When Teddy Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the same day, he dropped his elite Eastern life and fled West in search of courage.
YOUNG THEODORE ROOSEVELT appeared to be leading a charmed life. His political career was off to a roaring start; at age 26, he had already been riding high for three years as the top Republican in the New York State Assembly. And his family life was even better. He took great delight in handing out cigars to his assembly colleagues in Albany on February 13, 1884, after he received a telegram with news that his beloved wife, Alice, had given birth to their first child: a healthy baby girl. Roosevelt tidied up his immediate affairs and made plans to travel home to New York City the next day. But then a second telegram arrived with an alarming message that sent him tearing to the train right away. Alice was deathly ill.
Roosevelt was habitually in a hurry. From morning till night he never wasted a moment. He normally would have used his time on the train to catch up on his reading, but during this four-hour trip he stared blankly out the window. He was consumed with worry, not only about Alice but also about his mother, Martha, nicknamed Mittie, who had been stricken by a mysterious ailment and was running a high fever. Roosevelt fretted at each stop, silently urging the passengers and porters to load faster so the train could get moving again. He muttered against the engineer for not putting on more steam. When the train finally reached New York late in the day on February 13, he raced to hail a cab and told the driver to take him to his house on 57th Street.
Roosevelt’s younger brother, Elliott, greeted him at the door with grim news. “There is a curse on this house,” he said. Mittie’s illness was typhoid and her fever had grown worse; she was burning up. And Alice was sinking. Her kidneys were failing from what doctors later determined was Bright’s disease.
Roosevelt hurried to Alice’s bedside. There was nothing he could do for her but hold her hand, speak comfortingly and pray. When word came from his mother’s room that she was in more imminent danger, he hastened there. All that night and into the next morning he shuttled between sickrooms.
Roosevelt was with his mother when she died in the predawn hours of February 14 at age 48. He suppressed his grief and immediately turned to Alice, who held on for several hours longer. But that afternoon he watched her die as well. She was 22.
Roosevelt could scarcely comprehend what had happened. Forty-eight hours earlier he was the luckiest man in the world. Now despair consumed him. In his diary he marked a heavy black X through February 14—Valentine’s Day—and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.”
A few months later, Roosevelt abandoned his powerful position in the New York State Assembly and fled to the Badlands of Dakota Territory, where he reinvented himself as a Western frontiersman. Growing up in New York City as a severely asthmatic and bookish child of privilege, Roosevelt had fantasized about roaming the wide open spaces of the Wild West, before he headed off to Harvard and began carving out a place for himself among the social elite. In the emotional darkness that engulfed him following the death of his mother and wife, he packed up some expensive cowboy duds and pearl-handled revolvers and made his childhood dream a reality by immersing himself in the life of an intrepid big-game hunter and owner of a sprawling open-range cattle ranch in the Little Missouri River Valley.
Roosevelt’s sojourn in the West was transformative. He grew tougher physically—the asthma that had plagued him all his life largely disappeared—and his spirit was revived. When he returned East and resumed his political career, he emerged as a robust figure full of unbounded confidence and exuberance that would land him in the White House at age 42. “I would never have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” he said. But he would always be haunted by the tragic loss of the love of his life.
Roosevelt met Alice when he was a student at Harvard. She was the cousin of a college friend, and more entrancing than any girl he had ever met. Her athletic figure, wide blue eyes, golden hair and sunny smile took his breath away. And she apparently liked him, which was more than he could say for many of the girls he had met. He went into raptures after he asked her to marry him and she said yes. “A year ago last Thanksgiving I made a vow that win her I would if it were possible,” he wrote in his diary in early 1880. “And now that I have done so, the aim of my whole life shall be to make her happy, and to shield her and guard her from every trial; and, oh, how I shall cherish my sweet queen!”
They were wed on his 22nd birthday and took up residence in New York City, where Roosevelt shocked his family and friends by entering politics. “The men I knew best were the men in the clubs of social pretension and the men of cultivated taste and easy life,” he afterward explained. “When I began to make inquiries as to the whereabouts of the local Republican association and the means of joining it, these men—and the big business men and lawyers also—laughed at me, and told me that politics were ‘low’; that the organizations were not controlled by ‘gentlemen’; that I would find them run by saloonkeepers, horse-car conductors, and the like, and not by men with any of whom I would come in contact outside.…I answered that if this were so it merely meant that the people I knew did not belong to the governing class, and that the other people did—and that I intended to be one of the governing class.”
He introduced himself to the Republicans of his district, won their nomination to the state assembly and mounted a campaign among the saloon-keepers, horsecar conductors and other sturdy citizens of Manhattan. They found him naive but engaging, and they voted him into office. “Too True! Too True!” he wrote a friend who remained skeptical of politics in Gilded Age New York. “I have become a ‘political hack.’”
The hack cut quite a figure among the more tested troops in Albany. A veteran of the political wars remembered Roosevelt’s entrance into a meeting of assemblymen: “All of a sudden the door opened and in rushed Mr. Roosevelt. He made his way up and sat right down in front of the chairman of the conference. He had on an enormous overcoat and had a silk hat in his hand. As soon as opportunity was given, he pulled off his overcoat and addressed the chairman. He was in full formal dress, having just been to a dinner, and had on his eyeglasses and his gold fob.”
Roosevelt also made a political—as opposed to sartorial—splash by insisting that the people’s business be conducted honestly. He took on the “Black Horse Cavalry,” the politicos who sold favors the way butchers sold ham hocks. He challenged Jay Gould when the infamous railroad baron and Wall Street mogul sought special treatment on taxes, and assailed a judge known to be in Gould’s pocket. After the assembly approved a probe of the jurist, Roosevelt wrote home to Alice, “I have drawn blood.” Relating the speech he had given against the judge, he said, “It is rather the hit of the season so far.…Letters and telegrams of congratulations come pouring in on me from all quarters.”
As tickled as he was with his budding career, he missed Alice terribly. He considered buying property near Albany to bring his wife nearer. “It would be lovely to have a farm,” he wrote his sister. “And fortunately Alice seems enchanted with the country.” But it would have been a big step, since both Teddy and Alice had known only city life, and he put it off.
His career continued to thrive. The assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 and the consequent elevation of Chester Arthur had cast the Republican Party into confusion. Meanwhile, New York Democrats surged to victory in state races in 1882, and Roosevelt barely managed to keep his seat. “All Hail, fellow survivor of the Democratic Deluge!” he wrote to another of the diminished number of Republicans in the assembly.
Roosevelt’s victory and his activist reputation positioned him to run for the leadership of the assembly Republicans. He made the race and won, becoming at 24 the senior Republican in the lower chamber. When a dozen Democrats broke from their party to support a reform measure, he applauded them even while lambasting the rest. “Exactly as ten men could not have saved the ‘cities of the plains,’ so these twelve men will not save the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Democracy,” he declared. “The small leaven of righteousness that is within it will not be able to leaven the whole sodden lump of the Democracy.”
The summer of 1883 brought a break from the turbulent political battles and an opportunity for Roosevelt to indulge his penchant for hunting. After a vacation with Alice he headed west to pursue the buffalo that were rapidly disappearing from the Great Plains. He rode the Northern Pacific Railway to Dakota Territory, disembarking in the middle of the night at the small town of Little Missouri, at the edge of the Badlands near the Wyoming border. In the morning he enlisted a local guide, Joe Ferris, and began his quest. Several days they ventured out, braving rain and the mud it produced.
Ferris suggested that they should wait for better weather; Roosevelt insisted that the dampness didn’t bother him in the slightest. “He nearly killed poor Joe,” a friend of Ferris remarked afterward. “He would not stop for anything.” Finally his determination paid off. Ferris spotted a buffalo several hundred yards upwind; he and Roosevelt approached on foot. Ferris instructed Roosevelt to aim just behind the buffalo’s shoulder. Roosevelt fired once, then twice more. The buffalo disappeared over a ridge. They gave chase and came upon the beast, which had already expired.
Roosevelt was absolutely thrilled. “I never saw anyone so enthused in my life,” Ferris later recalled. “He was so eager to shoot his first buffalo that it somehow got into my blood, and I wanted to see him kill his first one as badly as he wanted to kill it.”
Roosevelt shared the wonderful news with Alice. “Hurrah!” he wrote. “The luck has turned at last. I will bring you home the head of a great buffalo bull.” He explained that he had fallen in love with the West. “This has been by all odds the pleasantest and most successful trip I have ever made.…Of course I am dirty—in fact I have not taken off my clothes for two weeks, not even at night, except for one bath in the river—but I sleep, eat and work as I could never do in ten years time in the city.”
He was so taken with the experience and the area that he impulsively decided to purchase some property there. An inheritance from his father provided the seed capital, and he enlisted a couple of locals to act as his agents. Roosevelt envisioned himself as a part-time ranchman. He and Alice would continue to live in New York, but summers they would spend in the West. He was sure she would love it. At least he hoped she would, for he wouldn’t do anything without her approval. “My own darling,” he said, “everything will be made secondary to your happiness, you may be sure.”
Her happiness, and his, now involved a third party. In July 1883, Alice told Roosevelt she was pregnant, with delivery expected several weeks into the new year. He grew more devoted and solicitous of her well-being than ever. “I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly,” he wrote after returning to Albany for the new session. “I just long for the Friday evening when I shall be with you again.”
On the day of Alice’s burial, Roosevelt closed his diary with the words, “For joy or sorrow my life has now been lived out.” It was the last diary entry he made for four months. In the meantime, he arranged for his sister Anna, who had never married, to take charge of the baby, named Alice after her mother. He finished the legislative session at Albany and joined thousands of other party members in Chicago in June for the 1884 Republican Convention. But he couldn’t bear to return to New York City, to the scenes of his life with Alice; the pain was simply too much. Instead, he headed for Dakota.
“Arrived at my cattle ranch [Chimney Butte Ranch] on the Little Missouri,” he wrote in his next diary entry. His agents had purchased the ranch on his behalf, and it became his new home. The country was even more beautiful than he had remembered, for it was now spring and the wildflowers splashed their colors across the lush green of the new grasses. The physical labor of ranch work indeed provided a balm to his soul. “I have just come in from spending thirteen hours in the saddle,” he wrote Anna a week later. “For every day I have been here I have had my hands full.” The work agreed with him. “I have never been in better health.” Long days on horseback in the open air left him gratefully exhausted. “How sound I do sleep at night now!”
In late June he took off on a solitary jaunt in the Dakota Badlands. “For the last week I have been fulfilling a boyhood ambition of mine—that is, I have been playing at frontier hunter in good earnest, having been off entirely alone, with my horse and rifle, across the prairie,” he wrote Anna. Fortified by that experience, Roosevelt embarked on a more ambitious hunting trip with a guide to the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. His hunting costume couldn’t help causing snickers along the Little Missouri. “I wear a sombrero, silk neckerchief, fringed buckskin shirt, sealskin chaparajos or riding trousers; alligator hide boots,” he wrote. “With my pearl hilted revolver and beautifully finished Winchester rifle, I shall feel able to face anything.” Roosevelt shot all kinds of birds and small mammals, but the climax of the trip came when he shot his first grizzly. “The bullet hole in his skull was as exactly between his eyes as if I had measured the distance with a carpenter’s rule,” he boasted.
Gradually the pain of his loss diminished and his young heart mended. For the rest of his life Roosevelt associated the West with regeneration and renewal. In his mind the West became a place of greater purity than the East, of greater honesty and commitment to the values essential to human happiness. At every opportunity he proudly called himself a man of the West.
Roosevelt reentered public life, taking various appointive positions, culminating in the assistant secretaryship of the Navy under President William McKinley. He helped bring on the 1898 war with Spain by agitating for an assertive American policy throughout the Western Hemisphere. He resigned his Navy post to raise a volunteer cavalry regiment composed of Western cowboys (and Eastern polo players and a few Indians). The regiment, nicknamed the Rough Riders, fought in Cuba, with Roosevelt gallantly taking the lead. On the strength of that service, he won election as New York governor in the fall of 1898 and selection as McKinley’s running mate in 1900. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt became president.
And when he did, the West claimed him for its first president. He didn’t dispute the claim, for he realized that his association with the West gave him an appeal to voters who might otherwise have been wary of a New York City son of wealth. His landslide victory in the 1904 election—the largest popular margin in history till then—confirmed his common touch.
Yet Roosevelt recognized that his debt to the West ran deeper than politics. The West had received him in his darkest hour; it had given him the strength and incentive to reclaim his life. He again found joy, which he thought Alice’s death had forever stolen from him.
He remarried and had five more children. He also regained the zest for political combat that had marked his years in the New York assembly. He spearheaded progressive reform at the national level, reining in what he and other progressives deemed the excessive power of corporate monopoly. Roosevelt guided America energetically into the 20th century. And though he never would have thought it possible on that terrible day in 1884, he reveled in simply being alive.
H.W. Brands is the author of TR: The Last Romantic. His most recent book is The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.