From the first moment Theodore Roosevelt stepped onto North Dakota soil in 1883 to hunt, he fell in love with this portion of the United States. Originally called the Badlands because of the rough and rugged terrain, Roosevelt was in no way deterred. He set out to hunt local buffalo and the more time he spent in the area, the more of an appreciation he gained for nature. It was here in North Dakota that the idea of conservation was solidified in a young Roosevelt’s mind. In fact, in his own words, “I would not have been president if not for my experience in North Dakota.”
After entering North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt was exposed to the idea of cattle ranching. During his stay, he learned more about how it worked and even talked to some of the local ranchers. Fifteen days into his hunting trip, he invested $14,000 into the Maltese Cross with partners Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield. The next year, Roosevelt saw tragedy up close as he lost his mother and wife within hours of each other inside the same dwelling, in February of 1884. To escape the loss, the following summer Roosevelt headed back to North Dakota and opened up the Elkhorn Ranch. When the time came for a trip back to North Dakota, Roosevelt would stay at the Elkhorn Ranch and continue practicing his newfound skills including riding western style and roping. He continued to improve his hunting ability as well. In his books The Wilderness Hunter and Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Theodore Roosevelt’s love of the land is evident.
Roosevelt lived the life of a working cowboy while in North Dakota. A well-known story details what happened when thieves tried to steal his boat. Instead of turning over the responsibility to someone else, Roosevelt went after them himself and captured them, turning them into the authorities for a reward of $50. To the future president of the United States, North Dakota represented real freedom and living life to the fullest. His time spent outdoors on any number of adventures gave him a real love for nature and the idea of maintaining it for future generations. Ideas about conservation began to take hold. During his presidency he established the U.S. Forestry Service and set up several bird reservations and game preserves. The Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by Roosevelt, gave the president the power to restrict the use of certain federally owned lands. This gave him the ability to set up 5 National Parks and declare 18 locations U.S. National Monuments. In total, he protected 230,000,000 acres of public land, much of which is still set aside for conservation and wildlife preservation. The goal was to raise awareness about conservationism and to provide the American people with examples of nature that had been untouched by progress.
The winter of 1886-1887 was especially difficult for those living in the Badlands. Roosevelt lost around 60% of his cattle and a large portion of his investment. Once again experiencing loss, Roosevelt headed back to the East Coast and began to look at his options in the political arena. His last visit to Elk Ranch took place in 1892 and shortly after, he sold the land and its contents to his business partner Sylvane Ferris. Despite the infrequency of his visits to North Dakota later in life, there is no doubt that this portion of the United States shaped Theodore Roosevelt’s view of nature and its protection. His legacy continues today in the form of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Countless clubs, associations, and programs use his name as a way to signify the emphasis they place on conservation and protection of nature. Many see themselves as following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt as they attempt to protect certain portions of American soil. His life and presidency serve as an example for those that want to not only enjoy the land but also preserve it from man’s influence and change.
To learn more about Theodore Roosevelt, his experiences in North Dakota, and his reputation as the Conservation President, consult the following links:
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
- Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota
- The Conservation of Natural Resources: Theodore Roosevelt’s Seventh Annual Message to Congress
- Points of Interest Along the Missouri River: Theodore Roosevelt Park (PDF)
- Roosevelt in Medora
- Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch
- Searching for a Young Bull Moose in the Badlands (PDF)
- An Interview With Theodore Roosevelt
- Conservation as a National Duty
- Conservation: Luxury of Necessity?