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Theodore Roosevelt and the Last Frontier
In the early 1880s, the Northern Pacific Railroad penetrated the Badlands of Dakota Territory in what is now North Dakota, laying track across pristine grasslands still grazed by bison herds, still roamed by grizzly bears, wolves, and mountain lions. The coming of the iron horse allowed market hunters to wipe out the bison, turning wild prairie into a vast grazing land for livestock. With the railroads offering access to eastern markets, Texas cattle growers soon brought stock to the northern plains, where they found that cattle fattened quickly on the rich grass. The newcomers did not own the land on which their cattle grazed but squatted on open, or unfenced, range owned by the federal government or the railroads.
This new commercial opportunity attracted eastern investors; among them was Theodore Roosevelt. Descended from a prominent New York City family, he was wealthy, twenty-four years old, and a leading member of the New York state legislature when he first arrived in the Badlands in September 1883 to hunt vanishing bison. He immediately became enchanted with the possibility of staking a claim in prime Dakota hunting grounds while turning a profit raising cattle. He also had more personal motives for spending time in the rugged western outdoors: Sickly as a child and plagued with bouts of asthma and stomach ailments as an adult; he believed the hardy life of the West would improve his health. Before returning home, he staked a claim on a ranch, bought livestock, and hired local cowboys to manage his herd.
Tragedy Strikes Roosevelt
With a blossoming political career, a lovely wife of three years who was about to give birth to their first child, and now a ranch in one of the last regions of the nation where buffalo still roamed, Roosevelt in early 1884 seemed to lead a charmed life. But then on Valentine's Day, tragedy struck: His 48-year-old mother died of typhoid and, in the same house, his wife, Alice--only 22 years old-died of misdiagnosed kidney disease.
The following spring, Roosevelt abandoned his political career and fled from his sorrows by going west to live on his ranch. He left his baby daughter, also named Alice, with a sister and spent large portions of the next three years in the Badlands, with intermittent visits east to see family and to work in Republican politics. He was a broken man who believed that his life was over, that he would never love again, and that his daughter, when all was said and done, would be better off without him.
Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
Roosevelt spent much of his time in the West hunting big game, from grizzly bears to elk to bighorn sheep, and immersing himself in ranch work, such as periodic cattle roundups. Struggling through frontier hardships, he became physically strong and robust-healthy. He also recovered his mental and emotional equilibrium.
And he learned to value the skills and virtues of working men whom, as a wealthy New York
blueblood, he had rarely known on a personal level before. This contact helped him politically when he ran for national office, prompting him
to say in later years that he would never have made it to the White House had it not been for his time in the Badlands. During a campaign
visit to the Badlands as a vice-presidential candidate, he told his audience, "Here the romance of my life began."