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  • By Ken Perrotte

North Dakota's Badlands - Stomping Grounds for French Aristocracy, Cowboys, Indians

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

This Outdoors Rambler lifestyle gets me out into some incredible places. Whether it's in a treestand watching the woods wake up, on the water seeing the first birds looking for a school of fish or on a rocky bluff watching the sun rise, the moment inspires and helps place our lives in context.

I can now cross North Dakota off the list of states I've yet to visit. My eight days in this beautiful state were unique -- mainly because While walleye and yellow perch fishing can be fantastic at many locations near Bismarck, our base of operations last week for the 2018 Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers annual conference, wetting a line wasn't on my docket. Instead, a visit to the storied Badlands was the prime objective. The impetus -- or more accurately for me, a pilgrimage, was the opportunity to see the world that captured the imagination of America's "Conservation President" Theodore Roosevelt.

If you're a Roosevelt fan, watch this 3-minute video at the bottom of the page with a special message to people engaged in the conservation "arena."

I remember liking what I heard about Roosevelt when I was a youngster. As a college student studying American history, he loomed larger than life. I read his stories about his adventures ranching in North Dakota and his trips to Africa. But, mostly, I respected his dedication to the conservation of our wild places and animals. So, maybe it was a little overwhelming as I finally set foot inside his small, hand-hewn log cabin in North Dakota’s Badlands.

North Dakota Teddy Roosevelt

Before our small group resumed its exploration, I decided to shoot a little video in front of the cabin, explaining its significance. Well, I got choked up. Contemplating the enormity of that man’s vision and commitment, much of it likely formed while sitting by the wood stove in that tiny cabin, just got to me.

Roosevelt is known for many things: the Panama Canal; the Pure Food & Drug Act; his leadership of the “Rough Riders” in Cuba during the Spanish-American war; his “Square Deal” for all Americans presidential platform; his military doctrine of, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; his safaris to South America and Africa, the latter of which resulted in more than 500 specimens deposited in national museums, notably the Smithsonian; and more.

The “more” includes, perhaps, the most enduring. Roosevelt preserved 230 million acres of public lands during his presidency. This included national parks and monuments, federal bird reserves, national game preserves, and 150 million acres of national forests. Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. The National Park Service wouldn’t be created until 1916, three years after his death. The 51 federal bird reserves he would establish would later become today's national wildlife refuges, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The Romance of My Life”

Roosevelt wrote more than 30 books, including one detailing his experiences as a young cattleman and rancher in North Dakota. He first visited in 1883, a wealthy Easterner wanting to hunt buffalo. The next year, after his wife and mother died within hours of each other, he returned at age 24 looking for solace and, possibly, distraction from life’s cruel realities. Over three summers of ranching, Roosevelt immersed himself in the cowboy lifestyle, rolling up his sleeves and helping in cattle drives, chasing down thieves and rustlers, hunting and camping under the brilliant stars. He said North Dakota is where he began “the romance of my life” and without his experiences there, he would have never been president.

Roosevelt established two ranches in the badlands: the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn. The Elkhorn was about 30 miles north of the village of Medora. Medora was named for the wife of the Marquis des Mores, a French aristocrat who took a fancy to the badlands, buying thousands of acres and turning it into a blend of enterprising cattle operation and big game hunting playground. Interestingly, Roosevelt didn’t own any land in North Dakota. Like many other ranchers there, he “squatted” on public or railroad-owned lands, letting his cattle enjoy free-range grazing.

North Dakota Teddy Roosevelt

The marquis had a vision of processing sides of beef in Medora and shipping them east by refrigerated railcar. This ensured cattle were in prime shape before slaughter versus the ragged condition usually found after lengthy trail drives to big city stockyards. The home built by the marquis was quite opulent by Badlands' standards. He used it to entertain international guests and host hunting parties. The two-story house sits on a hilltop overlooking the Badlands. We toured the well-preserved Chateau de Mores. Naturally, our group was particularly interested in the game room,” which contains mounts of game animals native to the Badlands as well as firearms, ammunition and accessories commonly used in those days.

Roosevelt's main ranch house was also nice by badlands but it, along with his small hunting cabin, stood in sharp contrast to the Frenchman’s sense of grandeur.

We toured the national park's south unit at daybreak, seeing bison, mule deer, whitetails, wild turkeys, wild horses, grouse and other critters. Watching the sun rise over the horizon from a vantage point known as Buck’s Hill was a spiritual moment.

Enduring Legacy

Roosevelt didn’t initiate the conservation movement, but he certainly refined and improved it. Yellowstone National Park in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming was established by Act of Congress in 1872 under President Ulysses S. Grant’s leadership.

Eccentric naturalist John Muir wielded the power of passion and the pen, writing prolifically about the need to conserve natural treasures. He hosted Roosevelt in 1903 at Yosemite National Park, encouraging the president to enact stronger protections for our incredible public lands. Muir’s influence must have certainly bolstered Roosevelt’s own conservation instincts, even if they didn’t see eye-to-eye on every issue. When William Kent donated in 1908 a tract of land in California loaded with giant redwood trees, just a short distance across the bay from San Francisco, Roosevelt promptly employed the Antiquities Act to create a national monument. Persuaded by Kent, the location was named “Muir Woods National Monument.”

Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, at his Long Island home, Sagamore Hill. He was known for a lot of deeds, but we who value conserving wild places and creatures can admire the way he wielded a “big stick” for conservation.

"The Man in the Arena"

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