Calf Rassling

This is the first person account of a wild and wooly family camping trip in the late Nineteenth Century.  I presented it this summer as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s younger sister, close to the place where it happened.

Model of the Elkhorn Ranch House near Medora, North Dakota.

In the late summer of 1890, Mr. Robinson and I, my sister Anna and our friend Bob Ferguson accompanied my brother and his wife Edith back to his ranch in Medora. We arrived by train at four in the morning, it being dark and very muddy from the rain. We made the 40 mile trip to the ranch by wagon, fording the Little Missouri River 23 times before we got there.

Our day at the cattle round-up was one of the most fascinating days of my life. We lunched at the wagon, galloped across the grassy plateaus, and sat under the cottonwood trees by the banks of the river.

On the last day, Will Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris planned a surprise for my brother and my husband. One had shown me the method of throwing a calf, and the other taught me how to rope it.  About 3 o’clock all members of our party and the cowboys were invited to sit on the fence of the corral and watch.

With a severe rain the evening before, it was mud walled in by a fence, with only one animal – the calf – inside. Will announced me very much like a circus rider used to be introduced by Barnum and Bailey.

Well, the calf, which was an unpleasant size, started galloping. I, knee deep in mud, galloped after it. I achieved roping it its neck. I got close enough to throw myself across its back, still running, and the cowboys yelled, “Stay with him!” The sound of their laughter still rings in my ears. I remember the jellified feeling like it was yesterday. I grabbed the calf’s left leg with my right arm. There was one terrible lurch and the calf fell over on its head in the mud. All sensation left me and I only remember being lifted up, encase in an armor of oozing dirt, and being carried on the shoulders of the cowboys to the ranch house.

Years later, when the owner of the Elkhorn Ranch had become the President of the United States, I was receiving with him and his wife at the White House. I was attired in black velvet and white plumes on my hat, when I recognized the figure of Will Merrifield.

He said, “Well now, Mrs. Douglas, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see you again. The last time I laid eyes on you, you were standing on your head in that muddy corral with your legs waving in the air!”




Big Fish in a Small Pond

The Marquis de Mores was not the only celebrated person to get caught up in Dakota Territory’s wild west. In 1883, a few months after the Frenchman’s first scouting trip there, young Theodore Roosevelt stepped off the train at the depot. Planning to hunt buffalo, he too was more than a little curious about tales he’d heard.

                              Theodore Roosevelt

The Marquis de Mores

He got his buffalo, one of the last from the indigent herds, and had a small cabin built south of town named the “Maltese Cross” (he did not own the land). Investing money his father left him, he later bought the rights ($400) for a larger ranch house, the “Elkhorn,” in the river bottom to the north.  They were set up with cattle, cowboys and foremen.  The Albany assemblyman became acquainted with other ranchers, the Marquis, and the local newspaper editor before going back to his wife and his work in the east that fall.

Tragically, Roosevelt’s wife and mother died in February.  He returned to the badlands indefinitely to mourn and to oversee his ranches.  Meanwhile the Marquis was setting up a stagecoach line from Medora to Deadwood.

Both frontiersman enjoyed the wide open spaces; both had several photographs taken in western costume.  The life and its image appealed to them.  Rossevelt dined with the de Mores family, and the two twenty-five-year-olds shared leadership of the stockmen’s association.  They even traveled together to Miles City, Montana to try to form a vigilante group against cattle rustlers.  But on one occasion the Marquis reneged on a price he’d quoted for Roosevelt cattle, so they were backed up and returned to the ranch.  A surviving letter from Roosevelt sounds very much like he’d been challenged to a duel, but it never materialized.

The Marquis had other problems.  A group of men, angry at the fences he put up, ambushed him.  It ended in the death of a hunter and more than one civil trial.  De Mores was eventually acquitted of murder charges.

His business ventures slowly failed.  Eastern markets preferred corn-fed over grass-fed beef, and packing plant owners in Chicago were against the competition he posed.  In the fall of 1886, the huge butchering facilities, which had never run at full capacity, closed.  The stagecoach line had to be abandoned partly because it could not get a contract to carry the mail.  The de Mores family left for New York and, a year later, France.  After re-adapting to life in the European aristocracy, Medora and the Marquis went to India to hunt tigers.

TR’s photograph of his Elkhorn ranch house

Theodore Roosevelt returned to New York, married his childhood friend Edith Carow, and began a political career that took him to the White House.  His cattle investments failed, too, after a disastrous string of blizzards in 1887.

The Marquis tried to build a railroad in Indochina but it was blocked.  Mixed up with a questionable group of politicians, he killed another man in a duel and tried to help his homeland dominate Africa.  He was assassinated in 1896 in Tunis, the land of the Touaregs, betrayed by native guides.

Medora brought her husband’s killers to justice but wasn’t able to do the same for the government officials she felt were really responsible.  She carried on raising her three children.  In 1903 two of them accompanied her on one last visit to the North Dakota town bearing her name.  Theodore Roosevelt by then had become President of the United States, often remarking that without his experience in the west, he would not have achieved that office.

During World War I Medora turned her French estate into a hospital for wounded soldiers.  She died in 1921 at 64 and is buried in Cannes.

Tourists in Medora, North Dakota, today can see the smokestack from the burned-down packing plant, and tour the “Chateau de Mores” on a hill outside of town.  Most of Medora’s furniture, rugs, linens and china are still there — even original bottles of mineral water in the scullery.  The land where the cattle grazed is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Two ambitious men once lived in the same county in Dakota Territory.  Their stories ended differently, but for a little while, they ruled the frontier they’d dreamed of.

History Buff’s Buffet

Some groan at the thought of endnotes, but much can be taken from them.  They often add explanations authors wouldn’t want one reader to miss.  After all, he or she may never pass that way again.

Edmund Morris, King of Endnotes, gives his audience two books in each biography: the primary text, and the notes in the back.  I can’t try to approach that level.  His card files have been documented on more than one C-Span interview. But I did find some tidbits at the end of The Amazing Bird Collection to share this week.

Theodore’s photograph of the Elkhorn Ranch House.

From Wilderness Writings, by Theodore Roosevelt: In post-Civil War days, photography was difficult for amateurs because of the instruments and the developing process, but when they got a bit more portable, Theodore liked to shoot with a camera as much as he did with a gun.  He developed prints himself in the cellar of his North Dakota ranch house.  His book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, lists photography equipment and circa 1915 directions for using it.

From My Brother Theodore Roosevelt, by Corinne Roosevelt Robinson:  Soon after the Civil War ended, Theodore’s mother received a mysterious letter.  It said that a young man would wait to meet them under a certain tree at Central Park.  It turned out to be her youngest brother, Irvine Bulloch, a Confederate soldier who fought on the warship Alabama (captained by their older brother James).  They had a happy but short reunion, after which Irvine moved to a permanent home in England.


 “Teedie and Ellie” watch from a second story window.

From The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, by Stefan Lorant: Edith Roosevelt, TR’s widow, confirmed that in a famous photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City, Theodore and his brother Elliott were the two small boys looking out the window of a mansion.  Little Edie, their friend, had been watching with them at the home of the boys’ grandfather, Cornelius.  When she cried, they pushed her into a back room.  Lorant says that he was so charmed by Mrs. Roosevelt that he said, “If I were twenty years older, I’d propose to you.”  She answered, “Mr. Lorant, if I were twenty years younger, I would accept.”

From The Boy Hunters, by Mayne Reid, a book Theodore read growing up: A father sending his boys to the western frontier to hunt was described in this way.  “Like the great Audubon, he was fond of the outside world.  He was fond of drawing, his lessons came from nature itself…he combined a passion for the chase with his delicate taste for scientific pursuits.”  That could have been part of the eulogy at TR’s funeral. 

 Widely circulated cartoon of TR shooting holes in Mr. Johnson’s dictionary.

From An Autobiography, by Theodore Roosevelt: During his presidency, Theodore tried to get Congress to pass a bill on simplified spelling.  It did not pass, but the press had a lot of fun with it.  Some of the words he wanted to shorten have evolved anyway (He might have liked texting).