‘Mounted on their spirited ponies, the cowboys were decked out in high style—wide-brimmed, high-domed sombreros, colorful neckerchiefs, chaps, heeled boots and prominently displayed six-shooters’
Under the long shadow of the assassination of President William McKinley, the September 14, 1901, inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt as the 26th president of the United States—held at a friend’s house in Buffalo, New York—was a somber ceremony without pomp. But following his reelection in 1904, officials laid plans for a gala event. Among those who wanted to honor Roosevelt in a spectacular manner was Seth Bullock, celebrated former sheriff of Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Bullock contacted Roosevelt and suggested bringing a contingent of cowboys from the Dakotas and neighboring states to Washington, D.C. Mounted on cow ponies and decked out in Western garb, they would join in the inaugural parade. Roosevelt’s response? “Bully!”
Long before that, of course, Roosevelt had cultivated a cowboy image—never mind his 1858 birth into a well-to-do, aristocratic family highly placed in New York political and social circles. A voracious reader of powerful intellect, he earned a degree from Harvard University and seemed on his way to a successful career in politics, embracing all the attributes and inadequacies of Eastern snobbery that path presented. But young Roosevelt had a strong adventurous streak, despite suffering from asthma, poor eyesight and general physical weakness. Thus in 1883, 24-year-old Teddy, enthralled by tales of the frontier, decided to venture to Dakota Territory and sample some of that excitement himself. Over the next five years he frequented the Dakotas to ranch and hunt, and he came to know and admire Westerners, especially ranchers and cowboys. He ultimately returned East to resume his political career, but the Western experience had changed him forever. (See cover story, this issue.)
When war broke out with Spain in 1898, Roosevelt resigned as assistant secretary of the Navy to help form the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, a regiment he insisted be composed of Western fighting men. Offered command of the unit, he declined, instead accepting a commission as lieutenant colonel under the more experienced Colonel Leonard Wood. But after Roosevelt led the Westerners in several victorious engagements, including the celebrated charges up Kettle and San Juan hills, the regiment won popular acclaim as “Teddy’s Rough Riders” and was forever linked to him.
Roosevelt’s Rough Rider experience strengthened his many friendships with Western frontier characters, and he maintained contact with a number of them, including Bullock, a seminal figure in frontier Montana and the Dakotas. In Montana Territory in the early 1870s, Bullock served as a senator and then as sheriff of Lewis and Clark County. In 1872 he introduced legislation that paved the way for the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Bullock and business partner Sol Star arrived in Deadwood on August 1, 1876, the day before Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing cards. The partners operated a successful hardware, and Bullock became de facto sheriff of the camp. He was appointed the first official sheriff in April 1877 when the territorial government carved out Lawrence County. Over the next two decades, Bullock had a successful career in business investment (after the Deadwood hardware burned down in 1894, he and Star built a luxury hotel on the site) and ranching in the Dakotas. Roosevelt met Bullock during his own stint in the Dakotas in the 1880s and renewed their acquaintance when Bullock led a contingent of Dakota cowboys into the Rough Rider regiment and was rewarded with a captaincy (though he saw no actual fighting in the war).
The nation lauded Roosevelt as a hero when he returned from the Spanish-American War, and he was quickly elected governor of New York. In 1900 he was elected U.S. vice president on the Republican ticket headed by William McKinley. On September 6 of the following year, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice, and eight days later the president died. Roosevelt, the onetime cattleman and Rough Rider, now had the No. 1 job in the nation. But public celebration of the new president was deferred until Roosevelt earned the office himself on November 8, 1904, with a landslide victory over Democrat Alton B. Parker.
Following the election, Bullock congratulated the best-known Rough Rider and put out a call for volunteers to participate in the March 1905 inaugural in the nation’s capital. He made it clear they were to provide their own horses and pay their own expenses—an estimated $60 per volunteer. In addition to honoring their presidential friend, the cowboys were eager to give effete Easterners a glimpse of wild and woolly frontiersmen. But Bullock declared he would stand for no “foolishness” on their part, as he had given his word to inaugural parade managers that the deportment of his charges would be above reproach.
Two hundred men answered the call to join the Washington expedition, and Bullock accepted 60, a number he deemed manageable. Each of the chosen would bring only his horse; the sole exception was James Hart of Newcastle, Wyo., who was accompanied by his wife and 6-year-old daughter, as well as his trusty mount. The roster included a few prominent names, such as 61-year-old John Owens, a veteran stockman and noted lawman, also of New-castle, who insisted on making the trip despite suffering from a number of ailments; Howard Eaton, a prominent Montana rancher; and Jim Dahlman, a onetime cowpuncher and stock association detective who was then mayor of Omaha, Neb. Almost all the participants were current or former ranch hands, including Bullock’s son, Stanley, who was working cattle on his father’s ranch near Belle Fourche, S.D. Another rider was an undistinguished 25-year-old from Oklahoma’s famous 101 Ranch who a few years later would break into the burgeoning silent movie business and become a top Western star. His name was Tom Mix.
On February 26, 1905, the cowboys gathered in Belle Fourche and Deadwood and at other points along the route of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and boarded sleepers on a Chicago-bound train. There, they would transfer to the Pennsylvania line. They had sent their ponies ahead on two stock cars. Bullock had also left early to make arrangements in Washington for both horses and men.
Approaching Broken Bow, Neb., Owens fell ill and reluctantly decided to return to Newcastle. Tears reportedly streaked the tough old man’s cheeks as he stood on the depot platform and watched his fellows go on without him.
Responding to extensive news coverage of the trip, large crowds gathered along the route to see the “swashbuckling riders of the range.” According to some reports, the cowboys on occasion indulged “too much in liquid refreshment, hauled out their shooting irons and punched holes in the sky,” scattering onlookers.
On the evening of February 28, the train arrived in Omaha to pick up Mayor James C. Dahlman, along with J.L. Bentley, commercial agent for the Burlington at Deadwood, and T.H. Thorpe, traveling agent for the Pennsylvania lines. During a two-hour layover, the brigade dined quietly at Ed Maurer’s restaurant. A local newspaper noted that while the cowboys were in town, “not one window was shot out, nor did the earth tremble to any great extent, so well did the boys behave themselves.”
At Chicago the group transferred without incident to the Pennsylvania line, and on March 2 they hit Washington. Bullock escorted them to their hotel.
Roosevelt’s inauguration was on Saturday, March 4. The parade itself was a full-blown extravaganza, involving 35,000 participants. It had a decidedly Western flavor, featuring a delegation of “Teddy’s Rough Riders”; a contingent of American Indians, including the famous Geronimo; and a North Dakota float with figures representing such regional notables as Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull and Roosevelt himself. Toward the end of the parade came the Cowboy Brigade, with Bullock riding at its head. Mounted on their spirited ponies, the cowboys were decked out in high style—wide-brimmed, high-domed sombreros, colorful neckerchiefs, chaps, heeled boots and prominently displayed six-shooters. The inaugural committee told Bullock it was a “mark of honor” to place the cowboys near the end. But the committeemen knew the parade would be very long, taking nearly three hours to pass any given point, and that crowds would likely grow restless as the day wore on. They were confident spectators would stick around for the Cowboy Brigade, which had gotten much publicity.
The committee was right. According to The Washington Post, those “fierce, wild, untamed denizens of the jumping-off place” were the hit of the spectacle. “What would the inauguration have been if it had consisted merely of regular troops, little brown mice from the Philip-pines and a few thousand commonplace, fat, silk-hatted marching clubs from Newark and Columbus?” the paper asked. “What if there had been no cowboys, with horrid bristling ‘chaps,’ with blazing neckerchiefs and pronged mustaches, waving overgrown sombreros and jabbing peevishly and uncertainly into the white-eyed and truculent broncho? These cowboys were the whole show, the salt of the occasion.”
Waving Stetsons from atop their prancing ponies, the riders twirled their lariats and looped an occasional surprised bystander, but they judiciously refrained from unlimbering their pistols and puncturing the air. Roosevelt beamed down at them from the presidential box and sent word for the cowboys to remain at the conclusion of the parade so he could greet them individually. Later, he appeared at the north portico of the White House, and the mounted cowboys—Winchesters in saddle scabbards and holstered six-shooters hanging from cartridge-studded belts—rode up as Bullock introduced them to the president. Roosevelt enjoyed the scene immensely, though the Secret Service agents must have been appalled.
B.H. Warner, chairman of the inaugural committee on civic organizations, wrote Bullock a few days later, congratulating the Cowboy Brigade for its contribution to the success of the “greatest inaugural parade in the history of our country.” The brigade, he said, was “one of the chief features of the parade and attracted a great interest on the part of the vast concourse of people who viewed them from the line of march,” and the cowboys’ conduct had been “most exemplary.” Even the hotel manager where they had stayed remarked “that to his astonishment, their conduct had been like that of Sunday-school teachers, compared at least with one other organization entertained by him.”
Over the next few days, the cowboys disposed of their horses, selling them to buyers eager to own authentic Western cow ponies. They did retain one animal, which, fully outfitted with Western saddle and bridle, they presented to the president’s son, Teddy Jr. So pleased was Roosevelt by the gift and by the cowboys’ admirable decorum in town that he invited them all to an unscheduled “informal chat and smoke” at the White House on March 8. They stayed for an hour, and perhaps no one enjoyed the affair more than the president.
Before heading back west, some members of the brigade took the opportunity to explore New York City, where they rode the subway, took in the sights and attended the theater. New Yorkers were as awestruck as Washingtonians had been by the big-hatted visitors. By and large, however, the Westerners were unimpressed by the big city and its inhabitants. Bullock bluntly expressed to a reporter the cowboys’ collective impression of the ill-mannered menfolk in the East: “I came over from Washington yesterday on the Congressional Limited, and the things they call men pushed their way by women who were there before them into the dining car, and when they were through with their dinners, these same critters sat there and smoked cigars and let the women wait. Now, you don’t see doings like that in our [Western]country.…For many years, the West has been shipping hogs east to Chicago, and I can’t help thinking I see a lot of those same blankety-blank hogs romping around here in New York with two of their legs missing—having got past Chicago and the scalding vats.”
And so Bullock and company headed back to the cattle ranges. Still, their trip East and participation in the presidential inaugural parade would remain a vivid and mostly pleasant lifelong memory. As for the wide-eyed observers that March day in Washington, D.C., they would never forget seeing those armed and mysterious untamed men from the Wild West ride to the Capitol to honor the man they so admired and claimed as one of their own.
Robert K. DeArment, a frequent Wild West contributor, has written books about Bat Masterson, Frank Canton, Jim Courtright, George Scarborough, John Larn and many other Westerners—some famous, some nearly forgotten. Also read The Boys of ’98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, by Dale L. Walker.