Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden

Elkhorn Ranch

Roosevelt returned East in the fall to take part in the presidential campaign, but as we have. already seen, he was out of touch with affairs. Cleveland defeated Blaine, who from the outset had never been Roosevelt's choice. Now he decided that he was done with politics, and he set about actively building a new home in the West.

On one of his hunting trips he had found the antlers of two elk locked in a death embrace. The site here was rising ground with water nearby and a fine view of the buttes beyond. This place he picked for the new home, which he christened Elkhorn Ranch. While East he wrote to Bill Sewall and Will Dow to go back with him.

"Now a little plain talk, though I do not think it is necessary, for I know you too well," he wrote Bill. "If you are afraid of hard work and privation do not come West. If you expect to make a fortune in a year or two, do not come West. If you will give up under temporary discouragements, do not come West. . . . Now I take it for granted you will not hesitate."

Bill didn't. He came with Dow to New York, and they went out to Chimney Butte with Roosevelt.

The Maine guide's eye roamed up and down this arid Western country, so vastly different from the verdure and pine-clad hills of his native State.

"Huh! You won't make any money raising cattle here," he commented.

"Bill, you don't know anything about it!" snapped Roosevelt.

"Well, I guess that's just about right, too," laughed Bill.

The site of the new Elkhorn Ranch was some forty miles to the north. They rode up there slowly, driving ahead of them a small herd of "shorthorns," which were to be the nucleus of a much larger herd. In those days cattle roamed at large for miles over the country, and often would not be reclaimed until the round-ups, in which all the ranchers took part. Then the stray cattle would be driven in to some common point, and identified by the brands. Roosevelt's own brand was a Maltese cross.

In the early days of the Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt was challenged to fight a duel by a hot-tempered Frenchman, whose claim adjoined his own. He was a marquis of the old school, and taking offense at something that Roosevelt was reported to have said, he sent a note by a courier, saying, "There is a way for gentlemen to settle their differences." Roosevelt promptly sent back word that the report was a lie; that the marquis had no business to believe hearsay evidence; and that he himself would follow within the hour. At the Frenchman's gates he was met again by the. messenger, bearing an apology from the marquis and a cordial invitation to take dinner with him.

Colonel Roosevelt at Yosemite


They tell many tales of Roosevelt's ranching days which make interesting reading. Here is another that is too typical of the man to be omitted.

One day he was in the editorial office of The Bad Lands Cowboy, the one newspaper that the section boasted. The editor was a Michigan graduate and, of course, a congenial soul. A little group of idlers sat around spinning yarns, most of which were not fit for polite ears. The worst offender in the lot was a man who had the reputation of being a "two-gun man"—that is, a fellow who could shoot from either hip, and whose fingers were lightning-quick on the trigger.

After this man had reeled off a string of foul talk, Roosevelt, thoroughly tired of it, looked him straight in the eye, and said quietly:

"Bill, I like you, but I don't know why, as you are the dirtiest talker I ever listened to!"

The hearers gasped with astonishment and fully expected some gun-play. But instead of that the man grinned sheepishly and replied:

"I don't belong to your outfit, Mr. Roosevelt, and I'm not beholden to you for anything. All the same, I don't mind saying that mebbe I've been a little bit too free with my mouth."

It was a lot for such a man as that to say, and was not said because he was afraid of Roosevelt. He simply respected the man who dared to stand up and tell him the truth. For thirty years thereafter he was one of the many personal friends whom Roosevelt came to count in the great West.

At the end of the first year Elkhorn Ranch boasted a fine stand of cattle and horses. Many of the latter Roosevelt had himself broken to the saddle—not without many a tumble, as he ruefully admits. Once he broke a small bone in his shoulder, and again one in his left arm. The nearest doctor was miles away, so Bill Sewall patched him up as best he could, and Roosevelt went on about his business until the bones healed.

Best of all, the bracing air of the plains completed the cure for his throat and lungs. His asthma and heavy breathing disappeared. His long fight during sickly childhood and young manhood was over. He had become the strong, virile figure later so famous in America as the apostle of the "strenuous life."

He entered into every phase of ranch work, although as boss of the outfit he might have shirked some of it. He even essayed to cut down trees all day long, alongside such mighty men of the axe as Dow and Sewall. One day, after such a session, he overheard the others talking.

"How many trees did you fellows cut down to-day, Dow?" someone asked.

"Well, Bill cut down fifty-three, I cut forty-nine, and the boss he beavered down seventeen."

Roosevelt, who was not supposed to be listening, had to grin at this. He had seen too many stumps gnawed in two by beavers, not to get the force of the remark.

The Elkhorn ranch house was largely built by these logs which the men themselves cut and rolled into place. When completed it was a long, low structure with an inviting veranda. There was a big living-room with a stone fireplace at one end, ornamented by the inter-locked elk horns. Roosevelt had his own bedroom and a rubber bathtub, an unusual luxury.

"I got out a rocking-chair," he says—"I am very fond of rocking-chairs—and enough books to fill two or three shelves. I do not see how anyone could have lived more comfortably. We had buffalo robes and bearskins of our own killing. We always kept the house clean—using the word in a rather large sense. There were at least two rooms that were always warm, even in the bitterest weather, and we had plenty to eat."

With such an ardent hunter as "the boss," there was usually fresh meat in the house— antelope, deer, grouse, duck, and, in the earlier days, elk and bison. It was an unwritten law with all ranchmen that their beeves were not to be killed for food. This was sometimes broken over, in case of necessity, or where they wanted to put a "maverick" or stray bull out of the way. But it was not considered ethical to kill good cattle.

Roosevelt would often go out alone, sometimes for two or three days at a time, with only some hardtack or bacon in his saddle-bags. He liked not only the joy of the chase, but the opportunity to study nature at close range and uninterruptedly. Born of these expeditions he wrote a book, which began as a series of magazine articles on "Hunting Trips of a Ranchman," which is full of good yarns and bits of description.

The ranch house stood on a low bluff over-looking a bend in the Little Missouri, a peaceful enough stream most of the time but liable to be swollen to a raging torrent in flood season. Ordinarily the stream twisted down in lazy curves between narrow channels flanked by cliffs. A row of cottonwood trees stood along the shore in front of the ranch house.

The men had good reason to know the curves and peculiarities of this river, especially after one memorable trip by boat after some horse thieves. There were three of them, and they had made off with Roosevelt's one boat in order to avoid pursuit. But Dow and Sewall got busy with their handy tools and made a flat-bottomed boat in three days. Then the three men got some provisions together and started upstream after the bandits.

It was cold weather and a freezing wind blew against them.

"We're likely to have this darned wind in our faces all day," remarked Will Dow.

"We can't," objected Bill Sewall, "unless it's the crookedest wind in Dakota, for we're coming to a bend soon."

Presently they paddled round the bend, and Bill was heard muttering to himself:

"It is  the crookedest wind in Dakota!"

After a long paddle they came upon the camp of the thieves, who were not expecting them, for the one left at camp was not pretending to guard it.

"Hands up!" called the Elkhorn outfit, rushing forward.

The man obeyed without a word.

Securing him, they waited in ambush for the two others. The latter, though surprised, showed fight, and as the leader hesitated, Roosevelt walked straight up to him, covering him with a six-shooter and ordering:

"You thief, put up your hands!"

The man's hands went up.

The captors' troubles, however, were by no means over. The only way they could take their prisoners to the nearest jail, many miles away, was by river. They started, but got delayed by an ice jam and their provisions ran low. It was an exciting trip of three or four days. The prisoners could not be bound too tightly, for fear they would freeze, so there was constant danger of their escaping.

Finally, Roosevelt secured a "bronco," or half-broken horse, rode fifteen miles across country to a ranch and secured a "prairie schooner." In this he conveyed his three prisoners at last to the county jail.

"What I can't make out," said one bewildered ranchman, "is why you took all that trouble to jail 'em, instead of hanging 'em offhand!"

Roosevelt relates another more amusing incident in which a couple of calves figured prominently.

He and a man named Meyers were trying to get a drove of cattle to swim the river. All got started except the two calves, which refused to budge. Meyers solved the difficulty with his animal by calmly picking it up, slinging it across his shoulders, mounting his horse, and swimming across with it—no mean feat.

But Roosevelt's calf was larger, so he had recourse to his lariat. The rope landed around the calf, which began kicking and struggling, and ended by running around behind the horse and catching the rope under the animal's tail. The horse began to "do figures," as the plainsmen say, and bolted over the edge of the bluff and into the water.

Down went his rider with him, while the surprised calf described ,a half-circle in the air and landed "kerplunk!" beside them. That took all the fight out of the calf, but the horse, not yet calmed down, swam frantically across the river, and the calf followed after, "making a wake like Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea."