Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Cowboy President

We’re travelling through the Badlands of the Dakotas, territory that from 1883 until 1887 figures very prominently in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Still today, the vast openness of the land and its ability to produce grass and hay makes it great cattle country, and the world’s appetite for beef is greatly appreciated in these parts. With miles and miles between the herds, one’s mind is like to wander in the plush blankets of green and yellow fields.

The rush to the Dakotas, to invest in cattle followed on those of the gold rush. Texas cattlemen had driven herds northward and discovered the region suitable for open range cattle. Cattle ranching is still a major enterprise here.

When TR came West in 1883, it was not only to hunt and seek adventure. It was to know the heat and dust of the day working in the saddle and the wet, cold of nights keeping watch or rounding up a herd stampeded by lightning. It was to be a rancher and a businessman, with capital invested and at risk. Eventually, he would fold the cattle operation after it was decimated by a winter of storm and cold extreme even in Dakota terms.

Like much of the West, the history of the Dakotas is one of confrontation between the westward expansion of American, Christian culture and that of the native people, in this case the Sioux. By treaty, the Sioux had been granted a reservation in exchange for peace. After George Custer’s exploration party discovered gold in 1874 on French Creek, the U.S. government sought to pressure the Sioux into relinquishing gold rich lands. War followed. The confrontation eventually took Custer’s life, hundreds of soldiers and settlers and thousands of Sioux men, women and children.

All of this was just a few short years before TR’s coming to the Dakotas to stake his claim, in cattle not gold. TR’s own experience of Native American life informed his efforts as a federal officer, both as Civil Service Commissioner and later as President. Whole volumes could and have been written about TR and the issues of the native people. Their contemplation is worthy.

The prosperity brought by gold mines, cattle operations and more made the region a destination for settlers and commerce. Today, the history and wonders of the region draw families to enjoy it. Tourism around the Mt. Rushmore National Monument in Keystone is now the lifeblood of the region. Likely Mt. Rushmore tourists add on additional trips to many of the other amazing places nearby. Our own adventures included Wind Cave National Park, Devils Tower National Monument and beautiful portions of the Black Hills Forest, all important works in the TR administration. Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to see nearby Jewel Cave another TR National Monument created in 1908.

A highlight of yesterday’s tour was a visit to Belle Fourche Reservoir, being named for the river that to the southwest flows through the town by the same name. Belle Fourche itself was founded by TR’s friend, Seth Bullock. Built in 1904-1911, the dam and reservoir were part of TR’s reclamation agenda. The resulting bird sanctuary fell into the pattern of TR’s administration: a dam was built and a reservoir created under the Newlands Act; wildlife, especially birds, discover the new oasis and then, TR, by executive order would create a bird reserve or wildlife sanctuary incorporating the reservoir and the land surrounding the reservoir.

Human activities at these reservoirs and refuges are limited and regulated, though to this day many of these facilities allow fishing, hunting and boating, good, healthy outdoor activities of which TR would think fondly, I think. This particular dam and reservoir are in the operations of the federal Bureau of Reclamation under the authority of the Department of the Interior. The South Dakota State Parks administer the surrounding park and on Saturday, July 5, human uses of fishing and boating drove much of the birdlife into the bushes.

While the Wiegands stretched their legs on the Tower and Red Bud Trails that circumnavigate the base of Devils Tower, our golden retriever Faith had been several days without a good run or swim. Dogs are prohibited on the trails of nearly every national monument and park that we have visited. At least some of the wildlife refuges allow dog training and hunting with dogs, so Faith occasionally hikes or swims on these visits. We played fetch the stick along the western shore of the lake, anglers on the shore to our south and big power boats towing inner tubes loaded with thrill seekers in the middle of the lake. A good dozen throws or more and Faith has gotten to use her muscles and cool her coat.

We’ve just crossed into North Dakota on Highway 85, ready for a week of TR activities, highlighted by the Theodore Roosevelt Association Strenuous Life Weekend As we visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park and many other North Dakota places, we give thanks for the cowboy culture. It made a big impact on Theodore Roosevelt and he, in turn, made a lasting impact on the American people. We are so very glad to be in Teddy Roosevelt’s Badlands, celebrating America’s one true cowboy President.

1 comment:

Rick Scorpion said...


On a Deer hunting trip to Quebec Canada back in 1977, I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast that was supposedly owned by desendants of Sylvane Ferris. Sylvane Farris was Joe Farris's brother they were both friends with President Teddy Roosevelt from the time when he owned a ranch in the Dakota Bad Lands. During the time he was makng a bid for a third time president campaign trip in early 1911 he made a whistle stop in Medora. He meet briefly with the Farris brothers and Bill Merrifield he told his three friends he would try to come back and see them later on that year. In the fall of 1911 Teddy contacted Joe Farris and told him he was coming for a few days visit, but it must be kept a secret because there were reports of someone trying to shot him. The report said that a New York Saloon owner, John Swank was following Roosevelt around looking for an opportunity to shot him. (Swank did actually shoot Roosevelt the following year in Milwaukee) During the "Secret Trip" in the fall of 1911 Teddy was not prepared to go hunting, but with help of his three friends they managed to put together enough gear to outfit Teddy for a few day of hunting. As far as the eldery man who told me this story Teddy Roosevelt never returned to the bad lands to hunt again.