Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West

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by Roger L. Di Silvestro

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Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands chronicles the turbulent years Roosevelt spent as a rancher in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, during which the character and commitment of the future president and conservationist took shape. On February 12, 1884—when Roosevelt was building a career as New York State's most promising young politician—his wife

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Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands chronicles the turbulent years Roosevelt spent as a rancher in the Badlands of Dakota Territory, during which the character and commitment of the future president and conservationist took shape. On February 12, 1884—when Roosevelt was building a career as New York State's most promising young politician—his wife gave birth to their first child, Alice. Two days later, both his wife and his mother died in the same house on Valentine's Day. Grief stricken—and driven by doubts about his career after failed attempts as a reformer fighting political corruption—Roosevelt left Alice in his sister's care and went to live on a Badlands ranch he had bought a year earlier. He spent much of the next three years working alongside his ranch managers and hired hands. He grew to love and respect frontier life and to find in the West both physical health and emotional stamina.

His transformation from a young, Harvard-educated New York politician to a working rancher in the mid to late 1880s coincided with the end of the Old West, a turning point in the cattle industry, and major changes in America's attitudes toward wildlife and wild places. Drawing on Roosevelt's own accounts and on diverse archives, Roger Di Silvestro tells the exciting story of how Roosevelt's spirit and political dynamism were forged during roundups, bronco busting, fist fights, grizzly bear hunts, and encounters with horse thieves, hostile Indians, and vigilante justice. In the dramatic life of Theodore Roosevelt, few adventures exceed those that he found in the Badlands.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The future Rough Rider forges his masculine identity in a Western smithy in this fascinating biographical sketch. DiSilvestro (In the Shadow of Wounded Knee) recounts Roosevelt's mid-1880s sojourns in the Badlands, a hardscrabble frontier prone to gunfights (though some were staged to scare passengers on passing trains). For the sickly, foppish New Yorker (Roosevelt had his ranch duds custom-tailored in Manhattan), the West offered priceless tests of manhood--dangerous cattle drives; bullies; raucous hunting excursions ("I got him, I got him, I got him," he chanted while dancing around a pronghorn antelope carcass)--that the author credits with sparking Roosevelt's conservationist ardor. DiSilvestro paints a vivid panorama of the fast-vanishing frontier and plays the material straight (though he overstates the romance of Roosevelt's heartbreak over the death of his wife; friends feared he would "lose his mind," the author reminds us often). The straight approach works best; Roosevelt's ordeals were real enough, if sometimes pointlessly self-inflicted (he once trekked 150 miles after minor outlaws who stole his rowboat), and he emerges as our most neurotic president, a consummate practitioner of an authenticity that was both fake and utterly sincere. Photos. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The frontier West and its importance to Theodore Roosevelt and in turn the American nation is explored in depth by naturalist/historian DiSilvestro (senior editor, National Wildlife magazine; In the Shadow of Wounded Knee), updating the account first told by Hermann Hagedorn in 1921 and included in a few chapters of Edmund Morris's epic The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. DiSilvestro successfully communicates the western spirit of the Dakota Badlands that became an essential component of the personal identity of the future President. Drawing upon a wealth of archival and biographical writings, the author paints a picture of a grief-stricken New Yorker (following the death of his wife in childbirth and the death of his mother), politician, and socialite, who reinvented himself as a frontier cattle rancher, big-game hunter, and conservationist. Much information is included on the eastern establishment's get-rich-quick western ranching fantasies, which Roosevelt saw disintegrate in the infamous winter of 1886–87. VERDICT Highly recommended as useful to scholars and accessible to general readers, this work focuses on the nature of the Badlands crucible that ultimately recast Roosevelt's sense of confidence and purpose as a participant in American governance.—Nathan E. Bender, Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews

Amid the outpouring of Theodore Roosevelt biographies, National Wildlife senior editor Di Silvestro (In the Shadow of Wounded Knee: The Untold Final Story of the Indian Wars, 2007, etc.) provides an examination focused on four years (1884–1888)of the president's early manhood.

The author painstakingly studies the period during which Roosevelt shuttled between New York City and the sparsely populated Dakota Territory. In 1878, Roosevelt was reeling from the death of his father. Two years later he married Alice, and four years after the marriage Alice gave birth to a daughter. But Alice died at age 22, just 48 hours after the baby's birth, and Roosevelt's mother died on the same day at age 48. Desperate to escape his sorrow, Roosevelt took leave from his job as state legislator to roam the ranges of the Dakotas. He had journeyed there during 1883 to hunt wild game, and the barren, starklybeautifulland captivated him so fully that he had purchased a ranch. Di Silvestro demonstrates how Roosevelt developed the ranch to become a serious breeder and seller of cattle. Although a minor celebrity among the rancher population because of his family's prominence back East, Roosevelt managed to fit in with the permanent residents of the Dakotas. Despite his frequent journeys back to New York to participate in politics, visit his baby daughter and his supportive siblings, the hardy Dakota settlers eventually decided Roosevelt was more than just a greedy carpetbagger. As the book's subtitle indicates, Roosevelt sought "recovery" by soaking up the culture of the Dakotas, and that sought-after recovery eventually came to him. At the end of 1888, he married Edith, who could not completely replace Alice but whom he loved dearly. The author makes the case that Roosevelt's sojourns to the Dakotas imbued him with a strong sense of environmentalism, and that earth-loving ethic became a hallmark of his years in the White House.

A good example of how focused biographical writing, when skillfully executed, can enlighten as well as afull-life biography.

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Product Details

Walker & Company
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6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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By Roger L. Di Silvestro


Copyright © 2011 Roger L. Di Silvestro
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1721-4


When he died at sixty on January 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt left behind a life of adventure and accomplishment that ranked him among the nation's great leaders and one of its most popular, the only twentieth-century figure to be carved into Mount Rushmore along with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. He had served as an avid reformer and de facto head of the early federal Civil Service Commission, setting the stage for the end of the spoils system. He had helped build up the nation's sea power as assistant secretary of the navy. He had commanded a cavalry unit during the Spanish-American War, which he had help foment, and he had come out of military service a national hero, landing in the New York governor's mansion for an innovative stint as the state's political head.

Two years as governor led him to the vice presidency of the United States in 1901, a position he held for only a few months before the assassination of President William McKinley put Roosevelt in the White House at forty-two—still the youngest man ever to lead the nation. After a presidency during which he won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, he went on a ten-month safari to East Africa, collecting specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which his father had helped found in the 1870s. In the 1912 election he led the Progressive Party, a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party, to challenge Republican candidate William Howard Taft, who had become president in 1909 as Roosevelt's handpicked successor but had not lived up to Roosevelt's expectations. The 1912 race was one of Roosevelt's rare failures: He lost and so did Taft, giving the White House to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, whom Roosevelt despised. Partly in dismay over this development, Roosevelt went off to explore an uncharted river in South America for several months in late 1913 and early 1914, nearly killing himself with hardship. As a result of this trip, a river in Brazil bears his name.

Roosevelt's disdain for Wilson grew as the new president sought to avoid U.S. participation in World War I. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Roosevelt sought the administration's permission to raise an army regiment that he would lead, but he was rebuffed. All four of Roosevelt's sons served in Europe; the youngest, Quentin, was killed when the fighter plane he piloted was shot down. After the war, Roosevelt was widely bandied about as a potential Republican candidate in 1920, a race he might have run had not death found him first.

But before all that, before his career, as he himself put it, "rose like a rocket," before he became the stuff of American myth, legend, and misunderstanding, he was a young man suffering the anguish of a heart that broke on Valentine's Day 1884 when, within hours of each other, his mother and his wife died just two days after his wife had given birth to his first child.

Only twenty-four years old, Roosevelt for the past two years had served in the New York Assembly, where he had been enjoying perhaps the most promising political career in the state. Those twin deaths stunned him, however—friends worried that he would lose his mind—and by autumn he added to his sorrows the conviction that his political career, too, was dead, felled because he had sided with a controversial Republican presidential candidate. Bereft in his home life and bewildered by the downward drift of his career, he sought escape in one of the most remote and rugged places in the United States south of the Canadian border—the Badlands of Dakota Territory, America's last frontier, a wilderness only then opening to the cattle industry. There he established a ranch, adopted the buckskin garb of the pioneers, and spent generous amounts of time hunting dangerous game, such as grizzly bears and mountain lions. Before his sojourn in the Badlands ended, the West would play as large a role in Roosevelt's personal Manifest Destiny as it did in the nation's. Within two years he would find physical strength and emotional stability, salvaging the wreckage of his life and forging himself into the historical figure who would gaze down in stone from Mount Rushmore. Toward the end of his life he would say that if, for some reason, he had to give up all but one of his memories, out of the many adventures and accomplishments he had achieved and enjoyed, he would keep the memory "of my life on the ranch with its experiences close to Nature and among the men who lived nearest her."

He also said of the Badlands, during a campaign visit as a vice presidential candidate, "here the romance of my life began." This comment may be taken more literally than he probably intended. Love and its loss were motivators for much of what happened to him in the Badlands. Hermann Hagedorn, a biographer who wrote about Roosevelt's ranching years in a book published in 1921, looked back in the 1960s at what he had written so long before, and what he saw gave rise to these thoughts:

The real story of Theodore Roosevelt's ranching days has never been told. It involves Roosevelt's two wives, Alice Lee and Edith Carow, and when I wrote "Roosevelt in the Badlands," almost forty years ago, I was not in a position to tell all I knew and, in fact, I knew only part of the story. In the perspective of almost 75 years, the whole picture is now unfolding, and can be told.

It is a story of a brilliant and successful young man who came out to the Bad Lands in the summer of 1884, outwardly alive and alert but inwardly shattered by the death in childbirth of the young wife he had devotedly loved. He had grown up in a society in which the romantic conceptions of Victorian literature were indisputable realities, and was convinced that, when his wife, Alice, died, happiness for him had forever died with her. Like the familiar heroes of fiction who had loved and lost, he fled to the wilderness, not so much to forget what he had lost but to live his life in its afterglow. His attitude of mind was sentimental, morbid and unreal.

In the Badlands, Roosevelt recovered from that state of mind. He also revived politically and physically. This book is the story of his Badlands years.


Excerpted from THEODORE ROOSEVELT IN THE BADLANDS by Roger L. Di Silvestro Copyright © 2011 by Roger L. Di Silvestro. Excerpted by permission of WALKER & COMPANY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
19thCenturion More than 1 year ago
Growing up on a North Dakota cattle ranch, I was weaned on stories of Theodore Roosevelt's ranching days in the rugged Badlands. I did not know the half of it! This is a great, fast-paced book packed with interesting details that really flesh out the story. I could see the painted canyons and buttes, smell the sweet prairie grass, and hear the hiss of wind-driven snow against the windows of the Elk Horn ranchhouse as the author weaves a remarkable story, all the more remarkable because it is all true. A bar room brawl, cattle roundups, a bison hunt, a search for thieves on the run, and a dust-up with an eccentric aristocratic Frenchman intent on building a cattle empire. All this and TR still had time to read War and Peace in two French. This book could be made into a movie.
ChaneyBuff More than 1 year ago
The most detailed book of Roosevelt's experiences in the Dakota Bandlands. Just an absolute joy to read and see how this period in TR's life shaped him for the years ahead. I have always been fascinated by this time in his life and most bios on TR, spend a chapter and move on, never really giving me a feel for the land and the time TR spent in the Dakotas. Happily, this book fills that need very nicely and is informative and interesting. TR would approve.
Dinah Pellerin More than 1 year ago
I downloaded a sample of this book, found it interesting but when I got to page 95, it went back to page 23 and repeated all pages till the end of the sample. I don't want to buy the book and have the same problem