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The feisty Dakota Territory Frenchman called out Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt was a man who seldom backed away from a challenge. But had he not backed away from one written ultimatum when he was a rancher in the Dakota Badlands, the human dynamo that was “TR” might not have lived long enough to make a run for the White House.

Roosevelt received the note when he returned from an Eastern sojourn in the fall of 1885. The man who sent the letter was on trial for first-degree murder, and he sent it from a jail cell in Bismarck, Dakota Territory. Roosevelt himself had recently buffaloed a rather tough cowboy who had threatened to shoot him, and the cowpuncher backed down. But a challenge from the Marquis de Morès (full name: Antoine Amédée Marie Vincent Amat Manca de Vallombrosa, Marquis de Morès) was a different matter. Reputedly the victor of two fatal duels in his native France, he was now facing trial for the murder of an American frontiersman who had threatened him. That didn’t stop him from sending the letter to Roosevelt, asking the future president of the United States to consider another duel.

My dear Roosevelt: My principle is to take the bull by the horns. Joe Ferris [a Roosevelt employee] is very active against me and has been instrumental in getting me indicted by furnishing money to witnesses and hunting them up. The papers also publish very stupid accounts of our quarreling—I sent you the paper to N.Y. Is this done by your orders? I thought you were my friend. If you are my enemy, I want to know it. I am always on hand as you know, and between gentlemen it is easy to settle matters of that sort directly.

Yours very truly,
I hear the people want to organize the county.
I am opposed to it for one year more at least.

Roosevelt told friends he wouldn’t meet the Marquis de Morès with swords—which would have been suicide— or with pistols. He proposed a showdown with rifles but hoped for a diplomatic resolution. He wrote back:

Most emphatically, I am not your enemy; if I were, you would know it, for I would be an open one and would not have asked you to my house nor gone to yours. As your final words, however, seem to imply a threat, it is due to myself to say that the statement is not made through any fear of possible consequences to me; I too, as you know, am always on hand and ever ready to hold myself accountable in any way for anything I have said or done.
Yours very truly,
Theodore Roosevelt

A graduate of the French military academy of St. Cyr and the cavalry school at Saumur, the marquis—6-foot-2, 25 years old and a distant heir to the (vacant) throne of France—had arrived in the Dakota Badlands in March 1883 with his attractive Titian-haired German-American wife Medora von Hoffman, $10 million in credit and a private railcar. It was his intention to turn the western Dakotas into a cattle kingdom by building slaughterhouses and shipping refrigerated beef to Chicago and New York. The plans—perhaps more futuristic than foolish—took a few detours as the marquis’ millions attracted flatterers like flies.

On April Fool’s Day 1883, the marquis broke a champagne bottle over a tent stake and named the township of Medora after his wife. They adored one another, and he chivalrously pointed out that while she rode sidesaddle, Medora was a better shot than he was and spoke seven languages to his four. But the marquis was poorly advised, especially by Jake Maunders, a local of whom it was said, “He was too crooked to sleep in a roundhouse.” While waiting for his range-fed cattle to multiply, the marquis made two false moves no Westerner could abide: He put up barbed wire, and he imported 12,000 sheep, wanton nibblers that cropped the grass so close that cattle and game could not subsist on the leavings. Hunters who shot game for themselves and for the market took umbrage. Probably through Maunders, the marquis learned that three hunters—Frank O’Donnell, John Reuter (aka Dutch Wannigan) and a teenager named Riley Luffsey—had threatened to shoot him on sight.

“What shall I do?” the marquis asked Maunders, his untrustworthy trusted adviser. Maunders replied, “Look out and have the first shot.” The marquis then went to a local magistrate and asked the same question, “What shall I do?” The magistrate’s answer was even blunter: “Why, shoot.”

The marquis and some of his men met the three hunters by the tracks just west of town. Luffsey was fatally shot in the neck, and O’Donnell and Reuter were wounded—and then arrested. Once the two wounded hunters recovered, the charges were dropped, and the marquis patched things up with O’Donnell (who was broke as well as shot) by buying his stubble field of potential hay for $1,000. Reuter landed on Roosevelt’s payroll as a sort of cowboy errand boy; though illiterate, he could memorize a shopping list of 50 items and bring every one of them back to the ranch without a hitch.

The ranches perked along, but the marquis’ other plans all collapsed: His plan to sprout 600,000 cabbages under glass for early table vegetables flopped even as his father-in-law’s money was building slaughterhouses in Miles City and Billings (both in Montana Territory), offices in St. Paul, Brainerd and Duluth (all in Minnesota) and refrigerator plants and storehouses in Dakota locations such as Mandan and Bismarck. Ultimately, when the range-fed beef got to the Eastern markets, most people said feedlot beef from Chicago tasted better. Around this time, Roosevelt and his cowboys delivered some cattle to one of the marquis’ slaughterhouses, and the marquis tried to shave a half-cent a pound off the price. Roosevelt balked and drove the cattle in the opposite direction. Rumors spread that each man had insulted the other—possibly prompting the letter from the cell.

Meanwhile, half of the marquis’ sheep died because they were too old to crop grass on the range. Then a stagecoach line between Medora and Deadwood got off to a rocky start because the drivers tried to use six broncos that hadn’t been broken, let alone pulled a stagecoach; the stage flipped as the horses fought the traces, the drive and each other. The line eventually operated for about two years—at a loss.

Then someone dusted off the Riley Luffsey murder charge (not through any instigation of TR’s), and the marquis, a failure in business, was in the Bismarck jail on trial for his life. He beat the rap in the time-honored manner— he bought up the witnesses at prices not often seen west of the Mississippi River.

The brutal winter of 1886 finished off the marquis’ beef empire. Most of his range-fed cattle died, and in a final fatal gesture of nobility he extended credit to his neighbors in Medora, most of whom couldn’t pay him back. His father-in-law terminated his credit, and the marquis took the marquise on a tiger hunt to India and never returned to the Dakotas. The 25-room chateau he built for her remains a local landmark in Medora, a town that all but vanished when the two of them left.

Back in France, the marquis was drawn into the antiSemitic paranoia of the era. When his equally paranoid mentor, publisher Edouard Drumont, printed an article accusing Jewish army officers of treason, the challenges to duels flurried in, and the marquis was always available. The first two duels weren’t lethal, but in the third clash, in October 1892, he fatally wounded Captain Armand Mayer, a Jewish officer. In a bizarre irony, one witness who testified against the marquis was Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, the actual non-Jewish spy in the notorious Dreyfus affair two years later. The marquis was acquitted, but France was no longer congenial to him.

In 1896 the marquis set out on an “exploration” that some saw as an attempt to forge an alliance between the French and the North African Muslims against Britain in the so-called Scramble for Africa. Advisers warned him against trusting his Tuareg escorts. They were right. The Tuaregs turned on the marquis and killed him.

Medora appeared and put a price on the murderers’ heads, and the Tuaregs then turned on one another and delivered the culprits, who were duly hanged. But the marquis’ death left a controversy in French history: Conspiracy buffs can’t agree whether the murderous Tuaregs were tools of British Imperialists, French Socialists, the Freemasons or the World Zionist Conspiracy, or whether they simply felt they’d been insulted.

The marquise retired to a life of memory and mourning, but the collection her son donated to North Dakota makes a mighty interesting exhibit—and makes admirers of TR mighty grateful there was at least one challenge TR backed away from. “He had no judgment,” one Westerner said of the marquis. “But he was hell in a fight.”


Minjae Kim assisted with the research on this story.

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here