty, ready and trained for speech-making.45 He had lived down the fact that he wore spectacles and remained deaf to remarks about four eyes. 46
For the rest of his life, people considered him first and foremost a rough riding cowboy and he was proud of that description.47
He dealt with depression as soon as it threatened, never giving it a chance to really take hold of him. Hed pick up a pen or ride his horse, fast, when he saw the black beast coming.
He was hyperactive, but he used the energy from that to get things done. It was said he was impulsive, but he only appeared that way. Most decisions he made were well thought out; he just had not discussed them with anyone at the time that they appeared impulsive. Before he made one of his impulsive decisions, he had thought it over for days.
He was filled with life, power and the ability to get things done. He was ready, more than ready, for his next challenge. He had hinted to Lodge that he wanted to be a Civil Service Commissioner when he said:
I do hope the President will appoint good civil service commissioners.48
His next job would give him the chance to work in Washington D.C. and see how he liked it. A friend observed him there looking at the White House as if he had examined the building and finding it to his liking, has made up his mind to inhabit it.
Roosevelt himself wrote:
I used to walk past the White House, and my heart would beat a little faster as the thought came to me that possibly - possibly - I would some day occupy it as President.
For now, at age 31, he was only going to be a Civil Service Commissioner.49