The remarkable Teddy Roosevelt

Monday, July 27, 2009

Each summer the little town of Medora, in the Badlands of western North Dakota, becomes the destination of choice for thousands of tourists. Medora is located on Interstate 94, and is on the route from Minnesota to the Black Hills. It is also billed as the Gateway to Roosevelt National Park. But the main attraction of the restored Old West town is that it once was the home of Teddy Roosevelt, and its citizens have banded together to let visitors have a good time while they learn about Teddy Roosevelt, the Old West, and Medora in bygone days. There are the usual quaint shops, old time saloons and restaurants, and horseback trail rides, and especially, as it has been for 40 years, the musical revue, "The Best Show in the West." This is a top-notch variety show, with a very talented troupe of boys and girls, plus varied headliners from the Broadway stage, who change monthly during the season.

The show is a lot of fun, and during the course of the evening the audience learns a lot about Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was probably the most unlikely cowboy that ever rode a horse. He was born in a 4-story brownstone house in New York City in 1858. The Roosevelts were an influential family, and very wealthy (hardware, glass importing, real estate). They had been in New York State since the 17th Century, and were confidants and supporters of George Washington, in the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln, in the Civil War. The Roosevelt family was as close to royalty as we have in the U.S.

As a youth, Theodore was a sickly child, so asthmatic that he had to sleep propped up in a chair most nights. In addition to the asthma he was bothered by a long list of other ailments, to the extent that he rarely ventured outside during his first years. However, there was nothing the matter with his mind, and he became a voracious reader, with a special interest in zoology.

But, far from pampering his son, to combat his poor health, Theodore's father encouraged the boy to exercise. Always anxious to please his father, Theodore took up exercise with enthusiasm and gradually got better. When Theodore was bothered by bullies his father hired a local boxing champion to teach him the manly art of boxing. He loved boxing and mastered that sport. That not only enabled him to solve the bullying problem, but he got so he enjoyed sparing with professionals, even after he was in the White House.

When it came time for college Theodore took the physical exam for admission to Harvard. He was told that he suffered from a heart defect and should plan on a desk job, free from stress, as his life's work. Instead, he chose an active life, and at Harvard was a member of the rowing team and the boxing team (runner-up in the school championship), in addition to excelling in academic activities.

After Columbia Law School Roosevelt tried his hand at politics and was elected to the New York State Assembly. He married a beautiful girl, Alice Lee, and life seemed good, with a promising future. However, in 1884 his mother passed away, and on the very same day his wife, Alice, died in childbirth, delivering their daughter, Alice. Roosevelt wrote a touching tribute to his wife, and then put that part of his life into the past. He never mentioned his wife again, much to the regret of the family.

After his twin tragedies Roosevelt effectively withdrew from the world in which he grew up. He was disillusioned with politics and burdened with his personal grief. He decided to go to the North Dakota Badlands, where he bought a ranch near the boomtown of Medora, on the banks of the Little Missouri. He took considerable abuse from the natives over his very correct Eastern speech, his eyeglasses (Old Four Eyes), and his high moral standards, but he learned to ride western style, rope, and hunt, while mastering the basics of the ranching business. Gradually, he earned the respect and admiration of the cowboys, with whom he lived and worked.

Never one to let time waste, in his spare time at the ranch, Roosevelt began to write stories of the frontier life, which he sold to the Eastern magazines. He also became a deputy sheriff, in which capacity he captured a gang of thieves who had stolen his river boat, and delivered his prisoners to the jail in Dickinson, N.D., all by himself -- a trip of some 40 hours. He stayed awake during this time by reading a novel by Tolstoy. After he finished the Tolstoy book, he read the prisoners' own dime novels.

Roosevelt's foray into the cattle business was short-lived. An unusually severe winter in 1886/87 nearly wiped out his and his fellow ranchers' herds and forced Roosevelt to return to New York. He married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow in late 1886 and the couple honeymooned in Europe. To this union were born five children, Theodore Jr., Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Quentin. All the Roosevelt children were talented and had outstanding careers; Alice, from his first marriage, was a free spirit in Washington; Ethel preserved the family home in Oyster Bay, New York; Quentin, the youngest boy, was killed in aerial combat in France, during World War I. Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archie were much decorated heroes in both World War I, and World War II, and later were successful in business and politics in civilian life.

After TR's return from North Dakota and his second marriage he continued his writing, finishing what became the definitive book on the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812. He was drawn again to politics, and was elected to be President of the New York Police Commission, where he energetically cleaned up a corrupt department. He was a diligent commissioner, and regularly walked the beats of New York policemen, to see that they were doing their job.

In 1897 Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy and helped the United States Navy prepare for its war with Spain (The Spanish American War). However, when the U.S. did go to war with Spain, TR resigned his post in the Navy Department to recruit a regiment of cavalry volunteers, which became known as "The Rough Riders." This was a unique group, made up of his cowboy cronies from North Dakota and his Polo playing friends from New York. They bonded well, and were heroes in the war, especially in their capture of San Juan Hill, in Cuba. For this battle TR was recommended for a Medal of Honor, but it was not until much later that the honor was finally awarded to him, posthumously, in 1997.

Roosevelt returned to New York from the conflict in Cuba as a genuine war hero. He built upon his war record to become governor of New York, and subsequently was selected as Republican President McKinley's choice for Vice President, for McKinley's successful second Presidential Campaign in 1900. When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, TR became the youngest U.S. President at age 42.

He ran for, and was elected to a second term in his own right, in 1904. (to be continued)

Source: Medora literature, Roosevelt White House biography.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: