THEODORE ROOSEVELT IN THE BADLANDS: A YOUNG POLITICIAN’S QUEST FOR RECOVERY IN THE AMERICAN WEST
By Roger L. DiSilvestro
Walker & Co., $27, 368 pages
Americans usually mythologize their greatest leaders rather than remember they were merely men. The portrait of Theodore Roosevelt presented by “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands” rejects this notion, showing the future president as one who succeeded because he never took his hardships lightly. He is portrayed as willpower incarnate, a go-getter who faces challenges for the sake of conquering them. And dominate Roosevelt does, barreling through a decorated public career and into the pages of history and legend.
Author Roger L. DiSilvestro begins his account of Roosevelt’s life by wisely illuminating the luxury he would eventually leave behind. Born in 1858 to a wealthy and influential New York family, by the early 1880s Roosevelt had begun a blossoming career in state government, helped in part by his Harvard education and prestige. All fast tracks can be derailed, however, and on Valentine’s Day 1884, he lost his first wife Alice to kidney failure and his mother Martha to acute typhoid. It was a moment of heartbreak that would drive Roosevelt west into Dakota Territory to ranch and, gradually, to personal rejuvenation.
Mr. DiSilvestro’s intimate biographical details show that for Roosevelt - often thought of as unyieldingly steely - it was a rough ride. Writing in his diary after his family members’ funerals, he declared that “for joy or for sorrow my life has now been lived out …”
Roosevelt decided after his losses that the Dakota Badlands would bolster his failing health and troubled mind. An avid hunter, he previously had killed bison and big horn sheep in the region. He found the rugged individualism of its inhabitants endearing, and after several trips he invested in a cattle ranch he dubbed the Elk Horn.
Mr. DiSilvestro’s scholarship shows that this relocation resurrected Roosevelt’s confidence, inspiring in him the “grit and courage” that later marked his presidency. He hunted grizzlies, trekked the Bighorn Mountains, braved blizzards, and rode in cattle drives across multiple frontier territories. Most importantly, he gave the same sweat, blood and tears as his fellow frontiersmen, winning their respect in the process.
The Badlands thus “served as a crucible” for Roosevelt, giving him a basis for his sense of justice. Upon arriving in the Dakota Territory, he found that its people judged him based on his language, learning and fashion. Overcoming his status as an inexperienced “greenhorn,” Roosevelt remained adamant the rest of his days that a man’s actions hold more value than his looks or words.
In another incident, Roosevelt’s belief in the rule of law was tested when three outlaws stole his boat during the winter of 1886. Tracking them with two ranch hands down the Little Missouri River, Roosevelt trapped the bandits after several days of giving chase. After their capture, he was faced with the dilemma of whether to try them in a legitimate court or surrender them to vigilante justice. Unwilling to revoke their right to a fair trial, Roosevelt escorted the criminals 36 hours to the nearest court in Dickinson, Dakota Territory.
Even Roosevelt’s battles with nature and its wildlife helped craft his definition of right and wrong. Troubled by the ease with which hunters slaughtered the Badlands’ native species, he would later lobby for conservation laws protecting their numbers from extinction. An outgrowth of this mission was the national parks system, an organization that has preserved large swathes of American wilderness for generations born long after its inception.
Roosevelt’s experiences in the frontier’s fringe culture helped him cultivate a cowboy persona that made him seem larger than life. When he became president in 1901 when William McKinley was assassinated, Americans found in his vast ambition and vigor the American Exceptionalism that Manifest Destiny had promised. This debt was not lost on Roosevelt, who wrote, “I owe more than I can ever express to the West, which of course means the men and women I met in the West.” Perhaps fittingly, Mount Rushmore’s granite carving of Roosevelt’s visage looms in today’s state of South Dakota, near the very land where he took those first steps to his still-enduring legacy.
Mark Hensch is a former intern for The Washington Times. He writes a heavy metal music blog, Heavy Metal Hensch, for its Communities website. He also contributes to Out and About D.C. in the same section.