A true city slicker from New York City – Teddy Roosevelt - became the American president most associated with the American West and known as a “cowboy president.”
How he earned and encouraged that reputation was the subject of a presentation in Harrison Friday night. Duane Jundt from Northwestern College in Iowa presented “The Dude is a Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and the American West” at an event co-sponsored by the Sioux County Historical Society and Agate Fossil Beds. Jundt teaches courses in Western civilization and American history and is a member of the advisory board of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.
“Roosevelt is sort of the George Washington of the American West,” he said. An avid hunter, Roosevelt, a city slicker born to wealth and privilege, first came to the Dakota Territories in 1883 to hunt buffalo. Two weeks of hunting the region of what is now western North Dakota inspired a love of the landscape and before he left he decided to invest in ranching, Jundt said. He wrote a check for $40,000 to two men who lived in the area and instructed them to buy him some cattle, saying he would return in the spring.
On Feb. 12, 1884, his daughter was born and two days later tragedy struck when both his wife and mother died on the same day. He returned to the North Dakota Badlands to mourn.
“He threw himself into western life,” Jundt said.
And though he was a city slicker who read books and wore glasses, he worked his two ranches with the cowboys he hired, constantly trying to prove that he belonged in the west. He became president of the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association, was deputy sheriff of Billings County, owned the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranches and brands, was an avid hunter and a “ranchman.”
“Roosevelt never referred to himself as a cowboy. He owned the ranches. He was a ranchman. The cowboys worked for him,” Jundt said.
Despite his reputation as a reckless cowboy, Roosevelt often is not credited enough for the times he did nothing, Jundt contends. There were many times when he could have escalated confrontations and carried out frontier justice – with a drunken bully in a bar, with Indians on the range and with a pair of boat thieves. However, he never turned to violence. For example, with the boat thieves, rather than stringing him up, as was his right at the time, he marched them through a blizzard to the sheriff.
Roosevelt was never in the AmericanWest full time, Jundt said, spending about a year altogether at his ranches from 1883-1887, when weather conditions forced him to sell off.
Still, the limited time he was in the Dakota Territory earned him a reputation that carried through to his candidacies for New York City mayor, governor, vice president and president.
He was depicted as a cowboy candidate each time, and in fact was added to the ticket as vice president with William McKinley in an effort to win the American West over William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, Jundt said. It was a choice not everyone embraced.
“I told McKinley it was a mistake to nominate that wild man in Philadelphia. I told him to think what would happen if he should die. Now look. That damned cowboy is president of the United States,” Senator Mark Hanna was quoted as saying.
Roosevelt himself promoted the cowboy image, writing books about his experiences in the west and making sure to associate himself with cowboys and ranchmen during his Great Western Tour of 1903.
Political opponents portrayed Roosevelt’s western image as being a rash, reckless gunslinger, hoping to discredit him, but the image actually boosted Roosevelt’s reputation and success, Jundt said.
“People loved the West. And they loved Roosevelt.”
Jundt argues that Roosevelt’s approach to diplomacy actually has roots in what he learned from his time in the American West. Roosevelt’s statecraft was built upon the following principles: prepare for conflict, act justly, never bluff, strike only if you’re prepared to hit hard, let others save face and speak softly.
All of those ideals could have been fostered by his experiences in the Dakota Territory, Jundt said. Roosevelt was always armed during his time in the West, directed his cowboys to never mark a stray cow or calf with his brand, drew his weapons only when necessary and only when he was prepared to carry through on the threat, and in his writings said a good cowboy is quiet most of the time.
As president, Roosevelt also recognized that the American public didn’t always understand the ins-and-outs of foreign policy and often compared it to happenings in the American West to educate his constituents.
“He used a lot of western language to explain his foreign policy,” Jundt said.