The 24 year old dude arrived on the train about 3 a.m. on the night of September 7-8. The train stopped in the village of Little Missouri, sometimes called Comba, on the west bank of the Little Missouri River. He spent the rest of that first night at the Pyramid Park Hotel.
The next day he managed to hire the reluctant Joe Ferris to serve as his hunting guide, borrowed from the formidable and shifty-eyed E.G. Paddock a rifle strong enough to kill a buffalo, and traveled seven miles south of Little Missouri in a buck wagon to the Maltese Cross Ranch, occupied by William Merrifield and Ferris’ brother Sylvane. There he spent his second night in the badlands (September 8 ). Although Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris were not at first impressed by the New York dude, they gained some appreciation when he insisted on sleeping on the floor rather than displace them from their beds.
At first they were amused, skeptical, and sometimes derisive. He cut a somewhat ridiculous figure with his designer buckskins and his Tiffany’s knife, his falsetto voice and Harvard accent. He sensed this himself.
When I went among strangers I always had to spend twenty-four hours in living down the fact that I wore spectacles, remaining as long as I could judiciously deaf to any side remarks about ‘four eyes’ unless it became evident that my being quiet was misconstrued and that it was better to bring matters to a head at once.
There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.
Little Missouri rancher Frank Roberts said,
He was rather a slim-lookin’ fellow when he came out here, but after he lived out here… his build got wider and heavier… he got to be lookin’ more like a rugged man.
He first ventured west to the Dakota badlands to hunt a buffalo. After a very difficult hunt in the remotest region of the stark countryside near the Montana border, he got his buffalo. Meanwhile he fell in love with the badlands and impulsively sank a fair amount of his inheritance into, first, the Maltese Cross Ranch, and then a second ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, in what is now western North Dakota. He thought he was recreating in his own life the adventures of such American heroes as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and George Rogers Clark. He loved riding the Dakota plains in a buckskin shirt at breakneck speed.
After his wife Alice and mother Mittie died on the same day, February 14, he believed that the light had gone out of his life forever. That summer he went out to his ranch in the badlands of Dakota Territory, and threw himself into the strenuous life. At first, dismissed as an Eastern dude, “Four Eyes,” he surrendered to the spirit of place of the Little Missouri River Valley, and found solace and common humanity among the cowboys of the American West. Still grieving from the death of his wife and mother, he said,
Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.
He killed all sorts of big game during his western years, including a grizzly bear, and he had wild western adventures, such as punching out an abusive gunslinger in a bar, or chasing down the three thieves who stole his boat and marching them overland, under almost impossible spring blizzard conditions, to the nearest sheriff. He had encounters with American Indians that he regarded as potentially hostile. He took long lonely rides in the broken country along the Little Missouri River Valley. He participated in roundups and brandings and he tried unsuccessfully to join a group of vigilantes who were pursuing horse thieves.
In just three years the fragile Harvard narcissist had become a man. The dude who had instructed a cowpuncher to “hasten forward quickly there” eventually came to be accepted by the cowboys with whom he associated. This happened because he realized the virtues of hard work, perseverance, letting actions speak louder than words, and laboring side by side with men who were not his social equals, but who had compensatory virtues that made them his superiors. His Dakota experience gave him the confidence that he was a 100% true-blue American, and not a wealthy, urbanized socialite, comfortable and effeminate, like many of his friends, men who represented the decline of America’s pioneers. He believed the Dakota territory was the arena of American renewal. He went there to be renewed, and he was.
He learned, to his chagrin, that his eastern connections, Harvard accent, and air of superiority absolutely hindered him in North Dakota. He came to understand that he would have to overcome the “disadvantages” of his birth and social station if he wanted to be taken seriously in the badlands. The cowboys eventually saw that he was much more than an eastern dandy – that there were elements of true grit and greatness in his character and a doggedness that was truly remarkable – and they came to respect him as one of their own, or almost so.
In case you have not figured it out yet, I am referring to Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, and one of four Presidents whose face is carved into Mount Rushmore. In recent years many conservative Republicans have had a very low opinion of TR. I can understand that sentiment, and his third party, Bull Moose, run for President in 1912 did end a Republican era where the GOP occupied the White House for 44 out of 52 years. Those 8 years they did not occupy the White House Grover Cleveland governed as a fiscal conservative guardian of the US Constitution. I am grateful to the folks in North Dakota that did help a fragile 98 pound Harvard narcissist become a man. I wonder if he had married a lady from the Badlands instead of his childhood sweetheart from Boston, would he have become even more conservative and embrace limited government. We will never know. I have vacationed in Medora, North Dakota the last two summers to escape the West Texas heat for a few days. While technological advances have transformed the area from how it was in TR’s day, there are still some wonderful conservative Americans residing there today. Western North Dakota remains an arena of American renewal.
Cross-posted at Unified Patriots