Biographers seem never to tire of Theodore Roosevelt, and the 26th president certainly provides a rich vein.
“He is a subject of eternal fascination,” Roger L. DiSilvestro, author of “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West,” said in an interview.
For those interested in the broad sweep of Roosevelt’s life, full-fledged biographies abound. If a small slice of Rooseveltian life is more to your liking, plenty of those are available, as well.
Recent successes in the latter category include Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America” and “Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edward P. Kohn.
You can add “Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands” to the list of successes. DiSilvestro, an editor at National Wildlife magazine and the author of several books on endangered animals and ecosystems and also one on the aftermath of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, returns to the Great Plains to tell the story of how Roosevelt used his brief time in the Dakota ranching business to recover from the death of his first wife.
Roosevelt first went to the Badlands to hunt in 1883. He fell in love with the stark beauty, staked a ranching claim (part of the land is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park) and hired locals to tend the herd before returning east.
Then, on Valentine’s Day 1884, Roosevelt’s wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie, died within hours of each other.
DiSilvestro uses the tragedy as a jumping-off point to explore in rich detail how Roosevelt dealt with his loss. He retreated first into himself, then into the Badlands.
Corralling a pair of hunting acquaintances from Maine to assist him, Roosevelt lit out for the territory, leaving behind a burgeoning political career and his newborn daughter, also named Alice. He considered his career to be over and left Alice in the care of his sister, Anna.
DiSilvestro makes good use of non-Rooseveltian sources, but much of the story comes straight from the Bull Moose’s own books — he wrote two about his ranching and hunting days in the Dakotas — and from his letters, particularly the ones he wrote to Anna.
Roosevelt comes across as the likable, energetic fellow he was, always ready to do his part. But DiSilvestro does not spare the modern reader the contradictory reality of the 19th-century conservation ethos.
Roosevelt has rightly earned a place in the environmental pantheon for his trailblazing efforts in founding the Boone and Crockett Club, one of the earliest conservation organizations, and for his actions in preserving wilderness lands during his administration. But Roosevelt and his cohorts killed a lot of game, many of the species vanishing even in his time.
He knew the animals were vanishing. In fact, as he noted in his own writings on more than one occasion, part of the thrill of the hunt for him was in tracking, finding and shooting “one of the last of its race,” whether bear, elk, bighorn or buffalo.
DiSilvestro struggles to come to grips with this attitude, and never fully succeeds. To his credit, he does not fall back on the easy out of claiming it was a different era with different standards. DiSilvestro knows there were plenty of people, even then, who saw what was happening and tried to stop it.
“We expect great people to stand outside of their time,” DiSilvestro said. “I am a little disappointed that Roosevelt didn’t do that.”
Roosevelt was a great man, but DiSilvestro said he “kept wishing he would be just a little greater.”
When he wasn’t off hunting, Roosevelt was involved in ranching. He lost a good deal of money — much of his cattle herd was wiped out in the terrible winter of 1886-87. He returned to the East, married again and resumed his political career.
Aside from finding physical and emotional health, Roosevelt’s Dakota sojourn provided him a perspective on the lives of ordinary people — a perspective that men of his social class in the 19th century rarely possessed.
He learned to work next to them and to respect them. He, in turn, earned their respect. That connection, DiSilvestro said, was key to the success of his political career.
Theodore Roosevelt returned from the Badlands a better man — and an even better politician.