Theodore Roosevelt and His Maltese Cross Ranch

President Theodore Roosevelt is remembered for many things. Some of the more publicized were his involvement during the Spanish American War with the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, and the other, his close involvement in establishing and protecting national land. In the 1880’s in the North Dakota Badlands, Teddy Roosevelt would carve out an image that would serve him his entire life.

Getting Into the Ranching Business

Aside from the fact that western ranching was all the rage among eastern and foreign investors, Teddy Roosevelt was attracted to it for much more than financial reasons. In 1883 he originally traveled to the Dakota Badlands to hunt buffalo. Before he left the area he acquired a major interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch. In fact, he bought the ranch after being in the area for just two weeks. The Dakota Badlands was quite attractive to Roosevelt. To be sure, he did want to make a go at western ranching and he did hope it would be profitable.

Maltese Ranch cabin

Beyond a doubt, his acquiring the ranch had as much to do with living the western life as it did with trying to turn a profit. Roosevelt was independently wealthy. According to the book Cattle Kings, author Lewis Atherton describes the partnership Roosevelt entered into with his Maltese Cross Ranch. Roosevelt at first had two partners, Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield. Both were honest men but the problem was that they knew about as much as Roosevelt did about cattle ranching, which was very little. Teddy asked his two partners to build a ranch house in addition to the cabin which was on the site. They constructed a one and one-half story cabin complete with a shingled roof and root cellar. Constructed of durable Ponderosa pine logs, the cabin was considered somewhat a kind of mansion in its day,

By having his two partners operating the Maltese Cross, Roosevelt was able to return to New York City and attend to his other affairs. He did however return to the ranch fairly often. The Dakota Badlands was never too far from his mind. On a return visit in 1885, Teddy acquired a second property, The Elkhorn Ranch. Interestingly, to help operate the Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt installed tow of his hunting guides from Maine who also knew nothing about western ranching. The ranches ended up losing money for Teddy. Author Lewis Atherton asserts that Teddy may have lost less money if he had taken more advice from his rookie partners.

What the West Did For Roosevelt

Regardless of the fact that the ranches ended up to be losing propositions, His ranching experience did improve his health and vigor and at the same time he acquired a new appreciation of conservation. The rugged life in the Dakota Territory helped shape his overall image from that of a wealthy eastern gentleman to that of an outdoors man, adventurer and in a way a cowboy. This image would carry on with Roosevelt for the remainder of his life. Teddy Roosevelt at one time after being made President of the United States was quoted as saying…”I would not have been the President, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota”.

In the very interesting book, Trailing the Loghorns, by author Sue Flanagan, she describes the circumstances of Roosevelt’s ranching foray. After acquiring his ranch in 1883, he spent much of the next four years in Dakota Territory, his ranch having from three thousand to five thousand head of cattle on two different spreads around Medora Dakota Territory. Roosevelt wanted desperately to master the cowboy ways and through himself completely into that quest, after death in a single night took both his wife and his mother.

Wild Horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

All accounts relating to Roosevelt’s time in the Dakota Territory say that he was accepted by the area cowboys. Even with his strong Harvard accent and often times fancy outfits, he was well accepted. One of the best descriptions of how Teddy regarded the cowboy life is mentioned in Trailing the Longhorns. In a letter to his sister, he wrote…”I have been on the roundup for a fortnight and really enjoy the work greatly…we breakfast at three every morning and work from sixteen to eighteen hours a day, counting night guard; so I get pretty sleepy, but feel strong as a bear”. He later wrote in one of his publications…”We knew toil and hardship and hunger and thirst; and we saw men die violent deaths as they worked among the horses and cattle; but we felt the best of hardy life in our veins, and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living”. Being owner of the ranch, Roosevelt could have chosen easier tasks for himself during roundups, but he didn’t. He could have chosen the best and easiest to handle mount, but he didn’t. The book Cattle Kings suggests that by putting himself on the very same level as his working cowboys, Teddy gained their respect regardless of his high society eastern upbringing and the fact that he was one of the very few who had to wear eyeglasses. He also adapted to the code of the western community of not trying to force his own views and values on others. That trait alone was enough to gain local acceptance.

You will find our article on the Real Cowboys very interesting. The facts are quite different from what was written in many of the dime novels.

While Theodore Roosevelt made no real contributions to the ranching industry such as men like Jesse Chisholm and the Chisholm Trail and the famous Texas Panhandle rancher, Charles Goodnight, he did gain quite a lot himself from the experience. His writings testify to that fact. The gains Roosevelt made in the Dakota Badlands were certainly not financial. When Roosevelt sold off his Dakota ranches in 1898 it was estimated that he probably lost some $50,000 with the ventures.

Medora North Dakota Today

What remains today of the Maltese Cross Ranch is the three room cabin. It’s the cabin that Roosevelt stayed in during his first visit to his ranch. The cabin, which was once located about seven miles south of Medora is very symbolic. In 1959, the cabin was relocated to its present site and renovated. The most recent preservation work occurred in 2000. Prior to being moved to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the cabin had been moved many times.

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir

While Theodore Roosevelt was President, the cabin was displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. It was displayed at the Louis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland Oregon and it resided at one time on the state capitol grounds in Bismarck North Dakota. Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Maltese Cross Ranch cabin is located adjacent to the park’s South Unit Visitors Center.

What’s very unique about the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is that it not only is located where Teddy Roosevelt educated himself about the west, but it also is a symbol of the strong conservation views he held. One could argue that there was no other American president who did as much for the protection of public wild lands than Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt, along with his conservation chief, Gifford Pinchot, secured millions of acres of public lands for future generations. A good deal of this land is now in our National Parks and Monuments. Giffford Pinchot was noted for, while serving under Roosevelt, hiring and personally training the first Forest Service Rangers and became the first head of that organization. It would be an understatement to say that Teddy Roosevelt and Pinchot had a difficult time obtaining support from the forest and mining industries and their friends in Congress. Pinchot’s Forest Service had one of their biggest challenges during the Great Fire of 1910 which devastated towns and forest lands in Montana and surrounding states.Teddy Roosevelt also traveled to meet and discuss conservation efforts with John Muir, thought of as being America’s most famous conservationist of his era. John Muir was more of a preservationist than a conservationist. This led to some friction with Pinchot who was a conservationist. A conservationist will work with business interests to use resources wisely. A preservationist on the other hand believes that the forests and wild lands should be left alone period.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three units. The North Unit, South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The South Unit is entered from Medora North Dakota. Medora is located 133 miles west of Bismarck North Dakota. The North Unit entrance is along U.S. Highway 85, approximately 16 miles south of Watford City, ND and 50 miles north of Belfield, ND. The distance by road from Medora to the North Unit is approximately 70 miles.The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is located 35 miles north of Medora and is accessed by gravel roads. For those visiting the park on a western road trip, Interstate 94 goes right through the park and to Medora North Dakota which makes this historic site very easy to reach.

(Photos are from public domain)