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Theodore Roosevelt In The Badlands

The first lecture in the 2013 John A. Gable series kicked-off with Roger L. Di Silvestro on March 21 at the Christ Church in Oyster Bay. Di Silvestro journeyed from Virginia to speak about his 2011 book, Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West.


There is always debate on whether the West or New York played a more significant role in shaping the character and life of Teddy Roosevelt. The East had TR for much more time, and his involvement in NYC, as State Assemblyman, Commissioner of the NYC Police Board, Civil Service reformer and finally, Governor can be measured. In contrast, TR spent parts of four years in the Badlands of what is now North Dakota, with his day total on the plains just shy of one year. While the East provided stability and accomplishment, the West was cathartic and healed a broken heart after TR’s first wife died suddenly on the same day, and in the same house, as his mother on Valentine’s Day, 1884.


Before that dreadful day, a year earlier, TR, looking for adventure, and to hunt bison, traveled to the Badlands, leaving his new bride, Alice Lee, behind. The Badlands was still a dangerous frontier when TR jumped off the train in the dark and bitter cold looking for a hotel. Dominated by men with guns, often soaked with alcohol and having personalities seeking to hide from the public, TR encountered a different culture. The West was quick to judge a man by his looks or propensity for hard work, rather than his education or profession. 


“Some were criminals escaping the law, finding refuge in a region where no one questioned a man’s name. Liquor and undesirable affairs of the heart accounted for the presence of many”, Di Silvestro illuminated. 


Land in the Badlands was owned by the federal government or railroad, and was often used by ranchers acting as squatters for cattle grazing. After settling in, TR hired a reluctant hunting guide and finally shot his first bison, which were not that all plentiful after a year or two of unchecked hunting and mass slaughter. TR believed that the outdoor life was the “only one for him,” and he also was under the false impression that ranching would be a good investment. Excited about his bison kill, he returned to NY with his proud “trophy.”

Reunited with Alice, he planned a continuance of his political career. Alice was expecting their first child, and the world appeared to be held captive at his feet. 


Five months later, while in Albany conducting Assembly business, TR received word that a daughter was born, but that his wife was not doing well. He rushed home only to find his brother Elliott proclaiming, “there is a curse on this house. Mother is dying and Alice is dying too.” His bride at 22 was dying from Bright’s disease, a kidney disease, while his mother suffered with typhoid fever.


Both died the next day on Valentine’s Day, and Teddy’s world unraveled.


“The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote in his diary. 


Stunned and concerned, he put his NYC residence up for sale, and contracted for a house to be built in Oyster Bay. He attended the Republican National Convention in Utica in April, and finally headed west in May 1884 to recover from the grave loss, leaving Baby Alice with his sister Anna to care for her. 


Over the next four years, TR’s time in the Badlands saw him hunt, operate a cattle ranch and mingle into a world that was diametrically different from anything he had ever experienced. He became respected by his ranch hands through hard work. He brushed death many times in the Badlands and was able to assimilate into this hard life, joining in on cattle roundups, riding in a saddle for 40 straight hours, pursuing boat thieves, and facing other dangers that a wilderness could offer. 


He traveled back to New York from time to time, and some of his family visited his Elkhorn ranch. When Di Silvestro was asked about the psychology of leaving behind a young baby, he ventured to explain this dilemma as part of an era where perhaps fathers were not as involved with the raising of children. 


With time, “TR was no longer the sorrowful young man that he was in 1884.” He began to communicate with Edith Carow, a childhood friend, which eventually lead to courtship and a promise of marriage. 


In 1887, TR had enough of the West. He ended his ranching career and later sold his cattle to pursue his interest in politics. While much was accomplished over the next 30 years, including more adventure and political accomplishment, the time that TR spent in the Badlands would always be held dear to his heart. No amount of activity could have healed his heart, while improving his overall health.


Roosevelt later stated that if he had only one memory that he could keep, it would be the time that he spent in the Badlands. He mourned the death of his mother and wife; found what hardship he could endure, and eventually became the figure that America came to love.