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.

Marquis of the Wild Frontier

Later this summer we’re taking a road trip to the town of Medora, North Dakota.  Ever hear of it?  There is a national park there, not large, but with enough wildlife – buffalo, wild horses, prairie dogs – to satisfy nature buffs.  The area is, in addition, appealing to lovers of history.  The town is named after an auburn-haired beauty who once upon a time married a French nobleman.

Images: Historical Society of North Dakota

Medora von Hoffman was born on Staten Island, New York, in 1856 to a Wall Street banker and his wife.  She led a privileged life, spending quite a bit of time with her family at a villa in Cannes, France.  She was accomplished not only in sewing, piano playing, and painting; but also horsemanship and shooting.  Her adventuresome spirit caught the eye of Antoine Amadee Mari Vincent Manca de Vallombrosa, whose title was the Marquis de Mores.  They were married in 1882.

The new son-in-law tried the banking business in New York, but craved the outdoors.  A relative who’d visited Dakota Territory brought back stories of the badlands (not to be confused with those further south), and soon Antoine was planning a unique ranch and meat-packing business.  He thought he could butcher beef on site and ship it east on the railroad, bypassing the cost of transporting live animals.  And his young wife was in favor of moving west.

The venture, and adventure, became a reality.  Backed by von Hoffman finances, the Marquis built a large slaughterhouse in the shadow of the rimrock just outside the Montana border.  The Northern Pacific Refrigerator Car Company took shape, as did the town, which he gave Medora’s name.  On an overlooking hill, he built a large twenty-six room hunting lodge that the locals called the “Chateau.”

Medora and the couple’s baby daughter visited the settlement in October 1883.  She moved to New York for the winter, but returned in the spring.  By all accounts she loved life in the west.  She filled the new, spacious home with furniture, rugs, curtains and dishes from St. Paul and New York City.

Tourist postcard from the 1920s showing the Chateau de Mores.

The couple had a special wagon built for hunting, which took them and their out-of-town guests to places like the new Yellowstone National Park.  It was fitted with the comforts of home, including Minton fine china.  A private railroad car to take them to more distant places was at their disposal, too.

Medora oversaw the building of the first Catholic church of Dakota Territory, in front of one of the buttes.  By all accounts she was an excellent administrator of the home grounds and hired help, as she would soon have two more children, both boys.  The townspeople thought she was more down-to-earth than her husband, who had the habit of tossing a weighted walking stick from arm to arm as he walked about town.

The Marquis’ dreams were being realized very quickly.  The town, population 250, was booming.  He had contracts for icing stations in cities all the way to Chicago.  Furthermore, he made arrangements with boats on Lakes Superior and Michigan to carry his goods (which soon were to include butter from a creamery in Minnesota) farther east.  He was also looking into shipping salmon from the Pacific Ocean in his refrigerated railroad cars.

At home in Medora, his company was buying cattle from local ranchers to butcher.  Only not quite as many as he’d hoped.  The first fall more sheep than cattle went through the stockyards.  Some of the animals were not as fat as they should be, so a feedlot program was designed.

The spring of 1885 looked very promising for this unusual frontier family.

Next post: a famous neighbor, and a turn of events.