Author: Michael F. Blake
Title: "The Cowboy President - The American West and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt"
Publisher: TWODOT 2018; 256 pages of text with 16 pages of BW photos
Michael F. Blake is not a trained historian, but for those of us who love North Dakota and its Badlands, and who proudly claim Theodore Roosevelt as "our president,” he has written an excellent and very readable book: “The Cowboy President – The American West and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt.”
Blake is an Emmy-winning makeup artist in film and television who, as a child, acted in several television shows. A film scholar, he has written several books on Lon Chaney as well as on the making of several movies. But his longtime interest in Theodore Roosevelt led him to the North Dakota Badlands, where he spent the better of three years traversing the region and looking into every aspect of Roosevelt’s life in the Dakotas. The result is this very good book, which is not a dry history, but an informative telling of stories of Roosevelt’s experiences. I particularly like the fact that it is easy to follow the timeline of his experiences.
Roosevelt first arrived in the Badlands stepping off the train on Sept. 8, 1883, to hunt buffalo, having left his pregnant wife, Alice Lee, in New York City. He was about to be 25 that October. From a well-to-do family, he was the youngest member of the New York State Assembly. By the time he arrived in the Badlands, the once mighty herds of buffalo had been reduced to small groups of stragglers. The year 1883 marked the arrival of Texas cattle and the beginning of change in the Badlands. He got his buffalo.
Through Blake’s retelling of his adventures on that first buffalo hunt, you can see why Roosevelt became smitten by the Badlands. By the end of his first visit, he had made some lifelong Western friends to whom he gave a check for $14,000 to buy a ranch for him and stock it with cattle. Roosevelt was going to be a Badlands rancher. He left for New York late in September and arrived home a stronger, more confident man.
Roosevelt would regularly travel between Medora and New York City. He never lived full time on his two ranches, and his longest visit was for 15 weeks starting in March 1886. From 1883 until his ranching venture failed during the dreadful winter of 1886-1887, Roosevelt spent a little more than 365 days in his beloved Badlands and Dakotas. Though he was done with ranching, Roosevelt would return to the Elkhorn ranch to hunt almost every year from 1888 to 1896.
In the family home in New York, Roosevelt was struck with a double tragedy on Feb. 14, 1884. First his 48-year-old mother died early that morning and his wife, Alice Lee, at age 22 died that same afternoon after giving birth to their daughter, who he subsequently named Alice Lee after her mother. His sister, Bamie, cared for the baby as Roosevelt dealt with his grief.
He threw himself into his work at the New York State Assembly, and on June 1, 1884, he attended the Republican presidential convention in Chicago. His candidate lost and politics lost its spark for him. He arrived in Medora on June 9, 1884, to go hunting and ranching.
What I particularly like about this book is the interesting way in which Blake tells the stories of Roosevelt’s many adventures in the Badlands, including standing up to the town bully and his wild icy boat ride on the Little Missouri River to capture and bring to justice three fellows who had stolen his boat. It’s a great story and well told. Not being a typical deputy bent on capturing these criminals, Roosevelt “brought along his new copy of Tolstoy’s 'Anna Karenina.'” Reading and writing throughout his time in the Badlands set him apart as a different sort of cowboy.
For a great read concentrating on what made Theodore Roosevelt so compelling a figure of the West and which made him “our president,” this is the book for you.