Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands

 by Roger L. Di Silvestro,Walker & Co., New York, 2011, $27.

 “People went west for a variety of reasons. …Theodore Roosevelt came for his health, to escape his grief and to profit, he hoped, from the open range.” So writes Roger Di Silvestro early in this biography of young Roosevelt’s three-year sojourn in the Dakota Badlands, a time and a place that restored him body, mind and soul and in no small measure helped propel him into the White House.

It almost wasn’t to be. Roosevelt, in his own words, “was a sickly, delicate boy [who] suffered much from asthma.” Descriptions from his college days paint no more flattering picture. “He was slightly built, weighing only 145 pounds,” Di Silvestro writes. “With a voice that bordered on a falsetto, he spoke in rapid, staccato outbursts…sometimes [working] himself into states of such manic animation that he collapsed from nervous exhaustion.”Yet despite such eccentricities, by his mid-20s Roosevelt had won the hand of pretty girl next door Alice Lee and embarked on a political career as a New York assemblyman.

It was during this period Roosevelt turned his gaze west, when an acquaintance invited him on an 1883 bison hunt in Dakota Territory. Eager to test his mettle and “anxious to kill some large game,” the bespectacled, unrestrained Harvard dandy packed his .45 Sharps rifle and boarded a train bound for the Badlands. There he demonstrated his trademark stubborn resolve. After a punishing, rainy week in the saddle that exhausted even his experienced guide, young Roosevelt bagged his first bison and “went into an impromptu Indian war dance around the fallen bull.” A local rancher remarked, “Unless I am badly mistaken the world is due to hear from him one of these days.”

Then all came crashing down. On Valentine’s Day 1884, in the Roosevelt family mansion off Manhattan’s posh 5th Avenue, Theodore lost first his 48- year-old mother to typhoid and then his 22-year-old “little pink wife” to complications from childbirth. “In his diary that day,” Di Silvestro notes, “Roosevelt drew a large black X at the top of the page and wrote under it, ‘The light has gone out of my life.’” In short order he turned over his infant daughter to a sister’s care and sold the mansion. Roosevelt returned to his seat in Albany, but the familiar held only pain. And so he sought solace in the wide-open Dakota grasslands.

That June—outfitted rather conspicuously with ivory-handled six-shooters, monogrammed silver spurs and a custom-made bowie knife from Tiffany & Co.—he stepped from a Northern Pacific train to begin his new life as a Badlands cattleman. He bought two small spreads along the Little Missouri River and threw himself into the day-today work. “It did not help,” Di Silvestro writes, “that he was the only rider… to carry an inflatable rubber pillow, a toothbrush and a razor and that he kept his blankets and tarp singularly clean.” Again rising to the challenge, however, Roosevelt soon carved out a reputation as a hard-working, no-nonsense cowboy in every sense of the word.

His remarkable path to recovery and redemption is at the heart of Di Silvestro’s impeccably researched book, which paints as full a picture of the political landscape of 1880s New York as of the fractured hoodoos and gullies of the Badlands. It is the story of a singular American who, like the country itself, was born in the privileged East and renewed in the promise of the frontier West.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.