A Free and Hardy Life: Theodore Roosevelt’s Sojourn in the American West, by Clay S. Jenkinson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2011, $45
“Theodore Roosevelt was an Easterner who came to regard himself as, ‘at heart,’ a Westerner, too,” writes Clay Jenkinson in the introduction to A Free and Hardy Life, a snapshot of the 26th U.S. president’s early days as a Dakota Territory cattleman and their transformational effect on his later life. “The American West was, for Roosevelt, a stage for fantasy adventures and a land of physical and spiritual regeneration. He lived only a small portion of his life in the Dakota badlands, but he returned to the larger West again and again for the rest of his life, and he took some deep, fundamental satisfaction in regarding himself as a man of the West.” Through focused vignettes of key passages in Roosevelt’s life and a cache of carefully selected period photographs, Jenkinson explores how the region restored the man and how the man ultimately gave back to the land.
Born into a family of wealthy New York Knickerbocker merchants in 1858, Roosevelt graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University in 1880, married the refined daughter of a Massachusetts banker and seemed set on a political career as a Republican mover and shaker. But on Valentine’s Day 1884 his wife, Alice, and mother each died within hours of one another in the Roosevelt family townhouse. Theodore’s sole entry in his journal that day was, “The light has gone out of my life,” beneath a big black X. The year before he had visited Dakota Territory on a hunting trip and been intrigued with the vast northern badlands and plains (present-day North Dakota). In the throes of his grief, he now sought solace in those same open spaces. Leaving his infant daughter in the care of a sister, Roosevelt boarded a westbound train.
The Dakotas took hold of Roosevelt, body and soul. Over time he bought two cattle ranches, participated in roundups, helped stop a stampede, roughed it in the backcountry, and famously punched out a gun-toting bully and tracked down a trio of boat thieves. When the devastating Western winter of 1886–87 wiped out his herds and his investment, the once frail, asthmatic young man returned to the East, according to one reporter, “rugged, bronzed and in the prime of health.” The grief would remain with him, but it would no longer subdue his spirit. “He threw himself…into the wide, untrammeled life of the West,” wrote sister Corrine, “and perhaps those years which he spent in North Dakota were the turning point in his whole existence.”
Author Jenkinson, a native North Dakotan, is the founder of and chief consultant to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, a repository of Roosevelt research materials in partnership with the Library of Congress, Harvard University and the National Park Service. In 2008 the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation asked Jenkinson to create interpretive panels, most about Roosevelt’s time in the West, for each of the 70 rooms of the new Rough Riders Hotel in Medora, N.D. Those panels serve as the basis for this book. The result is an entertaining if rudimentary look at Theodore Roosevelt the hunter and rancher, Rough Rider, resurgent politician, family man, president, conservationist—and, yes, Westerner.
“It was not just the idea of the West that engaged Roosevelt’s heart and soul, however,” explains Jenkinson, “not merely the possibility that he could be renewed and made more manly by authentic experiences on the frontier. He also clearly fell deeply in love with the grandeur of the West, the vastness of its landscapes, and the magnificence of landforms that had no counterparts east of the Mississippi River.” Indeed, as president Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks (from five to 10), set aside millions of acres of national forestland and named the first 18 national monuments, most of which were in his beloved West.
Jenkinson’s book is a good starting point for those just learning about Roosevelt’s tenure in the West. For a fuller understanding, move on to Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, by Roger Di Silvestro, whose related article, “Theodore Roosevelt’s Ride to Recovery,” appeared in the October 2009 Wild West and earned the 2010 Spur Award for best short nonfiction from the Western Writers of America.